Balancing himself and a palette of paints on a scaffold high above the pavement, Eloy Torrez is oblivious to the traffic buzzing along 10th Street in downtown Santa Paula.
Since mid-March, the 49-year-old Los Angeles artist has been transforming the exterior wall of Gonzales Furniture into a rich picture of the city's diverse but largely Latino community.
The life-size mural resembles a family portrait. The 13-foot-high, 61-foot-wide painting includes a young married couple, a musician, a man in a zoot suit, a husband and wife with their two children, a schoolteacher, a soldier, a firefighter and a doctor.
"My job is to learn about the history of the community and interpret that into art," said Torrez, whose works include "The Pope of Broadway," a widely acclaimed seven-story mural of actor Anthony Quinn painted on the side of a clothing store in downtown Los Angeles.
Torrez's latest work is the seventh mural commissioned by the Santa Paula Murals Committee, a volunteer group that for six years has made beautifying the city's struggling downtown its mission.
The effort is the brainchild of Joyce Carlson, a 50-year resident who wanted to find a way to celebrate the city's colorful history while also bolstering tourism. Once a thriving business and cultural center, the city of 29,000 has fallen on hard times in recent years and is attempting to stage a comeback.
Carlson had heard about how Chemainus, a lumber mill town in British Columbia, had reinvented itself as a tourist destination through a mural program. She wondered if Santa Paula could do the same.
She organized a group of other Santa Paula residents and headed north to learn more about the little Canadian town before embarking on a similar public arts project.
"The murals in Chemainus were so beautiful. This little town was just transformed," said Carlson, chairwoman of the mural committee. "Our hope was that it would do the same for Santa Paula, and so far the results have been outstanding."
Today, six murals are spread along an eight-block section of downtown Santa Paula. Each work depicts a chapter of the city's cultural and historical roots. One shows Main Street circa 1910, others illustrate the important roles agriculture and the oil industry have played since the town was founded a century ago.
The average cost for each mural is $15,000, largely raised through individual and corporate donations. The space for each mural is donated by downtown property owners.
The mural committee includes 18 local residents who meet monthly to discuss issues involved with each project, including subject matter, site selection, choice of artist and fund-raising. After Torrez's work is completed, three more murals are planned to complete the downtown art project.
"Our goal is to mark all the major milestones, both cultural and social, of Santa Paula from the time of the Chumash Indians to now," said Mike Kerr, another committee member. "The murals undertake the task of putting in visual terms who we are, where we come from and why it's important."
For Torrez, working in Santa Paula has been a joy.
"I'm so happy to have been a part of this project. Having the opportunity to come and work in this area has made me think this is a nice place to spend time painting, and I would like to have studio space up here," Torrez said. "The people who live here are very lucky."