New Elsie Allen High School mural ready after lengthy journey

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Standing amid icons of the California farmworker movement are Buenaventura Cervantes and Calida Howell, local women captured with paint on canvas in a massive mural covering the walls of the Elsie Allen High School library.

Cervantes, the mother of a student artist who worked on the piece, is depicted in a thick purple sweatshirt, carrying a box of winegrapes. Howell, an Elsie Allen senior who painted portions of the piece, is shown standing at the far end of the mural, holding a scroll dedicating the artwork to farmworkers of Sonoma County.

Also depicted are images of industry giants, students, gods and laborers. "This piece is a journey," said Elsie Allen art teacher Paul Gaudreau.

Completion of "Sonoma County Farmworkers Mural," which will be formally unveiled at a ceremony on campus Friday, has been a journey of its own.

The huge piece was constructed on multiple panels 18 feet in height that now stretch 56 feet in length. The mural wraps around a corner and dominates a section of Elsie Allen's library.

It has had multiple homes, has been rendered homeless at times and has taken seven years to complete. It's a piece with history as long and meandering as its image of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god depicted as a feathered serpent that winds across the entire piece.

"The process of painting this was really dynamic," Gaudreau said. "It's a powerful piece of art."

Spearheaded by former ArtStart lead artist Mario Uribe and funded with seed money from the California Human Development Corporation, the piece initially was planned for the walls of a Quonset hut that now is home to Roseland University Prep on Sebastopol Road. When the first panel was completed, it was deemed not to be a good fit by RUP officials, so it began a migrant journey to various locations before finding a home in the Santa Rosa City Schools district offices on Ridgway Avenue.

Subsequent panels were started and stopped, reflecting the nature fundraising progress and work schedules of students working summer hours with ArtStart, a nonprofit art apprentice organization.

In all, the project took seven years and $30,000 to complete. The first panel remains at Santa Rosa's district office while the rest of the mural is at Elsie Allen. The project was overseen by ArtStart until the final phase, for which Elsie Allen students were selected to complete the work under Uribe's guidance.

"The overall message and feeling when you look at it is very uplifting," Uribe said. "It shows the struggle of working in the fields, the hard work, the organization of the union."

It also shows the faces of area farmworkers.

Cervantes, who came to the U.S. from Mexico, has picked grapes and strawberries as a farmworker. Speaking through a translator, she said she came to the U.S. to earn wages that would allow her to better support her family, including her daughter, Maria Trejo, a 2013 graduate of Elsie Allen who worked on the project.

"It speaks to the heart of our kids and their heritage and so much of where they came from," said Elsie Allen Principal Mary Gail Stablein. "There are so many different stories depicted in the mural."

"It's overwhelming," said Kathy Farrell, an ArtStart board member and key booster for the project. "The vibrancy of the colors as well as the array of faces in it. It really takes your breath away; it truly does."

For the final phase of the project, Uribe turned to Gaudreau to select the Elsie Allen students to see the project to completion.

Howell said she spent a lot of time in the library as an Elsie Allen freshman and remembers being struck by the mural. "For someone to approach me and say 'Hey, do you want to actually work on this' was really exciting," she said.

Gaudreau credited Elsie Allen teachers and students with tackling the remodeling and construction necessary to install the piece. "Kids were a huge part of the erection of this mural," he said.

When the project was conceived, there were plans to depict future generations. That plan was scrapped, but the final panel does show the four Elsie Allen artists — one with a graduate's cap and gown and another in a physician's white coat — in a nod to their futures.

Uribe said it was left open-ended intentionally.

"It doesn't tell the whole story," he said. "Maybe that is another project."

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press or on Twitter @benefield.)

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