by C.J. Hirschfield
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the nation is grappling with both implicit biases and overt images of white supremacy in public places. At the first of the year, Virginia Judge David Bernhard refused to try a Black man in a courtroom lined with portraits of white people.
“A powerful message, and a show of independence and strong character,” is how Oakland-based muralist Daniel Galvez sees it. He is currently creating a set of murals for the Washington Supreme Court building in Olympia, working with justices who gave him incredible latitude and encouraged him to portray even the darkest moments of the state’s history to demonstrate that justice can be served to rectify historic wrongs.
Galvez has been painting murals for forty years. You may be familiar with the award-winning Oakland City landmark Grand Performance, just across from Splash Pad Park, which prominently features Oaklander Calvin Simmons, the first African-American conductor of a major orchestra.
The positive reception garnered by this work helped Galvez attract additional public art commissions.
Galvez received his BFA at the College of Arts and Crafts, and his MFA at San Francisco State University. He has lived in Oakland since 1973, and has been able to realize his dream of being a muralist all of his working life. He is inspired by such artists as social realist Diego Rivera and Bay Area photo realist Robert Bechtle. Mexican muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco have also influenced his art. In college, he decided to combine techniques into large scale murals “so it could be a joy, and part of people’s lives,” he says.
His murals grace public spaces around the country: from the headquarters of the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., to the canvas mural Homage to Malcolm X commissioned by the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs and installed at the Audubon Ballroom, the site of Malcolm X’s assassination.
Two of his prominent works grace Oakland: 2003’s Journey of Promise, a 3-panel canvas mural depicting the African American experience in California at the African American Museum and Library (AAMLO), and 2019’s Mack Town Rising at McClymonds High School in West Oakland. Unlike individual works of art, murals often require much research, are intensely collaborative, and, occasionally, politically charged.
For the AAMLO project, Galvez partnered with Patricia A. Montgomery, a renowned textile artist, whose work focuses on African American historical and mythical stories. The images are interwoven with areas of textile pattern incorporating the characteristics of traditional and contemporary African American quilts. Portrayed in the mural are such Oakland luminaries as crusading journalist Delilah Beasley, the city’s first African-American public school teacher Dr. Ida Louise Johnson, and civil rights activist and labor leader C. L. Dellums.
The mural at McClymonds adorns the renovated school library, and was developed with a great deal of input from students. Featured are school alumni, local heroes and landmarks, social issues, and images of study and achievement. Galvez says this was a “really fun” project, depicting the Black Panthers, sports legend Bill Russell, baseball’s Frank Robinson, activist Angela Davis, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, and Muslim girls studying. “It’s engaging, and reflective of the people who use the space,” he says. Sadly, the pandemic hit right after the mural’s completion, so it has not been seen by the public at this point.
Currently Galvez is working in his Dimond District Oakland studio on the Olympia Supreme Court murals, where he successfully competed against a field of 250 artists. The art will decorate a lovely historic building. The process by which subjects were chosen for the three 11-foot-high murals included input from the historical society, a retired secretary of state, the curator for the Seattle Museum, directors from arts commissions, and some current justices.
The natural beauty of the region is to be represented, as well as some of the area’s most egregious injustices. In two of these images, the wrongs were set right by the Court: that a person being charged with a crime must have an interpreter present during all times in court (the 1861 defendant was Native American) and a 1937 case in which a chambermaid’s hotel employer was forced to pay her for overtime hours worked.
Two other events illustrating regional injustice were the 1886 Chinese Expulsion Riots in Seattle, where Chinese were being rounded up for transport to San Francisco, and the 1942 forced removal of the Japanese on Bainbridge Island to internment camps.
“I do try to make my work as inclusive as possible to mirror the world we live in,” Galvez says, and he expresses appreciation for the courage of the justices with whom he worked.
Speaking of murals depicting scenes of injustice–and a bit closer to home–I asked Galvez about the huge controversy surrounding WPA-era murals at San Francisco’s Washington High School, where the decision was made to cover up WPA scenes depicting the country’s racist past. The artist was Victor Arnautoff, a Russian immigrant whose art often contained critical social commentary from a decidedly leftist perspective.
“It’s a shame,” he says, expressing dismay that people are willing to whitewash history. “Kids are pretty savvy at that age,” he adds, and considers the covering of the mural a form of censorship.
Once the pandemic hit, Galvez found himself with even more time to complete the Olympia project. And even after all this time, the work doesn’t get old.
“I’m a happy camper,” he says.
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.