Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA BOTTOM – In its April 1, 1988 edition, Arcata’s Union newspaper reported on an enthusiastic young mural artist painting a grand pastoral scene on an Arcata Bottom barn.
Twenty-six years and one day later, the Mad River Union is doing the same at the very same barn, with a different artist, different owners, and a different but not dissimilar mural.
Back then, the artist was Ken Jarvela. The 29-year-old muralist had beautified Pacific Paradise, the Northcoast Environmental Center and the back of Plaza Shoe Shop.
His latest vision was an ethereal Bottoms landscape, emblazoned on the south wall of the old Gilardoni Dairy barn on Q Street.
The turn-of-the-century barn was then home to The Country Store, a shop owned by Kay and Coleman Bannister. The shop sold flowers and crafts in the same spot where the Gilardonis had sold milk, cream and butter.
Miraculously, the vestigial remnants of a sign for The Country Store survive to this day on the fence at Foster Avenue and K Street.
The Bannisters commissioned Jarvela to visually celebrate the Bottoms and Kaye’s grandparents, Seba and Helen Gilardoni.
According to the story by Wayne Miller, Jarvela clambered up and down a scaffold, painting, then viewing his emerging image from ground-level, and repeating the create-and-evaluate cycle for six days until the 40-foot wide mural was complete.
“I had no idea what I was getting into here,” he said.
But once finished, the arduously wrought artwork earned the approbation of its patron. “It’s great,” said Kaye Bannister. “Just wonderful.”
The lofty mural replicated the Bottoms big sky and vast horizon, and was populated with its structures, animals and people – including Seba and Helen.
Even after The Country Store closed and the Bannisters moved away, the mural was a fond fixture for Bottoms dwellers. Jason Baxter, now Cypress Grove Chevre’s marketing director, said he used to enjoy the mural while walking down Q Street as a lad.
Jarvela’s mural survived into the 2000s, but in recent years had faded to faint hints of the original vibrant scene. Any memory of the original artist had faded as well, so when Cypress Grove considered restoring the mural, it put out a Request for Proposals. This drew the interest of several artists, and the dairy selected artist Lucas Thornton, a surfboard designer and acolyte of Humboldt’s best-known muralist, Duane Flatmo.
One major problem was the lack of any clear image of the original mural. As it happened, this reporter had taken a photo of it in the early 1990s while working for the original Union newspaper, and this was provided to Cypress Grove.
The project took another twist when, following publicity in the current Union and in the popular “Remember in Arcata When…” Facebook page, Jarvela learned of the project and stepped forward to identify himself as the original artist.
Initially, Jarvela, now a retired Blue Lake resident, wasn’t enthused with the idea of another artist painting over his work. But after conversations with Thornton, he came to terms with the new artist’s vision.
The tools and processes involved with muralmaking have evolved over the three decades, so last fall as he got underway, Thornton approached the project in methodical fashion.
There was no hope of actually restoring Jarvela’s painting, as the paint had deteriorated to flakes and flecks. This allowed Thornton to strip the wall down to the surface on which the new image would rest, and craft a robust foundation using 21st century materials.
First, he thoroughly cleaned the wall, scraping off all the old paint, bird poop and feathers. Then he applied a coat of protective Peel Bond to the barn’s redwood planks. On top of that went two more coats of primer.
The extensive prep should pay off with a more enduring mural. “I hope it lasts 30 years,” Thornton said.
Next, Thornton drew a large grid of one- by one-foot squares, corresponding to the grid on a 1/12th scale reference drawing. The guiding image included photos of Arcata Bottom features along with sketches.
Finally, it was time to paint. Thornton started with the sky and mountains and “worked from the top down, from background to foreground, from end to end, from the end of the road and out from there.”
The initial underpaint involved washes of color that served as a foundation for later, differing hues. This puzzled passersby. “People were kind of confused,” Thornton said. “They asked, ‘Why are the mountains red? Why is the sky orange’?” he said.
But as the image took shape, people got behind it. “People in the neighborhood were excited and happy,” Thornton said. “There were a lot of people giving the thumbs-up and honking, coming by to take a picture. Everyone was supportive and cheering me on.”
Using Novacolor acrylic paint, Thornton worked three days on the sky alone. Contrasting with Jarvela’s six-day start-to-finish effort, completing the new mural took three months. That’s due to dodging the fall/winter weather as well as Thornton’s need to spend time on other pursuits, including his surfboard building.
Thornton didn’t make as many trips up and down his four-level scaffold as Jarvela did on his two-level version. “Usually I would come down for lunch and take it all in,” he said. “I would come down for some more paint and check it out too. I would also take photos at the end of each day and look them over when I got home to have a gameplan for the next day.”
Along with physical longevity, artistic originality was a guiding concept. While Thornton’s landscape resonates strongly with Jarvela’s, he didn’t feel bound by the first version.
“I did go off his whole design for the inspiration and layout,” Thornton said. But the new mural reflects his vision. “It’s not a Ken Jarvela mural; it’s a Lucas Thornton mural,” he said.
The road, structures and animals in the new mural are similarly placed, but the mountains are larger, the clouds more billowy and the farmhouse different. Seba and Helen have taken their leave, but, it being a Cypress Grove project, some friendly-looking goats peer out at the viewer.
The mural will be monitored for durability, and Thornton said he will re-apply protective clearcoats in future years if necessary.
Thornton said his style is still developing, but that isn’t something he worries about. “I just get up there and paint,” he said. “I like to use vibrant colors.”
Vibrant well describes the new mural, which stands out even against the backdrop of the beautiful Bottoms.
“We could have put red paint on the barn, but we didn’t want to go that route,” Baxter said. “The mural is as much for the neighborhood as it is for us.”
“I hope everyone enjoys it,” Thornton said.
View Thornton’s work at facebook.com/LucasDavisThornton.