Spartan Artists Commissioned to Beautify South University Neighborhood
From left to right: South University Neighborhood (SUN) board member Deb Hudson, artist Eric Vasquez, SUN board member and SJSU alumnus Alan Gouig, College of Humanities and the Arts Director of Public Programming Katherine Harris and College of Humanities and the Arts Dean Shannon Miller stand with the mural Vasquez painted on the corner of S. 10th and East William Streets. Photo by Robert C. Bain.
Three San José State artists have made downtown San José their canvas, thanks to support from the College of Humanities and the Arts’ H&A in Action initiative, the South University Neighborhood (SUN) Board and ArtBox SJ, a project of Phantom Galleries, and funding from the City of San Jose’s Beautify San Jose inititaive. Jackelin Solorio, ’22 MFA Spatial Arts; Mark Fisher, ’24 MFA Pictorial Arts; and Eric Vasquez, ’19 Design, were selected to transform utility boxes lining South 10th Street at East Wiliam, East Reed and East San Salvador streets.
The collaboration united SJSU students, alumni and neighbors, said Katherine D. Harris, director of public programming for the College of Humanities and the Arts.
“The art box project is one example of H&A in Action’s focus on cross-disciplinary inquiry and community engagement,” said Harris. “We have encouraged faculty across the humanities and arts to invite the community in, not just as observers but as contributors to and members of the conversation. We’re grateful for our downtown partners who have enabled us to showcase the work of SJSU students and alumni alike.”
The university-neighborhood partnership blossomed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when SUN board member Alan Gouig, ’19 Management, suggested the board pivot from its in-person programming to neighborhood beautification efforts.
“Neighborhood art is one way to express having particular messages and imagery reflect the values of a community,” he said. “From the bright colors to the intentional imagery of each design, we knew we wanted to make sure that each piece reflected the positive mood, vibrant culture and diverse background of our entire neighborhood.
“Art is also a great way to deter damage and graffiti from being done as well. These art boxes are another way to create permanent change.”
Art as community investment
Even permanent change takes time. This spring, graduating artist Solorio dedicated several hours to painting the box on the corner of East Reed and South 10th streets. The box incorporates bright colors and a pattern of pots inspired by her own ceramics. To complete the project, she had to occupy a corner in front of a liquor store, facing the stream of cars departing campus and heading toward the freeway. Solorio said that the experience challenged her point of view as an artist and longtime downtown resident.
“I left with a more well-rounded perspective of the community of families, longtime residents and people who care about the way the streets look,” she reflected. “Many people were happy and appreciative to see the neighborhood be invested in.”
Retired technical writer Deb Hudson, ’01 Public Relations, who served as the SUN board treasurer last year, agreed. She reported that the project offers residents and passersby a unique chance to engage with their surroundings.
“We are one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city and more than 80% non-owner occupied,” she said. “This makes it difficult to engage residents and students since they are renters and thus ‘passing through.’ Art and beauty can be the universal language for us and having a colorful installation gives us the opportunity to feel a renewed pride of place and engage in conversation with people we may see but do not know.”
Mural as identity, culture and tradition
Graphic designer Eric Vasquez approached the art box on the corner of South 10th and East William streets as his opportunity to weave in imagery inspired by Mexican and Indigenous cultures. His piece, entitled “A yield of affection,” juxtaposes a calla lily with the jagged pattern often seen on Mexican blankets, while he decorated the smaller box with intricate patterns and colorful designs typical of Mexican talavera pottery. For Vasquez, it was imperative that his work reflected on the rich and layered cultural history of the neighborhood it inhabited — in a landscape that is constantly changing.
“My experience painting a mural at that location made me question the identity of the neighborhood,” he said. “Despite its rich history, the present condition of the neighborhood shows the many issues we must collectively face as a community. Since moving to the area in 2015, I became familiar with downtown and have witnessed many developments that improve the livelihood of some but not others. The gap between social classes is more apparent now than ever.”
Art is the word
First-year graduate student Mark Fisher’s art box, entitled “Bird is the Word,” was inspired in part by St. Paul’s United Methodist Church on the corner of South 10th and San Salvador streets. He painted a clutch of multicolored eggs in a nest on one side of the large box, with the hatched birds reading books from what Fisher describes as “the tree of life.”
“Artistically, I hope people feel happy when they see my work,” he said. “Socially, I hope they feel that by people working together, their community can improve. I hope my artwork rekindles their optimism.”
Gouig agreed. “With SUN being longtime neighbors with SJSU, we know firsthand how actions taken both by the university and SUN have a very direct impact on one another,” he said. “We are so excited to have three more beautiful art boxes completed, and we can’t wait for different members of SJSU’s community and guests to see. We are eager to continue this collaboration with the university for years to come.”
Visit the College of Humanities and Arts’ public programming page to learn more about upcoming H&A in Action events and activities.