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Art seeks to do justice to courts' history

Students' paintings reflecting significant Orange County cases adorn the new building of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.

October 15, 2009|Paloma Esquivel

The paintings are big, bold and unsigned -- each one newly hung on the walls of the recently opened courthouse as a testament to Orange County's history and promise.

The largest is a mural depicting Westminster vs. Mendez, the 1947 ruling originating in Orange County that put an end to segregated schools for Mexican children. It was painted by students from Otto A. Fischer School, which serves residents of juvenile hall.

The collaborative art at the new 4th District Court of Appeal building in Santa Ana was shown this week at a ceremony honoring those who helped bring to fruition the project involving students and courthouse officials.

At the reception, Sylvia Mendez, one of the three Mendez children depicted in the mural, met with Andrew K., the 18-year-old artist who helped design it.

In the mural, the Mendezes -- mother, father and three children -- stand proud, their gazes unflinching as they straddle the line between a well-kept school for whites and a deteriorating one for Mexicans.

"You made my mom look so beautiful," Mendez told the young artist. "Can you imagine?" she said of the artwork. "In an appellate court here in Orange County? This is awesome."

The young man in a gray T-shirt and jeans smiled and shook her hand.

"Thank you," he said, then took a spot next to the mural so his parents and others could snap photographs.

The works are the product of a prolonged effort by appellate Justice Eileen Moore, who three years ago was charged with acquiring art for the courthouse -- without a budget.

She tried getting donated art but was stymied by possible conflicts of interest with high-profile donors.

Later, she tried a court-sponsored art contest that yielded just three entries.

Then Moore approached the Orange County Department of Education. Working together, she and education officials developed a program that would have students create art based on issues raised and resolved in Orange County courts over the years.

Moore chose 50 cases that were then narrowed down and divided among schools. One case was chosen specifically to tap into the talents of a young graffiti artist at the Fischer school.

A 2007 case, In re Alexander L., involved a defendant who was convicted of three acts of vandalism by graffiti for the benefit of a criminal street gang.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction but reversed the finding that the vandalism was committed for the benefit of a gang.

On canvas the case becomes a striking splash of bright blues, yellows and reds. Someone sprays the word "Graffiti" on a brick wall. The words "vandalize," "trespass," "time" and "regret" run in paint down steps and into a gutter.

It may not be the most historically significant case in the bunch -- which include those of a homeless Vietnam veteran arrested for sleeping in a public area and of two men who sued the Angels over a Mother's Day giveaway -- but for Christian B., 17, the self-described former graffiti artist who helped design the work, the case and resulting artwork are powerful.

The piece symbolizes the good and bad of graffiti, he said. The painting itself makes the writing on the wall look beautiful. But the message, he said, is that in the end it is all washed away.

For Moore, who invested a lot of her own time in this project, the courthouse art is about tearing down the wall between the community and the court.

"People don't usually come to court unless they get some bad news by way of a lawsuit," she said.

"I think what these paintings mean is people will be coming to court because they feel part of the community and they want to come to see" the artwork, she said.


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