Peruvian-born artist Claudio Talavera-Ballón talks Redwood City’s history of Japanese internment, farmworking and his addiction to oil painting
It took just over two months to complete, and involved “learning to draw chrysanthemums in tremendous proportions.”
After painting every day from June 25th to August 27th from 8:30 am to sundown, Bay Area-based visual artist Claudio Talavera-Ballón finished “Kiku Dreaming”: a three-wall, 771-square-foot mural at Roosevelt Plaza in Redwood City, which honors Japanese immigrants, farmworkers and industry from the city’s past.It’s a vast, colorful and ambitious mural, not to mention a piece which the lifelong painter considers to be the most significant work of his career.
A Peruvian-born fine artist, Talavera-Ballón often centers his work on the everyday lives of the immigrants and their all-too-often unsung contributions to culture. In this sense, he was a good choice to illustrate the history of the Japanese farmers who pioneered a world class flower industry in Redwood City, only to see it destroyed by the racist backlash to the Pearl Harbor attacks and which soon resulted in the wide-scale internment of Japanese Americans.
Talavera-Ballón was first invited to beautify Redwood City in 2019, painting bike racks — La Cosecha de Esperanza/“The Harvest of Hope” — to honor the contributions of farmworkers, while making the city more accommodating to bicyclists. Later, he painted utility boxes amid Redwood City’s ever-expanding public art efforts. In the Bay, his work can also be found in San Francisco (in the Transbay Terminal), Oakland (at Holy Name University) and Berkeley. Internationally, he has painted and exhibited in Perú, Chile and Mexico.
We caught up with Talavera-Ballón ahead of this month’s official (virtual) unveiling of “Kiku Dreaming” to discuss forgotten history, the equity of muralism and—of course—chrysanthemums.
Take a look…
[Note: This interview was conducted in Spanish, translated and edited for length and clarity].
What was your reaction when you heard you were selected for this mural?
When I was selected for this mural, it was something I could not believe. It was unbelievable, an unbelievable contribution of labor, the biggest thing I’ve done in my whole life to date … This was a growing experience in every sense of the word.
What in your artistic background do you reflect on that brought you to this moment?
I was the kind of artist who was less interested in what transpires in classrooms than the act of painting itself as the essential course study. Painting was always a game. I never took it seriously. When I finished college, I took graphic design in an era where computers weren’t there … so you learned it all manually.
It was oil — infinite ways to paint. I was enchanted with oil. They presented oil painting to me and it became my drug. It was as if I was addicted to the drug from the first moment I tried it, struck my brush with oil.
…That’s when I crashed into the real world. There was an immense wall that crashes the dreams of every university student that you’re changing the world. I came out with all the ideas of being a gigantic presence with significant followers, which is the wall that stifles growth. It didn’t give me liberty. It gave me nothing. That was a type of life, what was there to do? Continue with publicity, or with painting?
In that time, destiny struck. I encountered a very famous painter in Peru [Luis Palao Berastai]. We met, talked and he invited me to study with him in the southeastern city of Peru, Cusco. I left home, 13–14 hours from Arequipa to an Indigenous area: a beautiful, picturesque place to do nothing but paint.
If I was awake, I’d paint; if I was asleep, I’d dream of painting; I’d wake up and paint. It was a long time to live a cheap life, and after two or three months when the money would run out, I’d go back, sell art or make designs, and then go back to where he was in Cusco.
Even though it was modest, it was like having a fortune, tranquility painting for months on end.
What did you learn from painting this historical tribute to Redwood City?
The Japanese were pioneers in cultivating chrysanthemums. The gentlemen Enomoto [two brothers—Eikichi and Sadakusu—who spearheaded the local cultivation industry] gave Redwood City a reputation for being a world chrysanthemum capital.
And this is the main thing I learned, as World War II rose, so did racism — the attack of Pearl Harbor lead to Japanese internment camps.
I knew this through a different story, a friend of mine was born in one of these internment camps. Coincidentally, he informed me my country, Peru, in that same era, had extradited Japaneseto the United States. Peru never had even a civil reparation or historical apology for their part in this happening. So the rise of hate after the attack on Pearl Harbor and [the advent of the internment camps] totally collapsed this chrysanthemums industry.
…I always, in my ignorance, associated farmers with Latinos in the United States. I didn’t understand there were Japanese farmers that, too, were discriminated against, in the same manner and for the same reasons as Latin farmers.
It strikes me that the mural, beyond the Japanese and chrysanthemums, centers on farmworking as a whole.
It’s just that. The mural depicts a hummingbird, and the hummingbird in ancient cultures is a symbol of transformation because it is the only bird that can fly in a backward motion. It’s a symbol to remember the past.
A bit of philosophy I encountered—history is like driving a car. You always have to look in your rear view, to see what there is behind us, so as to not repeat [history]. In this case, the hummingbird revisits the story, sees what we did, modifies it, and advances forward.
As a painter, as a human being, I see this story repeating, we’re doing the same thing from [many past eras]. Artists have an important mission to note — through murals, drawings — untold histories, things that were hidden, that sooner or later will be brought to light.
What did this opportunity to paint this story mean to you?
I’m very grateful for this opportunity. This isn’t something that’s possible for most people. I’m very grateful for the confidence that was deposited in me and public art in general. The importance of investing in murals, the totality of public art for a city, so that anyone walking near can observe art without having to go to a museum or pay a fortune for a framed painting.
This is what I like so much about muralism — it’s that opportunity to reach the most humble, who are the greatest appreciators of art. The least able to afford a framed painting are the most likely to appreciate one. So humble, working people are able to appreciate a painting and incentivize new painters to pursue this as a career. It’s a fascinating career.
The mural depicts the Japanese working and making Redwood City a renowned place through chrysanthemums in bold colors at the forefront, as well as a farmworker, and the water leads to the industrial past in grey.
The combination of colors, I wanted to note the difference between progress and nature. Differentiating in black and white what were constructions and everything that was natural in its original colors, the contrast of cement and nature, is one of the many messages in this mural.
Nature is so much more important than the progress of human invention. We’re seeing it now with this apocalyptic day, landscape, it’s the result of indiscriminate progress, contamination we’re doing to ourselves.
What is your hope for people who pass by, look up, and see this mural?
There’s much I hope people appreciate from this mural. For starters, be interested in the story of your city, of a history that’s untold, because history is told by the winners, and we’re not told about the defeated. Curiosity why [the dissolution of Redwood City’s chrysanthemum industry] happened.
People seeing the mural — seeing their reactions when I was still painting, and people congratulated me and shouted support — that’s another satisfaction this mural gave me, and I am enchanted those same faces will encounter this mural and find hope to forget their problems for five minutes or for a minute and a half, and think about something else because they’re taking in the mural. These are satisfactions I want to return in messages of joy, curiosity and culture through this mural.
Claudio Talavera-Ballón online.
Attend the mural’s unveiling via Zoom on Tuesday, September 29, 5–6:00p.m. register here.
See the mural’s page at CATA.
Read about Redwood City’s chrysanthemum history at the city’s historical blog.
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