By Hannah Brandt
If you search Creative Fresno’s innovative and extensive Digital Mural Map of Fresno, Mauro Carrera’s Fulton Street work is called Universal Heart. The artist, who began making murals at age 16 in the Roosevelt School of the Arts mural program and later studied painting at CSU Fresno, says this mural is actually untitled. He likes that people have come up with different names for it, taking it into their hearts. Although he hadn’t heard this particular name until our interview, he is fond of “Universal Heart” because from the outset he envisioned depicting something universal.
Around the time he conceptualized the piece, a wall opened up at Fulton Street and East La Sierra Drive. Carrera says the owner gave him total artistic freedom. The muralist wanted to create an ambiguous figure where you couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman, illustrating male and female duality. “Originally, I planned to paint the figure with two braids, incorporating traditions from Native American and indigenous Mexican cultures, but decided on one braid and an afro to make a subtle comment on race in America.”
Carrera often ponders what he calls “public practice” and how to bring art into the public space. He focuses on murals because that’s what he is drawn to. “The overall idea of this piece is uniting people through what is universal to all of us rather than what divides us.” He had different inspirations and images in mind while working on it. His work is usually a collaboration with other local artists and “Universal Heart” was done in August and September of 2016. He says he got a lot of support from people in the Tower District including people who stopped by to see it helping him fill in the color.
Although the Fulton Street mural has received overwhelming praise, including an ArtHop presentation at its unveiling, when he was putting the final touches on it someone tagged it. He says, “It happens, I don’t get infuriated about it. It’s something that happens with street art. I just went back and erased it.” He thought maybe it was a political reaction to the content and found it interesting that the person put a question mark in the center where the spark is revealed in the figure’s heart. “I kind of liked that addition actually.”
Carrera himself is no stranger to politics. He says he likes to “go past the mural itself and be politically engaged… In addition to challenging people’s spirituality, it is important for me to represent common folk, the workers, especially those in the Central Valley.” Born in Veracruz, Mexico, the Mexican immigrant experience is closest to his heart. Carrera draws inspiration from WWII era Social Realist muralists David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco who all represented the history of Mexico through art.
He says these legendary painters created a period of rich history when they were commissioned by the government to create large works of public art. He and his fellow muralists active in Fresno today are following in their footsteps and creating a rich legacy here in the Valley. Right now, Carrera is working on a mural entitled No Human Being is Illegal in the Calwa area where he grew up and continues to live. It is not done yet but the portrait is already up at Orange and Butler Ave. Another project launching in the new year will be a four-story mural on the CMAC building downtown. It will focus on the literary arts in the Central Valley. It will be the biggest mural the artist has ever done.
Carrera is also teaching art at Chowchilla Men’s Prison. They are on their second mural there where he says there is a lot of talent. “We exchange methods and the inmates share their non-traditional techniques since they can only use what they can get their hands on.” He is also traveling periodically to Bakersfield, doing workshops with elementary school kids through a migrant art program. “Their parents, who are usually field workers get involved a lot of times, too. For many, it is the first time they’ve gotten to paint like that.”
If he sounds busy, that’s because he is. If you walk or even drive around Fresno’s Tower District and the Mural District downtown, you have likely seen at least a few of his many murals. His work comes from spontaneous programs, projects that are self-funded, and sponsorships. “Continuing to get work comes from putting out a lot of work.” He often works in collaboration with other artists from the Barrio Art Collective, which he describes as a multimedia music and arts collective that functions as the artistic branch of the Fresno Brown Berets.
In 2015, Carrera traveled to Mexico with a group from the Central Valley, including former Community Alliance editor, Ernesto Saavedra (see the September 2015 cover story at fresnoalliance.com). This year, he is planning to do another mural trip “to a different country where there’s not much art, probably somewhere else in Latin America.” He is also in the process of setting up murals to work with students at Yosemite Middle school and Madera South High School. “That is developing that right now so hopefully we can get that together.”
The art scene here is thriving and shows no signs of slowing down due to its close-knit creative community. Carrera has a sobering note about it, as well. After the 36 deaths in the Oakland Fire at an art space known as the Ghost Ship, the Fresno Fire Department went to a local warehouse art space and is considering shutting down one called the Art House on Calaveras and H Street. It was started by four artists and the loss would be a blow to the community. Over roughly five years, Carrera says the art collective had built it up with studios, events, and a growing group of people engaging in art there.
His inspirations always come back to Calwa. This month is the second annual Calwa Park graffiti festival known as the Bizarre Arts Festival. Graffiti artists come from all over the state to participate in something that started out just in the neighborhood. Carrera says “This is where I developed as an artist, growing up. There is a wall there that they have allowed artists to paint on. They let us just practice. It’s very cool that we could do that… In the ‘90’s the ICE raids going on in Calwa, gang violence, and police interference pushed me to be politically engaged for people just trying to work, just trying to survive.”
Hannah Brandt is the editor of Community Alliance newspaper. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @HannahBP2. Follow the paper on Facebook at Community Alliance Newspaper and on Twitter and Instagram @fresnoalliance.