Do you know the way to San Jose?

Lila, age 11

I, Lila Gemellos, am a San Jose born, trained and based artist.  My artistic education started really early on in life here at the San Jose Museum of Art, in the historic once post office’s basement across from Cesar Chavez Park.   Between the ages of 5-7, I devoured every course they had to offer.  Can you imagine a 6 year old figure drawing and screen printing?  I did that.  Could you imagine a 7 year old cartooning with 12 year olds?  I had a natural gift and awesome parents who allowed me to explore that.  For my eighth birthday, I got private oil painting classes and continued my training at San Jose’s UniversityArt on Meridian Avenue.  I’d bring my work to show and tell to an audience of misbelief.  I had a teacher ask my mom at Back to School Night if the artwork was actually mine.  Winning Best of Show in the Santa Clara County Fair with my 5th oil painting cemented by passion and drive over twenty years ago.  Being an artist was an inevitability in my life.

Today, as a working professional artist, I still feel so lucky to be here in San Jose and the Silicon Valley.  I’m finally getting the opportunity to add to its Public Art portfolio.  And I’m from here!  The karmic lottery that I won by being born here and to parents who support the Arts inspires me to no end.  As Miss Teen San Jose 15 years ago, I regret not having conceived of how to improve and express my City through Public Art murals.  San Jose is one of the only places you can paint year round, weather permitting.  The temperature and sunshine make this a mural painter’s dream location.  This City has scenic vistas, stunning towers, fairly recession proof clients, public art opportunities, great conditions to paint and a progressive, innovative attitude.  Coach Harbaugh was right.  Nobody’s got it better than us.  There’s a reason it’s so expensive to live here and many of us make this tradeoff without notice.

How San Jose defines itself is muddied.  It is so many different things – a big city, a big town, a million microclimates, an old place, a new place, a travel destination, a business destination, a melting pot like no other.  To me, it’s the ultimate modern city built on ancient roots.  Alta California’s first Spanish civil settlement was founded one year after the United States of America, making San Jose 240 years old.  In a mere 30 years from 1820-1850, 4 flags flew over California and the Pueblo de San Jose.  It’s only natural that it be the First State Capital, then located in the center of Cesar Chavez Park.  Our suburbs were once their own farming townships, with the wealthy also maintaining Victorian residences downtown.  We farmed and ranched the land through the 1800’s.  The 1900’s saw the birth of the Technology Age in Santa Clara County, with flight, radio, semiconductors, and room sized computers invented here.  The first plane was patented and flown in San Jose.  To say San Jose is historic is an understatement and to call it innovative would be as equally so.  It’s why San Jose ends up in so much of my work as a motif, or perhaps it’s because my artistic journey started in a repurposed antique post office.  The inspiration for me couldn’t be more genuine.

The Falafel’s Drive In was the first clients who asked me to create a sense of place or in their words, “something San Jose”.  San Jose could never be summed up in one statement to me.  Shaved Hawaiian Ice asked if I could create something San Jose, Hawaiian and hip hop flavored.  The geographic location theme was so redundant, I bought the domain www.sanjosemurals.com.  It’s what my most popular work is.  It seems natural since there’s a wealthy of culture and history in the Silicon Valley.  I’ve been so inspired to design and pursue a project that helps my Evergreen Community, creating identity and stronger neighborhood relationships through Public Art and our shared history.  Life in Willow Glen required a Community and historical take on that rich, historic neighborhood and commercial district.  Creating a sense of place through a series of symbols and archived images has become my strong suit – with photogenic, selfie features being a close second.

So, what’s a girl to create that provides that sense of place without cramming the whole story in?  San Jose’s story is glorious.  If you’re a client and aren’t caught up on your history, the symbolism can be lost.  This client too needs artwork that appeals to the widest audience possible, so my nerdy tendencies are not going to win over an LA based owners group.Here’s what the rest of the world knows about San Jose: once orchards, now the Silicon Valley.  The above was provided to me by the client.  Armed with this knowledge, literally drawing the contrast and comparison of this past and this present was going to be critical.  I fell back on my second strength, photo murals, to create something that to me represents the present and future while physically engaging the crowd.

Here’s our first crack at it.  This color and message hit a cord with our Management group.  It was an overwhelmingly warm reaction.  This use of the first wall and its geometry in this psychedelic, colorful way fit like a glass slipper within the entire project, with other artists and patterns wrapping the Mall.  Creating the rest of the story that is cohesive with the Heart of Silicon Valley was going to have to rely on the technicolor style, because the pattern is really what represents our Tech Age.

The Valley of Heart’s Delight was how people became familiar with Santa Clara County originally.  Though simple, it started with a real early 1900’s photo from Monterey Road/Highway 101 orchards, at the City’s then boundary.  Evergreen was once a township bonded by farming syndicates and picking seasons.

Now, how do we acknowledge San Jose’s landscape, so opposed to its tech industry?  As you know, you know I love a pretty building.  If you’re visiting San Jose, you drive or walk around downtown to see pretty buildings.  If you work in San Jose, chances are you drive through, work in or make stops downtown all the time without appreciating where you are.  If you live in San Jose, you probably go to Sharks’ games, concerts, events or famers markets downtown and may not stop to smell the roses.  Regardless, the easiest way to speak or paint about this wide transition in San Jose’s history and timeline is evident in our architecture and City Planning.

Our skyline is unlike any other.  So, let’s represent downtown, because San Jose in itself is a work of Art.  Although it feels obvious, it will hit for the widest audience.  I’ve also got an affinity for these San Jose buildings.  Perhaps I’ve been warming up for this project without realizing it.

Nothing yet, though, acknowledged the specific geographic location of the project, Evergreen – the Southeastern pocket of San Jose nestled against golden hills, 8 miles outside of downtown.  With one wall left, how do we acknowledge this portion of San Jose that I am so fond of and hail from?  People know Evergreen by its rolling hillsides.  The Heart of San Jose acknowledges that what makes this City happen are all the people in it.  We are the blood pumping in the veins of the Silicon Valley.

Artistically, these are not symbolic or my signature, verbose style, but rather an opportunity to communicate concisely.  These large walls are all beautiful photo backdrops, as well as backdrops for concerts, plays, and Community events.  This psychedelic color allows each of us to cast our own experiences onto our City and draws all the pieces together.

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