Local artist paints mural landscapes to last through generations

In Features, Top Stories
David Le / For the Daily Titan

For graduate assistant Kevin Stewart-Magee, mural painting goes beyond the creative process: It’s a process that incorporates both months of research and community members into the mural.

Ultimately, there’s more to the art than just painting a wall.

Stewart-Magee has painted, by his count, approximately 100 corporately, publicly and privately-sponsored murals in six states since the early ‘90s.

His works, which average between 40 to 50 feet long and 10 to 12 feet high, can take months to complete.

“It’s very much like getting a tattoo,” said Stewart-Magee. “But this is like getting a tattoo for your children.”

These works of art are like massive tattoos on the environment of future generations, he said.

“They’re a major commitment, last a very long time and can cost a significant amount of money—and your children have to love it or they’re going to get it laser-removed as soon as they can,” Stewart-Magee said.

Stewart-Magee, a sunnily good-humored and comic man with an infectious enthusiasm for all things art, assists in teaching art classes at Cal State Fullerton. For years, he has understood the strong impressions murals inspire in the communities in which they are displayed.

An Ohio native, Stewart-Magee came to California for the first time as a teenager and said the scale of the Golden State art wowed him.

The effect proved to be a lasting one.

After earning his undergraduate degree in painting from Ohio State University, Stewart-Magee said his paintings kept getting bigger and eventually caught the attention of a patron.

Before painting a mural, he conducts extensive research.

“For almost every mural, I spend more time doing research than working on the actual mural,” Stewart-Magee said.  “What I don’t want to do is come in and inflict my misinformation (on the community). I want to be well-informed.”

A good mural, he said, is one in which the painter invests.

“I’m not just painting it now—it should be sort of timeless. A little bit of what’s there, what used to be there and what we all wished was there,” Stewart-Magee said.

Depicting the city’s past, present and future, the “Pomona Envisions the Future” mural captures this sense of timelessness on the west face of the Union Block building in downtown Pomona.

Courtesy of Kevin Stewart-Magee

Stewart-Magee was the lead artist on the sole permanent artistic work from Pomona’s 12-week community art project,“Envisioning the Future,” from September 2003.

“The mural was the one piece of the project that became permanent—a major gift to the city of Pomona,” said J. Cheryl Bookout, 65, community coordinator for the Cal Poly Pomona Downtown Center.

“I am very proud of the mural and what it has come to represent for the area,” she said.

Chris Toovey, 60, and Amy Runyen, 35, worked on the Pomona mural as part of a team of artists under Stewart-Magee’s leadership.

“It was a labor of love,” said Runyen. “It was a very glorious project, albeit trying at times.”

Toovey said that working on the mural was an experience that brought together all the artists involved.

“At times, there’s no camaraderie like artists getting together and sharing ideas and creating something out of the blue,” said Toovey.

“And then on the other hand, there’s no hell on earth like working with artists. Dealing with individual egos and personalities… it’s like herding cats,” said Toovey.

SoCal’s murals, however, also have faced a long history of hazards in addition to the toll of time.

“Artists are so used to working in their studio that they forget to have a conversation with the community. If you don’t show respect, then someone won’t respect you either,” Stewart-Magee says of graffiti vandals.

“What you can do is try to be honest with that community and find out what is special. If you’re interested in something that will last, then you should do something that’s well-researched and honest, because if it’s well-researched, beautifully crafted and honest, that’s about the best the artist can do,” he added.

For a campus, Stewart-Magee said, a mural needs to be environmentally safe and has to work for the campus community, administration and future student generations.

CSUF does not allow murals to be painted on campus.

“Just from a standpoint of craftsmanship, the (CSUF) campus has a policy of not doing murals because they don’t last and they’re expensive to maintain,” Stewart-Magee said.

Courtesy of Kevin Stewart-Magee

Joe Forkan, 48, associate professor of foundations and drawing at CSUF and one of the faculty advisors for the arts, said Stewart-Magee has been working pretty extensively to find longer-lasting painting materials.

“I think it’s a great thing—if he can get some murals on campus, I’m all for it if his advancements in mural painting and longevity go through,” said Forkan.

“It’s a great goal and approach for Southern California, which has a long history of murals.”

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