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April 21, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Hurt feelings over planned gas station mural: Teen artists lose project, station owner irate over public art controversy. Hurt feelings over planned gas station mural: Teen artists lose project, station owner irate over public art controversy. (April 21, 2004)

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

A striking mural planned for Menlo Park's downtown has turned into a cornucopia of hurt feelings.

The painting of antique and state-of-the-art cars that would have adorned a wall at the Menlo Chevron station on El Camino Real at Oak Grove Avenue looks as though it's been scrapped, disappointing the young people from the East Palo Alto Mural Art Project who were going to paint it.

Meanwhile, Chevron station owner John Conway, who said he didn't want the mural and commissioned it only because a city law required public art at his rebuilt station, has resigned from the boards of two local organizations in a huff, saying he's tired of being in the public eye during the melee over the law.

"I cannot go to work or anywhere in Menlo Park without someone striking up a conversation about art," he wrote in an e-mail to the City Council.

After Mr. Conway and 7-Eleven owner Milton Borg repeatedly slammed the art law as an unfair burden, the City Council earlier this month asked city staff to revise the law to allow those facing the art requirement to instead pay an in-lieu fee. If approved, the change would be retroactive, thus also applying to Mr. Conway and a few other business people already in the pipeline.

Last week's Almanac editorial criticized the council's action, pointing out that Mr. Conway is president of a political action committee, Menlo Park Matters, that was originally formed to support Mayor Lee Duboc and Councilwoman Mickie Winkler. Consequently, the editorial argued, the action, spearheaded by the two, could be seen as special treatment.

Infuriated by the editorial, Mr. Conway resigned both as president of Menlo Park Matters and as a member of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

"I've had enough of this nonsense that goes on in this town. That was a terrible, slanderous (sic) article," Mr. Conway told an Almanac reporter.

Almanac publisher Tom Gibboney said the editorial was intended to target the council's action, not Mr. Conway.

Ms. Duboc said she also objected to the editorial, adding that she is not aware of any way in which Menlo Park Matters has supported her.

"I don't feel like I was treating anybody specially. I just felt it was time to review the ordinance," she said.

The ordinance took effect in September 2002, but construction slowed down in the recession and it wasn't until last year that the first of a handful of projects bumped up against the art requirement.

The law requires developers of commercial, industrial and municipal projects costing at least $250,000 to pay 1 percent of construction costs to install public art on their site. The in-lieu fee, though, would be used by the city to install art elsewhere, probably on municipal land.

Currently, an in-lieu fee is allowed only if officials deem that there is no feasible spot on a site for art.

Disappointed teens

Although city staff members are still hammering out a new version of the public art law, Mr. Conway says he will definitely pay an in-lieu fee if he is allowed to.

"I really don't want that painting on the building. I still feel that art is inappropriate there," he told the Almanac earlier this month.

Such sentiments were not welcome to the teens and adults from the East Palo Alto Mural Art Project, who are disappointed by the loss of the mural project -- and the fact that they had already done a great deal of work without compensation.

The children in the organization, who typically come from the Boys and Girls Club centers in Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and Redwood City, had worked with Stanford University art students and artist Mia Ruiz-Escoto to design the mural, executive director Sonya Clark-Herrera said. This included doing research on such topics as the state-of-the-art gas pumps and automobiles depicted, she said.

City staff say the art law requires Mr. Conway to spend about $4,000 on art at his site.

"I haven't paid them a penny," Mr. Conway said of the Mural Art Project. "I'll give them a donation for what they've done."

More disappointing, Ms. Clark-Herrera said, is the loss of an opportunity for the teens, many of whom live in the Belle Haven area of Menlo Park and would have had a chance to create something downtown.

"It's really upsetting for us," she said.

The tree-head man

But this bitter lesson in city politics hasn't daunted the Mural Art Project. These days, the young artists are creating another mural at East Palo Alto High School, a charter school in Menlo Park.

On a recent afternoon, the students cluster around Ms. Clark-Herrera in a hall as she assigns them sections to work on.

All the students, it turns out, want to paint the tree-head man.

"I wanna do that head!" one guy calls out.

Her dark hair twisted into braids over paint-spattered overalls, Ms. Clark-Herrera doesn't bat an eyelash. "We're going to get all this done, and we're going to work in groups," she says.

The group doesn't shy away from illustrating local troubles, and this traffic-themed mural is no exception. On one side of the hall, the mural will show problems: clogged roads, green clouds of air pollution, and a girl sick with asthma. The other side is dubbed "solutions," with a low-emissions bus, footprints to represent people walking, and a man's head with leaves growing out of it, surrounded by what look like clean swishes of air.

"It's like inhaling the good air as a result of these solutions," says Stanford University studio art major Ras Martin, one of the mural's designers. "The back of his head turns into a tree. It all comes together."

For Ms. Clark-Herrera, the Mural Art Project is also an example of good things coming together: new murals at schools in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, and at-risk teens learning discipline and aesthetic skills by helping to create the murals.

The teens also research the content, learning about topics such as epidemiology. For this mural, for example, the students studied county health statistics that showed East Palo Alto has one of the highest asthma rates in the area.

In 2002, program participants created a mural at Willow Oaks School in Menlo Park called "Underneath It All," depicting efforts by the Muwekma Ohlone Indians to recover and correctly bury ancestral bones.

Grants from foundations, corporations and residents keep the program going and allow some payment for the students.

For Samson Cook, 17, on his tenth mural with the organization, the rewards are straightforward. "Helping out the community," he said. "Showing the beauty of the art."

The East Palo Alto High School mural is set to be unveiled on May 13. For more information about the East Palo Alto Mural Art Project, go to

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