Public art plants the seed in Stockton

04. 05. 2018

Storytelling and community engagement are key in any city embracing such a cutting edge program as guaranteed income.

Kia Duras has spent the last few days perched atop a cherry picker on California Street in downtown Stockton, California, about fifty feet off the ground. That’s exactly where she was when she took my call the other day, high above the street under the blazing spring sun as she put the finishing touches on her massive canvas. “People have been driving by and yelling out the window, ‘that looks great!’” she said, “the interest has been huge.”

Kia, a local Stocktonian, is one of three muralists selected to paint a wall in downtown Stockton as part of a project using public art to spread the word about the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED. Under the leadership of Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, SEED will be distributing unconditional cash stipends of $500 per month to a group of Stockton residents to provide some measure of economic security. When we announced that the Economic Security Project would be giving funding for this new guaranteed income endeavor last October, we also knew that storytelling and community engagement would be key in any city embracing such a cutting edge program.

Andrew Laubie knows exactly how effective public art can be in engaging people in social issues. As the founder of Street Art Anarchy, Andrew has been the organizing force behind the #educationisnotacrime murals that popped up all over New York City’s Harlem neighborhood last year, and has produced a variety of large scale public art projects around the world. He was able to attract world renowned muralists like Paris’s Astro, who painted an abstract, stunningly 3-D version of Maslow’s Pyramid, to the project. This first mural made a splash, not just locally, but across the globe via Instagram, highlighting the opportunity that Stockton has to speak to the world through the SEED project.

Astro’s mural, on California street in downtown Stockton

Next, Andrew turned to an artist who has received national acclaim, and even made a guest appearance on Ava DuVernay’s show Queen Sugar, Brandan “BMike” Odums of New Orleans. His studio in the city, #StudioBe, was the setting for a date turned Black Lives Matter educational moment, as two of the show’s characters strolled through BMike’s towering portraits. As it happened, Mayor Michael Tubbs went to visit #StudioBe while he was recently in New Orleans, and made a suggestion for a woman he would like to see honored by BMike’s recognizable and powerful portraiture. Today in Stockton, on East Main street, facing the schoolyard there is a giant, vibrant tribute to Jasmine DellaFosse, a Stockton youth organizer and pillar of the community. The mural incorporates a few quotes from the Mayor, as well as the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose vision was the reason the Mayor was inspired to explore guaranteed income.

Mayor Tubbs with artist Brandan “BMike” Odums with the kids on the schoolyard

Kia completed her wall, just across the street from Astro’s mural. Kia was born and raised in Stockton, in a family of artists, and though she has been painting her whole life, this wall feels big. “I hope people feel the same community and strength and togetherness that I feel painting it”, she said. After attending the California Academy of the Arts, Kia found full time work as a muralist in the Bay Area, but moved back to Stockton once she started her family. Today, she is a single mom to five daughters, who owns her own skincare salon. “It allowed me to pay my bills and have a flexible schedule so I can take care of my kids,” she said. She also told me that her daughters all contributed to the mural design, “my older daughter threw in the cityscape at the bottom, and everyone helped me color it in, and we put it all together.” In the mural, a banner reads “Plant the SEED”, referring both to the program and the leafy green tree sprawling across the brick wall. When I asked Kia what she thought of the idea of a guaranteed income, she had this to say:

What it is going to do, I believe, is that it’s going to relieve a lot of stress off of people’s lives and when you have some relief and some help, you can take time to think of other ways to improve your life and your household. If you are constantly struggling to just make it, you don’t have any time to do anything else but just that. But if you have a bit of a cushion you can figure out how to have a better life.

Kia also told me that her older daughters take the city bus to school, and couldn’t be more excited to ride past her mural everyday. The hope is that everyone in Stockton can look out the window, see these murals, and see the opportunity in their beautiful city.