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Driven to the Wall, Artist States Her Peace

Gangs: Outraged by chain of killings, Oxnard woman and youths paint a mural against violence.

June 22, 1996|ERIC WAHLGREN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — For artist Sunny Atkinson, outrage finally bubbled to the surface after the April gang slaying of 15-year-old Gabriel Gomez Torres, whose body was found face down in a flower bed.

Gabriel had been so badly beaten that police found blood spattered as high as the eaves of a house next to the garden where he died.

"I couldn't stand it any more," said Atkinson, a 39-year-old Oxnard resident, referring to the recent slew of gang-related killings in the city. "I didn't even know this kid, but I said I had to do something."

That something, she decided, would be to recruit Oxnard youths to paint a 20-by-40-foot "moratorium on violence" mural on a warehouse wall in downtown Oxnard.

Atkinson got Ventura County supervisors to issue a resolution May 14 backing a moratorium on violence. Today, the artist and the young muralists plan to unveil their work--a vibrant representation of ocean life with a few religious icons thrown in.

"We are telling all the kids to stop killing each other," said Atkinson, director of the Oxnard Gang Intervention Art and Mural Program, who wears large round glasses and speaks in a quiet voice. "The word has gotten out."

Oxnard Police Officer Steven Funk co-owns Get-Mor Loan and Jewelry, the Oxnard Boulevard business that donated its warehouse wall nearby for the mural. Although Funk believes the project is helping to counter graffiti and urban blight, he is less certain about its effect on curbing juvenile crime.

"But I actually have noticed a little less problems with gangs," Funk said. "I can't say for sure that this is tied into that. But that would be nice."

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Oxnard has suffered 10 homicides--six of them gang related--since January. Police estimate the city now has 3,800 gang members, more than twice the number of three years ago.

Statistics like these prompted Oxnard resident Sandra Weiler to donate more than 40 gallons of paint to the effort, not to mention the voluntary labor of her four children.

"[Youth] have so much more to give than just gangbanging on the streets," said Weiler, a 34-year-old artist. "It's pathetic that people are losing their children. The mural keeps my kids busy."

On a recent weekday, a dozen youths scrambled up scaffolding to put the finishing touches on the mural, which graces a brick building on a weed-filled lot at Meta and 5th streets.

Robert Castillo, a 16-year-old Hueneme High School student and member of a city-sponsored youth job corps, said gang members often walk past the site and flash the thumbs-up sign.

"The mural not only helps the kids, but it also helps beautify the city," Robert said as he finished painting the head of a large blue whale.

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Jose Aguilera, a 19-year-old Oxnard resident and Channel Islands High School graduate, stumbled across the mural project on Thursday while crossing through the neighborhood.

Aguilera, who has worked on murals in Mexico, quickly made his mark. He touched up the work's flat mountain range, giving it a three-dimensional look. And he painted a copy of the Rio de Janeiro statue of Jesus Christ with outstretched arms.

"Kids want to get recognized," said Aguilera, adding that he believes gang members injure or kill others largely because many don't know how else to leave their mark or get attention. "If you give kids the opportunity to do something different that will get them recognized, they will do it."

Aguilera's contributions to the project have already gotten him noticed. A nearby bakery is considering hiring him to paint a mural on the store's wall.

"We say an angel must have sent him," Atkinson said.

The mural project represents one of several efforts by frustrated residents to find ways to quell the flurry of gang violence that has struck Oxnard in recent months.

A group called Safety 2000 is pushing for a special utility tax that would put more police on the streets. Other residents have created support groups for the families of the victims of the gang slayings.

The city of Oxnard, grocery stores, residents and other businesses have all pitched in to make the mural happen, but organizers are still looking for money and supplies to launch similar projects.

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Atkinson said she has sunk at least $700 of her own money into the mural, designed by Santa Barbara-based Chumash artist Teshpen White Bear, for supplies and food for volunteers. To raise about $200, she even pawned an original drawing she owns by Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

"It was worth it," Atkinson said. "I didn't think the mural would be so beautiful and that it would have such an impact."

The mural dedication ceremony and artist reception begin at 11 a.m. The muralists plan to paint another wall with the names of the youths killed in Oxnard, but only the names of those who died this year.

"Otherwise, it would take two walls," Atkinson said.

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