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Arts Beat: SLO's new street murals

Rachel Showalter/KCBX
Local artist Sally Lamas working on a new street mural.

Over the past year, the city of San Luis Obispo has added neighborhood greenways as a part of a larger road works project.

The idea behind the greenways is to prioritize walking and biking as modes of transportation. But the changes aren’t stopping with the addition of bike lanes and speed humps. The city is now partnering with local artists to beautify the new corridors with painted pavement murals.

“Public art components were something that we thought about as a way to just encourage people to go slow and travel slower,” said Jennifer Rice, transportation planning engineer with the city of San Luis Obispo. “They would be something to benefit someone walking and biking, not necessarily someone who’s driving by.”

The mural project is meant to showcase the talent of local artists, celebrate the neighborhood’s green spaces and simply spread joy.

Twenty-nine local artists applied to be a part of the project; a jury of neighborhood residents picked four designs.

Lindsey Stephenson, who’s in charge of public art in San Luis Obispo, says this project is really meant to be for the community—and city staff wanted the selection process to highlight that.

“It’s a true feel-good local project where it’s neighbors selected as the artists, and neighbors as the jurors selecting the art,” Stephenson said.

This isn’t the first time the city has partnered with artists in this way. Locals have participated in other beautification projects around San Luis Obispo on things like bridge railings, benches and utility boxes.

Local artist Sally Lamas has been commissioned by the city in the past and now she’s at it again, spending her evenings and spare time working on her pavement mural, located at the intersection of Pacific and Nipomo streets.

“This mural is sort of a migration of the people to town and back and around the neighborhood,” Lamas said.

Lamas’ art is applied directly to the road so she interacts with passing pedestrians and cars while she works.

“I live down this road and as I was painting here, I was seeing rollerbladers and people in mobility scooters going by,” Lamas said.

Lamas wears knee pads to comfortably work on the ground and uses bright colors to bring out the flowers, animals and people she’s painting.

“There’s lots of gardens, especially where I live off Islay that have cats,” Lamas said. “This is a very busy intersection and I really wanted to show all the different kinds of people, old and young, dogs and cats and how we use these thoroughfares.”

Lamas has a long history with art. She has illustrated children’s books and greeting cards. Just in the last four years, she’s done 12 public and private murals. She says the street art she is doing now is very different from work she’s done in the past.

“I’m down on the ground where there’s dirt and there’s birds,” Lamas said. “There’s cars and bicycles that occasionally cut the corner and go right through it.”

This mural in particular comes with an unexpected challenge.

“I’ve never had to deal with birds pooping actively on your product,” Lamas said.

But, Lamas says, that’s the beauty in this work. She hopes the art reminds people to savor what they have, especially during the pandemic.

“Yes, we can’t go and sit in a restaurant. We’re not going to have a drink with our friends and we’re not going dancing, if you dance,” Lamas said. “But we still have beautiful neighborhoods we can walk to and art is still alive.”

Mural installation continues in the Islay, Morro and King-Nipomo neighborhoods and the Pismo Street pedestrian trail, with an expected completion date of December 20.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020, reporting daily for KCBX News until she moved to the Pacific Northwest in July of 2022. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.
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