WATSONVILLE—Watsonville artist Guillermo Aranda sat in his second-floor studio on West Lake Avenue last week working on a new painting of a heron. The unfinished work was spread out on a table covered with various paints, sketches and several drafts of birds in flight—one part of a painstaking, but rewarding artistic process.
“I wanted to get it in flight, with the beautiful motion in the wings,” he said. “It’s not easy; you have to keep coming back to it and see it in different ways.”
With more than 80 murals splashed across walls in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and in Southern California, Aranda, 75, — who goes by Yermo — is a household name around the Pajaro Valley. His murals, for decades, have graced scores of schools, businesses and the like. His art is commonly the result of teams of area students rolling up their sleeves and become a part of the artwork. Kids are even drawn into the drafting process, sharing their ideas for what goes into the murals that commonly last years, most times into those students’ adulthoods.
Born in National City near San Diego, Aranda said he studied art at San Diego City College and San Diego State. He said everything changed for him when he was apprenticing with Mexican muralist, Gilberto Ramirez, in 1969.
“Up until then art for me — and what we were studying — was what I call office art, studio art and things for the living room walls — small canvases inside frames,” he said. “When the idea of painting a mural was introduced to me, my world changed; my whole concept of art exploded.”
Aranda said he took a long journey through Mexico and drove through places like San Miguel Allende, Mexico City and Guadalajara, where he got to embrace the works of famed artist Jose Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and others.
Aranda’s artwork often delves into old myths and legends and blends imagery of indigenous ancestry with modern world themes. He often incorporates images of indigenous people and their surroundings of the past in Mexico and the U.S., including eagles, woven blankets, Aztecs, jaguars, drums and umpteen spiritual symbols. Coming from a family of musicians, painters and craftsmen, Aranda said he feels fortunate to have been tangled up in so many community art projects and to see his works survive decades.
In San Diego, around 1973, Aranda was instrumental in initiating a series of giant outdoor murals in Logan Heights in Chicano Park, which has been designated as a federal historic site.
“I was lucky to be part of a movement back then to develop the Cultural Center in Balboa Park,” Aranda said. “The work and things that came out of the Cultural Center led to the murals at Chicano Park.”
The mural work there and other projects have led to a sweeping exhibit currently being shown at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park called “Welcome to the Mix.” It features the histories of over 50 locals, along with photos in hopes of showing how they influenced history in their community.
“It felt good to be recognized with this show,” Aranda said. “I have become very interested in the people and their stories that are represented there.”
Over the years, Aranda has been commissioned and sponsored by a host of agencies and organizations, including the California Arts Council, Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County, Santa Cruz County Arts Commission, Santa Cruz County Office of Education, Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, Mexican American Community Services Agency of San Jose and the City of San Diego.
On reflecting on the wealth of murals he has helped create, Aranda said, “I learned that I just wasn’t looking at canvases — I was looking at walls. Through these murals, I’m connecting with the community and students and having impact on their lives.”