Stroke by stroke, a face appears. A hand here, part of a leg there.
Behind each stroke, giving life to a once barren wall along the heavily-trafficked Sunland Boulevard, is Kristy Sandoval — a 33-year-old muralist who for the past eight years has been leading a revival of this art form in the San Fernando Valley.
Born in Los Angeles, raised in Pacoima and a San Fernando High graduate, Sandoval also attended the Academy of Arts in San Francisco to study architecture. She came back with a penchant for color and art.
“I had no idea I was going to be a muralist,” Sandoval said. “At (the Academy of Arts) I learned the basics of art and drawing.”
She said San Francisco was “a shock” to her, but the environment there also released the artist that had been lying dormant all along. She’d walk the streets of the Mission District, admiring the neighborhood’s famous murals.
When she came back to Pacoima, Sandoval first began working with nonprofits, teaching art to students. From there, murals were the next step.
Beautifying the “Mural Mile”
She’s painted four of them along the stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima that’s now dubbed “The Mural Mile.” All four feature plenty of color and social meaning, two aspects that reverberate in each of her public canvases.
One of her most famous works is called “Decolonize.” It is painted on the wall of a Pacoima insurance office. It depicts a girl with feathers in her blue dreadlocks, freeing parrots and butterflies from a cage.The cage is a high window with bars across it; the girl’s skirt is a maroon awning, popping out above the back door.
“It’s this big public piece and people are impacted by it whether they think it or not. Why not give it a message?” said Sandoval, who wants her pieces to have an effect on those who see it.
Presenting herself as a muralist — even an artist — was not easy at first for Sandoval, who’s raising a four-year-old daughter. But for the past three years Sandoval’s been able to make a living solely on her talent. Besides her commissioned murals, she’s a paid lecturer who presents 6-8 week workshops on mural painting and her gallery pieces, which are more introspective than her public artwork.
Regardless of the medium, Sandoval leaves a clearly imprint.
For the past couple of weeks, her attention has been focused on the wall of a raspado (shaved ice) business in Sunland. Next to the railroad tracks, in a commercial area, the purple, orange and red lines in the background of the mural — which are meant to resemble a “sarape” (shawl or poncho) — are transforming into kid’s faces. Some of them playing “Xangais” (an ancient Aztec stick game) or with a “Trompo” (Whipping Top).
“I hope it livens up the area,” says Sandoval of the mural that will be seen by Metrolink riders on trains that go by hourly.
“I hope other artists get inspired to paint more walls,” she said.
But Sandoval’s murals are not just seen in the Valley. She’s painted them in South Los Angeles, El Sereno, New Orleans, and now Turkey.
Last year she and Levi Ponce, another renowned Valley muralist, were invited to take part in the Mural Instanbul Festival. Sandoval was the first female participant.
“It was my first time abroad,” said Sandoval, who cherished the experience.
The festival theme was “Human Beings/Being Human” and she painted alongside Syrian girls who had recently arrived in Turkey as refugees.
“Art is universal. For the most part, every artist has their own expression. But it’s like a language,” she said. “We understood each other. It taught me the universal language of arts.”
Art can also unite the community, Sandoval noted. “It brings positive energy to where it is being created,” she said.
But, “murals should have a message for positive change because everybody sees them,” she said.
This summer Sandoval will head to New York and paint a mural at the Afropunk Festival. In October, she will receive the “Phenomenal Woman Award” from California State University, Northridge.
She likes the accolades, but doesn’t live for them. In fact, she sometimes doesn’t like to present herself as an artist or a muralist.
For her it’s still about the artistic expression and giving women a voice.
“Don’t let the fact that you’re a woman discourage you,” is her message to the younger generations. “Do what you want in any career. If that’s your true calling, you will find a way to make a living.”
She has and she loves it.
While painting the mural in Sun Valley, a couple of people pass by. A mother and her young daughter are surprised when they learn Sandoval is the artist painting the mural. They readily congratulate her.
A paletero also gives her the thumbs up.
Her message of beauty and unity is working this day.
“The end result is always awesome,” Sandoval says of murals. “It brightens up the community on so many different levels.”
And if nothing else, she adds, “you have a new selfie station.”