As you head north on San Pablo Avenue from El Cerrito and cross into Richmond, the first thing you see is an enormous “Richmond” painted on the freeway overpass. If you then look to the right, you see a mural depicting a street scene of the storefronts that were there before the freeway was built, but inhabited by the indigenous people that originally settled in the area. It was one of the first things I saw when I first moved to Richmond in 2006. Then there was another one, this time in Pinole, a town just to the north of Richmond. It was a different subject matter, but a similar style. It made me look closely at the artist credit, who turned out to be the same person: John Wehrle. It turns out, John and his wife, Susan, live two doors down from me. When I first met him, and found out that he was the artist, it was one of those “that’s you?” moments. Another connection that I had to John, obliquely, is that the mural he painted for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles on the side of Interstate 5, I would drive by at least a couple times a month when I lived in Southern California.
John Wehrle was born in San Antonio, Texas and spent his formative years all over the state. He received his B.Aa from Texas Tech in 1964 and his MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Pratt Institute in 1969. In 1966, he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the US Army and was chosen to be the leader of the first combat artist team to be sent to cover the war in Vietnam. Following graduate school, John headed West where he taught printmaking at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) in Oakland.
Currently John lives and works in Richmond, CA.
Ray Welter (RW): How did you get started in art? Did you start with murals?
John Wehrle (JW) : No, I was teaching at CCAC and decided I wanted to do art instead of teach art. I ended up going to Montana and built a log cabin to work. Met a lady and ended up back here and got hired under the CETA program [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] at the DeYoung in ’74. And so the first two murals I did were on the outside wall of the DeYoung Museum. I was getting a salary and the museum had material money. They actually wanted to do murals with the Mission muralists and the Mission muralists wanted to stay in the Mission, they didn’t want to come to the museum. That was kind of how I got started, and I had actually done a swing through LA, so I had seen some of the work that the LA Fine Arts bought and done. So that was sort of in my mind when I came back and I was hired. So I asked for money to do a mural and they gave it to me! So I did two murals there. So that was how I started. It was kind of a modern day WPA program.
RW: So you started right with murals. Is that a normal thing for muralists? I would think that muralists would start with traditional painting or drawing.
JW: Well I was actually teaching printmaking and I was doing more photography and film. It was actually being in Montana that got me back into painting because I couldn’t get a darkroom to work (laughs). There was no running water, it was 30 below, so it wasn’t working very well (laughs). So Bonnie, whose grandfather homesteaded the land, had gone off and left a bunch of acrylics that her kids were using. So, in the middle of the winter, snowed in, it was like “Wow, this is really cool!” But there was a feeling that painting was dead, so that was what kind of led me into it. But you know, in a way, I didn’t even think of it as murals, it was just like wall painting.
RW: Do you introduce any kind of politics into your work?
JW: I don’t come from a political stance, other than in a larger sense. You know, I’m not Latino, I’m not a minority, I don’t have that axe to grind. But I really like the idea that you can say whatever you want to say without having to go through a curator.
RW: Was it different working then than now?
JW: There was a certain freedom. If you could get someone to give you a wall, you could do whatever you wanted to do. There was a lot more recognition in those days even though they still haven’t ended up in the museum (laughs). They’re a little too big to get in there. The 70’s were a time of experimentation. When I was painting the one at the DeYoung, Sue, the curator there, was leading some Russians around, and motioned for me to come over because they wanted to ask me some questions. So “Russian, Russian, Russian, Chuck Close, Russian, Russian.” She translated “They want to know if your work is influenced by Chuck Close.” So I thought, “Yeah sure, why not?” So murals became kind of a convenient label because lots of people were doing a lot of large scale work on walls.
RW: I read a lot of historical context in your work. Since you don’t have a political motivation behind your work, where do you get your ideas?
JW: Well the one at the DeYoung, with the animals on the freeway, was really a reaction to coming back to an urban setting from a rural setting. So it’s the migration of animals across an abandoned freeway, so it’s more of a future painting than a history painting, or an alternate reality painting. Basically, there’s a narrative to a lot of them, or I construct a narrative in my head.
