Something to brag about: If you haven’t walked around Fort Bragg recently, you might be surprised to discover the array of bold and beautiful public art that has blossomed in every nook and cranny over the last few years. Walls in alleys and on modest sheds burst with images that artfully celebrate the coast’s many wonders. The Fort Bragg Alleyway Project, headed by Lia Wilson Morsell, has gotten a go-ahead from the city of Fort Bragg and support from local nonprofits and individuals, with plans to make Fort Bragg a public art destination. Take a virtual tour in this month’s issue but come see it in person soon. The Alleyways Art Project has remodeled our downtown.
HOW I GOT THIS IDEA
by Fort Bragg Alleyway Art Project Director, Lia Wilson
You may not guess it from looking at all the murals popping up like late-summer flowers around town, but I started the Alleyway Art Project because of a frustrating conversation I had in 2016. I can’t even remember whom I was talking to at the time, but a long-time resident was explaining to me—a cheerful and naive newcomer to the area—why there were so many vacancies in the storefronts downtown. We discussed the mill closure, the decline of fishing, cannabis legalization, a lukewarm pivot towards a tourist economy, building codes, Amazon, homelessness, and on and on. The whole thing felt like an overwhelming and insurmountable drag on what should have been a charming and vibrant downtown, and also it struck me as dangerously self-perpetuating. What a downer, right?
We had moved to my husband’s hometown area to be near his family and to raise our own, because Fort Bragg was clearly a special place and clearly a special community. We loved the scrappy, weather-beaten, feral vibe. We loved the alleyways. We loved the huge expanse of the abandoned mill site and the headlands trail. I especially loved the community of artists, and the sheer number of do-gooder, mission-driven, community-oriented businesses and non-profits and orgs and B-Corps. As I was stewing about how someone should really do something about all this, it struck me: People need more reasons to go downtown. What if we hid street art in the alleyways and then people could wander around looking for it? There were so many terrible looking walls, surely the property owners wouldn’t mind if we stuck some colorful pictures here and there. That led to the idea of a scavenger hunt, or maybe a mural walk. Would any of those mission-driven organizations or businesses sponsor a mural? What if it came with a QR code so people could learn about the mural, the artist, and the sponsor? The idea was coming together, but I was new to the area, had never managed a public art project, knew almost no one in town, and had a zero fundraising track record. Was I daunted? Of course not. Ahh, the confidence of inexperience.
Sometimes when something is meant to be, the universe sets up the billiard balls. About six months later I met Janet Self, the ED of Flockworks. I described the idea to her, and she suggested I present the idea to her board—which was a shock because I didn’t expect anyone to take me seriously. But she and they did, for which I am forever grateful. The project grew under Flockworks’ umbrella. We installed The Rhododendron (by artist Ferric Decay), sponsored by Flockworks and the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, behind 300 North Main Street; the fish mural Matsya and the Great Deluge (by Bojh Parker), sponsored by Flockworks, the Mendocino County Tourism Commission, and building owner Alan Limbird, at 345 North Franklin; plus, an additional four more murals around town. While this was all happening, the city of Fort Bragg had a mural competition and local businesses started installing murals of their own. The biggest difference between what I envisioned and what was happening was that the artwork was not wall doodles, hiding in alleyways and overlooked spaces. The overwhelming enthusiasm was to put the artwork in prominent locations, and make it much bigger, and much, much more expensive. Gulp. Quite unexpectedly, I was coordinating surprisingly large changes to the downtown streetscape. Artists were designing and installing work that was stunningly beautiful. People were enthusiastically paying for it, and property owners were enthusiastically hosting it. The project received the A.D. Abramson Grant for Visual Arts from the Community Foundation of Mendocino County. I built a website to link all the QR codes and tell the story of the project (www.fortbraggalleywayart.org). We were off to the races.
By 2018-2019 I was settling (flying by the seat of my pants) into the self-appointed role, when I went and got married, launched the Red House Coworking Space with my business partner Scarlett, and had a distractingly adorable baby. In 2020, I moved the project under the umbrella of the Arts Council of Mendocino County and joined their board. Also, this whole global pandemic thing happened which immediately slammed the brakes on the project. It seemed that no one, myself included, had much mental space for anything except navigating the sudden changes to daily life. Creativity took a backseat to anxiety. I doomscrolled. My baby had his first birthday party over Zoom. Public art dial tone.
By 2021 there were but faint glimmers of interest returning to the Alleyway Art Project, when, almost out of the blue, some locals contacted me to say that they were inspired by the project and thought it had untapped potential. Unbelievably, they offered to match, dollar for dollar, any funds that the city of Fort Bragg put towards the AAP, up to eighteen thousand dollars. Even more unbelievably, when I presented the idea at a city council meeting, the council agreed immediately and unanimously. What followed was eighteen months of near constant planning, emailing, reviewing, drafting, filing, meeting, and contract negotiating, resulting in this crazy summer of public art! Somehow almost all the murals, whether I started working on them eighteen months ago or three months ago, ended up hitting the finish line at roughly the same time. I didn’t plan it. I doubt it would have worked if I had tried. That is something important I hope people can understand about this project. I am surfing a wave that has a momentum of its own. The creative energy suddenly on vibrant display in downtown Fort Bragg was always there. Just ask the Larry Spring Museum, or the local galleries, or Bones the artist who painted that Undersea Tunnel mural next to Spunky Skunk, or the Krenov School folks, the Pacific Textile Arts folks, the ceramicists, or any of the lifelong artists who have called this scrappy little town home for decades. Many of the participating artists in this project had never worked at mural-scale before. I lined up the walls; a donor plus the city lined up the funding; and the artists absolutely knocked it out of the park.
