Piece by piece, two high school students sit on white buckets and puzzle out the mosaic being installed on the sidewalk in South Berkeley, between Harper and Ellis streets on Ashby Avenue, below the beloved 2018 community mural “The Invisible Becomes Visible” by longtime Berkeley resident Edythe Boone.
Sixteen-year-old Alexandra Yu holds a sort of triangle-shaped sliver of clay in her hand and positions it this way, then that way, then another way until it fits exactly right and is adhered to the sidewalk.
Helping with the mosaic “just seems like a really fun opportunity to provide a beautiful piece of art that people can come look at,” she says. “It’s been really fun to participate and really powerful because unfortunately, I haven’t heard much about the people in the mural.”
The mosaic, also entitled “The Invisible Becomes Visible,” is like an elegantly written book that sheds light on the faces of Berkeley community members in the mural above. The project was spearheaded by Priscilla Hine and Skip Kirk, who included the Berkeley community in the mural effort every step of the way. Installation was completed this month.
At least a year-and-a-half in the making, Hine did four workshops with the community to make some of the tiles. Two of the workshops were at the library, one at the Here/There encampment and one at a neighborhood block party. These tiles show bees, flowers, intricate patterns and sayings like “We Love Berkeley” and “Rock the Vote.”
The other tiles, aside from the broken pieces that define a mosaic, are white plaques with black text that tell little stories about the people inside the mural. They tell the person’s birth year (and when they died if they are no longer living), and a little bit about their lives as activists, artists and Berkeley community mainstays.
The plaques point out what the community members in the mural are wearing or doing so viewers can pinpoint the subject. There are also plaques that describe the scenes in the mural, like action in the mural regarding the Black Panther Party and the slice of the mural that depicts Japanese residents who were victims of internment during World War II.
“I love my neighborhood. I am an artist. It’s one of the ways I feel like I can give to my community, use my talents,” Hine says as she takes a break from blowing the dust off the tiles with an electric leaf blower. As she speaks, a passer-by quips, simply, “beautiful!”
Most of the community members highlighted in the plaques have two rectangles devoted to their stories. For example, for Alando Williams, seated in a chair in the mural and looking at the viewer, the first plaque describes him as a “South Berkeley native who received a baseball scholarship at age 17” and the second says, “he played in the A’s minor league ‘I always keep it real with people.’”
For Elsa Ramos, the plaques say: “a longtime resident, worked 23 years for the Berkeley Post Office and is a strong advocate for social justice.”
There’s a plaque for a smiling Dr. Vicki Alexander, “Lovingly known as Dr. Vicki, is a fighter for justice as well as the founder of Healthy Black Families.”
Boone, 83, was the mural artist who conceived and directed the painting of the “The Invisible Becomes Visible” mural. An artist and activist originally from Brooklyn, New York, Boone said she wanted the mural to be in the community out of concerns that Black Berkeley residents were being pushed out of the city by gentrification. She supports the mosaic and said she feels it’s important to get to know the stories behind the faces in the mural.
“I think it’s just wonderful,” said Boone, who is also helping to write a book about the mural that will be carried in Berkeley city libraries.
So far, the project has delighted the community, says Hines, who is a potter and a preschool teacher at Head Royce School. She noted that some of the city’s homeless residents pass by it every day while she works on it.
“They just give us so much strength and enthusiasm,” she says. “They just light up when they come by and have gone and brought us water while we’re working.”
Around two dozen people have helped install the project, in addition to those who made the tiles. The project was paid for by the Creative Work Fund, a program of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and the City of Berkeley Civic Grants Program. A brochure that highlights the mural and mosaic, altogether a four-year project, is in the works.