Berkeley’s newest mural — a three-year collaboration among professional artists, city residents and the Berkeley Drop in Center overseen by muralist extraordinaire Edythe Boone — was unveiled on Saturday. “The Invisible Becomes Visible,” a timeline of South Berkeley from the days of the Ohlone to the present, stretches 100 feet, covering a boarded fence on the south side of Ashby Avenue between Harper and Ellis streets. Berkeleyside dropped by the site to talk to Boone about the mural in late August, when it was still a work in progress but almost finished. With muralists stationed about every 15 feet, Boone stood at one end, explaining the images to a passerby. She knew each one and its significance, from the Ohlone dancers to the Spanish colonists, Japanese-American internees, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and more modern figures like Berkeley’s beloved Waving Man, Joseph Charles.
Boone said she considered every painter a friend. And she wanted her collaborators to represent the spectrum of human experience. “I had a very diverse team,” she said. “I had trans; I had gay women, couples, men; I had black, white, Chinese, Japanese; we even have a rabbi that’s going to bless the food. I always show diversity because I have a wonderful group of friends of all nationalities and sexualities.” Zoë Boston, a former student of Boone’s, said, “We all met her through different paths of life, different situations, and she’s seen our work.” While the mural is officially a history of South Berkeley, it has a broader resonance too. At one end of the mural a sign reads, in part, “Tearing families apart is immoral,” a reference to the Trump administration’s decision to separate some immigrant children from their parents. “Art has a lot to do with social justice, too,’ said Boone. “We all felt that we wanted to go and make a statement.”
Boone, who has lived in South Berkeley for 40 years after moving to the Bay Area from Harlem, is a well-known muralist, art teacher and activist. She was involved with the “Let a Thousand Parks Bloom” mural in People’s Park and the “Music on My Mind” mural at the corner of Ellis and Alcatraz Avenue, as well as the famous Women’s Building mural in San Francisco’s Mission District. She is also the aunt of Eric Garner who died after being put in a chokehold by police on Staten Island in 2014. A documentary about Boone, A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone, made by filmmaker Marlene “Mo” Morris, was released in 2016.
Judging by the foot and car traffic, the community welcomes the mural. On the day Berkeleyside dropped by, people stopped to look and talk, or honked their horns as they passed. Boone chose the location of the mural for its proximity to the South Berkeley Senior Center and for its visibility to those driving along Ashby and heading to the Ashby Flea Market. The project was supported by a grant from the City of Berkeley Civic Arts Program and a Creative Work Fund Grant from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. As part of the research for the mural, Boone and her team gathered oral histories from South Berkeley residents, collected images from the archives at the library and the Veterans Memorial Building, and partnered with the Berkeley Drop-in Center. (Read more about the work that went into designing the mural.) “People live with the art, so you’re charged with the responsibility of co-creating their environment,” said artist Ellie Brumbaum. “People take that very seriously. We get a lot of people who stop by and they see somebody that they recognize. I was painting William Byron Rumford earlier and somebody stopped by and said, ‘Oh, I used to work for him. That was my high school job, at the pharmacy.’ That’s the most ethical way to engage with a community — by choosing a subject that’s both yours and theirs.”