Local artist captures Hayward diversity in mural paintings

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

When the sun sets over the Hayward Hills, the majority of people head home from work, cook dinner and settle in for the night, but not artist Andrew Kong Knight.

At nightfall, the Hayward native can often be found dressed in his painting “uniform,” consisting of a sun visor, headphones and paint-spattered clothes perched precariously 30-40 feet high on scaffolding while he transforms the side of an ordinary building into a work of art.

Knight sometimes works through the night, illuminated by artificial light, to create the unique murals that adorn utility boxes and the sides of movie theaters throughout Hayward.

“I guess it’s my obsessive compulsive disorder,” joked Knight. “In the mural world there’s not as many people out at night, it’s more peaceful and it’s quieter and I can really go in my zone.”

Knight, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has established himself as an esteemed artist in the Bay Area. When he’s not teaching art at Hayward High School, a position he has held for the past 20 years, he’s painting murals on commission with the city’s Mural Art Program, which commissioned over a dozen artists last year, not including subcontractors and volunteers.

Knight has produced an estimated 50 commissioned pieces for the city of Hayward in the past eight years. One of his most recent creations is the “Faces of Hayward” series, comprised of 25 individual mural portraits that feature ordinary people who live and work in Hayward. The pieces are scattered throughout the city.

Stacey Bristow, deputy director of development services for the city of Hayward, said that the project launched in April 2009 with the goal of discouraging graffiti vandalism in Hayward. Bristow shared that there is an underground respect for art, and the murals have already made a difference. Roughly 98 percent of the time murals are installed, they aren’t tagged.

Historically, a federal grant and redevelopment funds covered the program; however, funding sources are changing and the city has been funding them through a variety of resources, including capital projects, grants and sales tax measures. The program is looking to transition to a primarily grant-based funding system in the future.

There are roughly 160 murals in Hayward, which equals 150,000 square feet of art, according to Bristow. The Mural Project states that commercial buildings, schools, utility boxes, fire hydrants, benches, underpasses and sidewalk fixtures are fair game.

The largest mural in the “Faces of Hayward” series, titled “One Love, One Family: Faces of Hayward, CA,” located next to Firestone Tires at the corner of Fletcher Ln., facing Mission Blvd., features 17 portraits. He calls it “the mother,” or headquarters of the series.

Each portrait is strikingly unique and true to the individual, yet they all have something in common: each subject has a strong connection to Hayward and embodies diversity through their ages, genders and ethnicities.

Hayward is the sixth largest city in the Bay Area, with 150,000 residents, according to City of Hayward data. Hayward was ranked the second most racially and ethnically diverse city in the U.S. by the Census Bureau in 2005 and has maintained this reputation over the past decade, a classification that Knight finds inspirational.

Knight visits local organizations and events, and consults his students for suggestions when looking for subjects for the portrait series. He focuses on choosing people of different ages, genders and ethnicities to represent the city’s rich culture. Knight likens the process to that of a casting director in a movie. He prefers to meet his subjects in person so he can get to know their personalities firsthand, which is reflected in his art. He works primarily off of photographs, rather than in-person sittings.

“I try to capture their spirit,” he said. “I try to capture a certain joy in everyone. You know like when someone smiles, you smile; when someone laughs, you laugh.” Knight hopes to inspire positive feelings in those who view his art.

Knight also considers his pieces to be education tools and conversation starters. For example, the 3,500 square feet. “Hayward Gateway Mural,” located at Foothill Blvd. and City Center Dr. across from the abandoned Mervyn’s building, transports viewers into the lesser-seen rolling hills and grassy marshlands of the city. This is the largest mural in Hayward and was Knight’s first. It took him a year to complete.

The 1920s art deco style “Hayward Meets Hollywood” mural adorning the Cinema Place Parking Structure at the corner of Foothill Blvd and C St. has also sparked curiosity about some of the buildings that appear in the background of the painting, such as the All Saints Church and the new and old city halls.

An extensive process accompanies each mural. It includes laying base colors, drawing out designs, painting and varnishing. The painting alone can take as little as a day and as long as a week and the entire thing can take years to fully complete.

Knight works primarily with acrylic or oil paints and his style is often monochromatic. He shared that the use of one tone is not only easier to paint, but it also serves as a social statement. “It doesn’t matter what color we are, I’ll paint you in green or blue,” said Knight. Sepia paintings are his favorite because they look rich, like an old photograph, and emit a golden hue.

Knight says that placement is another important element of his creations: the style of mural should speak to the architecture around it. “I think you can’t help it as an artist–you can’t help but have a style,” he said. “If you have everyone in a room drawing an apple, everyone’s gonna draw it their own way.”

Knight doesn’t shy from dipping his toes into different art mediums. He is currently working on his first tile mosaic — a 6-foot piece — with students from Hayward High at the Highland Villas situated just behind the East Bay campus on Hayward Blvd.

The mosaic will feature icons specific to Hayward, like the Hayward water tower and Hayward/San Mateo Bridge, oak trees, the Hayward Hills and a California poppy as the focal point, Knight shared. The official unveiling of the finished piece will take place on Oct. 22 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the housing complex. “I try to do stuff that’s important for our community that has some kind of message or meaning to it,” said Knight.