So did the Alleyway Art Project solve all the problems? Haha, um no. But we are on track to have an impressive twenty-four downtown murals, plus the ones scattered across the headlands trail. If you walk around downtown, you will notice more people circulating about taking photos of all the art. A mural walking tour should be starting up soon, led (at least initially) by yours truly. You can follow the @fortbraggalleywayart on Instagram for in-progress photos and updates, plus announcements about mural unveiling festivities.
I would like to sincerely thank everyone in this remarkable community that trusted me with their walls, their funding, and their creative energy. Special thank you to Alyssum Wier, and the Arts Council of Mendocino County, my indispensable fiscal sponsor. and to the city of Fort Bragg, both city staff and city council. Together we have unleashed a bit of Fort Bragg’s awesome potential.
FROM FINLAND TO FORT BRAGG
By Lauren Sinnott
The mural named From Finland to Fort Bragg, currently in process, is located on a south-facing wall in the alleyway on the west side of the 300 block of Franklin Street. It will depict one strand of Fort Bragg’s interwoven history: Finnish immigration during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These immigrants brought a strong tradition of cooperation for the common good. Along with providing basic necessities for their families and community, they wove a social network with plays, presentations, music and dance, organizing for causes, and enjoying refreshments together after a cleansing sauna. The mural will depict important locations and practices:
The Fort Bragg Consumer Cooperative, founded in 1923 and by the early 1970s, apparently the longest functioning co-op in California. (It closed in 1974.) It exemplified farmer-nonfarmer cooperation within one association. Formed by a group of Finnish sawmill workers and woodsmen, it was financially successful from the start.
Kalevala Hall, originally the Finnish Temperance Hall, then home to the Kalevala Sisterhood, established in 1896, and Brotherhood in 1897. It was a lively cultural center that held dances, musical programs, plays, lectures, and mutual-benefit organizing. Note the lone toddler in a white dress standing with all the adults in the photo of Kalevala Hall. I intend to include her! The much-changed building is still at 430 East Redwood—now Lion’s Hall.
Toveri Tupa, or “Comrades’ Hall” which was built by volunteers at 210 Corry Street in 1914. It was intended as a venue for Finnish drama, music, talks, and parties such as the progressive New Year’s Eve Ball. During WWII, it became the International Workers Order, Redwood Lodge No. 3893, and in 1946, the Fort Bragg Labor Temple for trade unions. In 1960, the building became home to the Fraternal Order of Eagles, dedicated to the arts and “the spirit of liberty, truth, justice, and equality, to make human life more desirable by lessening its ills, and by promoting peace, prosperity, gladness, and hope.” Gloriana Opera performed for years in the hall, which sadly right now is for sale.
Sointula Commune, which means “Place of Harmony” and was a 636-acre piece of logged, extremely hilly land eight miles southeast of Fort Bragg, jointly purchased by four Finnish families, who each had their own home, but shared barns, buildings, livestock, saunas, and celebration.
A sauna, with friends and families enjoying refreshments after their traditional steam bath.
These elements will be knitted together with curving shapes and inscriptions. The mural must be bold because it’s down an alleyway and must harmonize with Bojh Parker’s piece next to it.
— At the bottom will be an inscription: “Finnish immigrants valued cooperation, equality, organized labor, and connection to nature”
— The word Suomi in the upper left is the Finn’s own name for their country. It is the counterpart to California in the upper right.
— The looped square in each upper corner is a symbolic shape found in a number of cultures, including that of Finland. Called hannunvaakuna, it represented good fortune, luck, and warding off evil. And yes, the looped square symbol was the origin of the Command key on Apple devices!
— Beneath the looped square in the upper left will appear a stylized Finnish snow forest. This morphs into ice fog (yes, a thing—in arctic regions) and then into the shape of clouds and sky in the center.
— Beneath the looped square in the upper right appears a redwood forest, next to/part of the depiction of the sloped hillsides of Sointula Commune. The redwoods have swirling fog beneath them and to the left, morphing into those clouds in the center.
If you visit Fort Bragg, come see the progress! There are many murals going up under the auspices of the “Art for Alleyways” Project and supported by the Arts Council of Mendocino County. Unless you, yourself, live downtown, I’ll bet there will be some you haven’t seen before.
(BE)WILDERNESS COMES (RE)CLAIMS ALL
Do you have wall space to donate? Are you a local individual, business, or organization who would like to sponsor a piece of public artwork? Do you have a suggestion or words of encouragement? AAP welcomes your participation. To submit a design, donate, or find more information about the Alleyways Art Project, go to www.fortbraggalleywayart.org. REM