Montclair train mural project nearing end of the line
By Lou Fancher
Coming upon the trompe l’oeil mural that is the centerpiece of Montclair Village’s long-awaited Railroad Trestle Mural Project, visitors will be astonished.
What was formerly a flat, nondescript, concrete wall on Mountain Boulevard is becoming a public work of art, a life-size optical illusion, and specifically a painting by muralist John Pugh, whose mastery of the “fool-the-eye” technique yields a 3-D rendition of a historic electric rail car. It is reminiscent of an era from 1913 to 1957, when the Sacramento Northern Short Line Railroad swept through the village on a trestle bridge to a station farther up the line. The passage of time has left only the bridge’s concrete foundation wall.
In 2014 the Montclair Neighborhood Council (then the Montclair Safety & Improvement Council) joined forces with the Oakland Public Art Advisory Committee and raised funds to support the project with the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation as its 501(c)3 sponsor.
“I was a founding member of MSIC back in 2002 and served as chair and vice chair for over seven years,” says mural project organizer Jill Broadhurst. “During this time, under the beautification committee, MSIC took up the challenge of our first public community improvement project: Short Line Pocket Park at Thornhill/Moraga.
“OPAAC was the city-affiliated group that formalized and approved city art projects. Josh Shaw and I provided all the necessary paperwork and presented the concept on behalf of the Mountain Boulevard Trestle Mural Committee, an independent volunteer trio that managed and fundraised for the mural.”
Broadhurst, a Montclair resident since 2002, says an overall appreciation of the area’s history and belief that public art unites and energizes a community have been the primary motivators for the many volunteers and community members involved in the high-visibility project.
“The mural’s location is on a very busy street and walkway. There are two schools close by and all the regular business of the day. We hope it causes residents to ask questions about the rich past in our community, to make that connection between this big wall they pass daily and what its purpose once served.”
People viewing the mural will see what appears to be a historic train car emerging from behind a large rectangular pillar. Overhanging foliage and an engineer visible in the front window add realistic depth and human dimension. Viewers amazed at the optical illusion might experience a tinge of nostalgia for a bygone era or recall their own past train rides.
Artist Pugh, now based in Ashland, Oregon, has deep ties to the East Bay. From age 5, he and his family lived in Walnut Creek. In school, he excelled at math but thought it was dry and found rich reward as an artist. He studied fine art at San Jose State and Chico State universities and in college dabbled in filmmaking that he calls “art that isn’t stationary.”
Combining his math and painting skills, an interest in moving pictures and architecture, it seems inevitable that Pugh eventually gravitated to the trompe l’oeil-style artwork that causes him to leave his imprint in public art and private commissions in places around the world, including Florida, New York, California, Mexico, Taiwan and New Zealand.
“A spiral staircase painted in 3-D and viewed from a certain perspective is simple geometry,” says Pugh, suggesting mathematic formulas where other people see miracles.
Pugh’s mural process begins with extensive research about a location’s history, the objects or people depicted and the communities who lived and/or live in proximity to each project. In his studio, he makes numerous drawings before projecting the final drawing onto large canvases and using acrylic paints to render the image.
A glaze applied and allowed to dry on scaffolding is the final step before the enormous canvases are rolled up and taken to locations to be pasted with acrylic gel onto walls or flat surfaces. The method, he says, is far more permanent than painting directly on a wall.
“It will be waterproof and curve into the wall when I’m hanging it. Then I’ll paint the illusion of the wall to give it depth,” Pugh says of the Montclair mural.
Most poignant of all will be the image of his late, identical twin brother, Howard Pugh, who lived in Hayward and passed away unexpectedly.
“His last day alive, he hiked nearby, in Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve. There’s the historical element to the mural and then this secondary story of honoring my brother. I’m definitely having sharp moments of grief. This is an opportunity to pay tribute to him and his family.”
The realistic portrait of his brother is found in the engineer seated in the cab. A version of his brother’s wife, he says, will be among the final touches added as the mural is completed. In his mind, he says the train is headed to “this mystical station of the past that no longer exists. So that connects to my brother.”
He hopes the mural causes people to not stop their response at the door of remarkable illusion, but to wonder, “Where is this train headed, and is there a mysterious story about where it came from?”
Pugh says public art offers a community pride of place and humanistic expression without an alienating political or commercial agenda.
“It’s an outdoor gallery and accessible to 100% of the people who come near it. It’s meant for people who ache for community, for real human experience. Public art has layers of heritage that sink roots into the community.”
Broadhurst expresses committee members’ appreciation for Pugh’s craft and his “excited, capable and committed” attitude throughout the beautification project. The process has required many years and incredible participation. As it reaches the final stages to fruition, it’s fair to say Montclair Village’s train has finally reached the station.