Local artist creates conversation through murals

Christine Andersen,

If you’ve ever driven around Hayward on Mission Boulevard, you may have noticed beautiful and vivid murals adorning walls and structures. Many of these murals are the work of local artist Jean Bidwell.

Bidwell started out painting murals for her friends and family. She transitioned to painting murals for the city in 2009 as part of the Hayward Mural Project after she received a call from Stacy Bristow, the deputy director of Development Services for Hayward, who is in charge of the project.

“They asked if I could paint 11 utility boxes to see if I had what it took to become involved with the mural project,” said Bidwell, who has now painted around 23,000 square feet of property that includes three large walls and 50 utility boxes around Bay Area cities like Hayward and Oakland. Bidwell wants to use her creative talent to improve the streets of Hayward.

Bidwell isn’t the only one working on the mural project. Initially, there was a group of around five people, but the project has recently expanded. The city commissioned over a dozen artists last year, not including subcontractors and volunteers, according to Bristow.

Mural Project organizers initially required that participating artists be born, raised or educated in Hayward, but the project now accepts artists from all over, according to Bidwell. Each artist adds their own flair, which gives the different projects variation.

After Bidwell finished painting the utility boxes, Bristow asked her to do more paintings for the Mural Project, which she agreed to immediately.

“It wasn’t even about getting paid for a project,” said Bidwell. “It was just about being in the community and kind of like a giving back thing. And then they’re giving back to you, and it’s just this constant back and forth.”

The first large project Bidwell took on was for Deedee and Doug Ligebel, a couple that used to lived in Hayward, who commissioned her through the Mural Project. They took her out to the project site, a 12,000 square foot wall. Bidwell noticed that there were syringes lying around. The wall was located near the railroad tracks where the homeless often make camp.

“Not only did I understand another part of the community that saddened me intensely, but I ended up meeting a lot of people,” said Bidwell. “I didn’t realize the real deep meaning the mural project was presenting until that moment.”

That project took a total of ten months to complete with the help of a group of volunteers that were all 70 years old and older, who Bidwell met at a birthday party in her neighborhood. When she told them about the project, they all offered to help.

“I’d still be over there if it weren’t for them,” she said, crediting the volunteers for the mural’s quick completion.

The mural consisted of relevant places in Hayward. Members of the community made suggestions for 68 panels, which usually measure around 20 feet long and eight or nine feet high.

Throughout the painting process, she commonly takes suggestions on what to paint from people she has met within the community.

Bidwell is currently working up to eight hours a day painting a mural on a wall at the intersection of Industrial Parkway and Taylor Street that depicts the history of Hayward.

Bidwell started this mural six months ago and expects it to be completed in another eight to nine months.

The mural she’s working on is about the history of Hayward, but Bidwell has recently started adding dogs from the neighborhood to the paintings at the suggestion of a passerby.

“This guy stopped by and asked if I would put his dog on the walls,” said Bidwell. This gentleman had actually found the dog on that street. After this happened, people kept asking if she could add their pets. “It was a huge community effort,” said Bidwell.

The community conversation doesn’t stop there. As Bidwell painted a clock on a mural, she would shout out to people nearby, “What time does someone want it to be?” Someone would reply back with a time and she would add whatever they suggested to the clock.

According to Bidwell, graffiti has decreased by 93 percent within the city since the project started. Only once has one of Bidwell’s murals ever been tagged. Her mural at the train tracks near Grand Terrace Apartments was vandalized by a gang on Valentine’s Day in 2010.

“This was the first time something like that had happened to me, and I just took it so personally,” Bidwell said.

She and a couple of volunteers spent four hours cleaning the mural, and the vandals came back to watch from across the train tracks.

Bidwell also found out that one of the men she had become friends with over the course of her project was an original leader of the gang.

He knew nothing about these members tagging Bidwell’s mural, and promptly put a stop to any further vandalism from the gang.

“Now he comes to every single one of my projects and makes sure no one bothers me,” said Bidwell.

When asked if she has a favorite mural, Bidwell responded, “It’s not what you ended up with, it’s what you experienced while you were doing it.”

Bidwell has several other projects lined up, such as a multi-dimensional mural located at the Oakland Coliseum, and isn’t planning on stopping anytime soon. “I want to live my life knowing I won’t have any regrets,” she said.

“I think I’m an illustrator at heart and a storyteller.”