The one in Venice was based on the idea that following periods of great social change, there’s tendency to fall back on the known. So I was working with the myth of the fall of Icarus, and using the astronaut as the modern day Icarus, set in LA in an abandoned drive in. It’s a pretty complex source, like writing a novel or making a film. They’re not political in the overt sense, but they’re trying to capture a zeitgeist. With a lot of the stuff I’ve done in Richmond, it’s kind of evolved. People want to see the history, but I try to put it in a narrative that is interesting to me. My politics tend to veer towards the left and anarchy (laughs), but I try to make my statements original and meaningful to me.
RW: Tell me about your process. Do you have assistants? How do you set up the piece?
JW: It depends. I actually like to do as much of it as I can solo, but I do hire people to work for me. The more collaborative pieces I’ve done, I’ve worked with other artists where one of us comes up with the idea, and bounce ideas off one another. But generally, it’s my job and I hire somebody to help me. These days, I use a grid system with chalk lines. There was a period where I was doing projection, but that becomes pretty problematic because you’re out at 3 in the morning. Things are pretty planned out. I start out with a scale drawing as I think site-specific – I figure out where the piece is going to be, what kind of subject, etc.
RW: So you have the dimension of what you are going to be working with already?
JW: Yeah. Only occasionally have I strayed from that.
RW: How did you get the commission for the 1984 Olympic mural?
JW: I had done a couple of murals in LA, and Alonzo Davis, an African American artist, ran a gallery called the Brockman Gallery, which was the first serious African American gallery in LA. When the Olympics were being organized, the LA Times was going to fund the entire arts program to go along with it. Alonzo figure if he asked for $25,000 to paint a mural they’d laugh, but if he asked for $250,000 to do 10 murals along the way to the Olympic venues, it might happen. And that’s what happened. So he put the program together. He picked the artists. All of the artists, except for me, were working and living in LA. So they were trying to fill out the program, and one of my murals in Venice was pretty well known at the time. I don’t remember if they went to the gallery that was representing me at the time or directly to me, but they contacted me and wanted me to do a mural for the Olympics. I was living here by still showing work in LA at the time, but I was made a default Angeleno for the time being. It was a really wonderful time because it was all these artists pursuing their own goals on different corners. I still think of everybody I worked with as a friend.
RW: How do you see the future of mural art?
JW: There have been several articles about the death of murals in LA, which is a result of them getting tagged repeatedly. It didn’t use to be an issue. With the Olympic murals, it wasn’t until the mid 90’s when they were first tagged. It was up for 10 years before anything happened. Murals have sort of morphed into public art on one level, and I think of what I do now more as public art than murals these days. Then you get into different materials. Like I’ve done ceramic tile works, and that mitigates the problem (of graffiti).
Probably, if I continue to do work outdoors, in some place where I thought that that would be an issue, tile would be the way I would go. I would look at it as more of a public art piece still thinking in the same terms of content or narrative that I do, but with materials that would withstand the abuse more easily.
Whether digital printing is the future, I don’t know. When I first started, I went and talked to the billboard companies and saw how they did it. These guys were union painters, mostly in the shop. But in the 70’s, there were these big billboards in San Francisco that they couldn’t take down, so you’d be driving through the city and you’d look up and see these guys painting these billboards. It was wonderful. And as technology progressed, you sort of feel like the last of the blacksmiths. And in a way, the mural movement arose both from that and in opposition to it.
An artist is not trying to sell you anything. Here’s an image that’s just trying to show you something, and that’s really where I came from with a more personal statement as an artist. The hard part as an artist is: Where are you going to get the money to do your own digital billboards?
In a way I think in a sense we are all prisoners of our time and our education. At my age, if someone gave me a digital billboard and said you can do anything you want, ehh, well, I could maybe do something!
More of John’s work can be found at: www.troutinhand.com