A public art project begun over three years ago is finally coming to fruition.
Artist Michael O’Kelly’s memorial mural, originally commissioned in 2015 by the city of Ventura to commemorate its 2016 sesquicentennial (the 150th anniversary since the city was incorporated), was held up by a variety of delays: plan changes, the sometimes slow pace of city approvals, complications inherent in any large-scale public project and even the weather.
The artwork’s location also proved to be an issue. Originally slated for a spot on the Eastside, the mural eventually landed in Downtown Ventura in front of the mission, which, as both an archeologically and historically important area, meant that a new set of regulatory concerns had to be addressed. When an old wall and bone fragments were unearthed in 2017 at the proposed site for the mural, extensive documentation and monitoring by a Chumash representative became necessary, and the construction permits had to be amended. (The VCReporter covered this in depth in a May 10, 2017, article, “Not Easy to Build a Wall.”)
Nevertheless, through all of these trials and tribulations, the project endured. And now that it has finally cleared all the hurdles, installation has begun.
In mid-April, O’Kelly and his team started putting in place the pieces that will make up the 48-by-9-1/2-feet framed mural depicting 150 years in the history of Ventura. Over 100 ceramic tiles showcase the people, landmarks and scenes (both old and new) that have helped make the coastal city what it is today. Chumash culture, the San Buenaventura Mission, agriculture, the railroad, surf culture, artists, musicians, founding families and much more are all represented. It’s a massive achievement, and will undoubtedly become one of Ventura’s most recognizable landmarks, along with the mission, the courthouse and the pier.
The Ventura Historic Mural will formally be unveiled to the public on Sunday, May 6, at 5 p.m. in front of the mission on Main Street between Palm Street and Ventura Avenue. (A private reception for donors and city officials will be held earlier in the day.)
While O’Kelly jokes that at least his mural has taken less time to see completion than Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona (which was started in 1882 and is expected to be completed in 2026), he also recognizes that the years-long delay has allowed him to alter the design to capture some momentous events, in both his personal life and that of the city.
One was the passing of his son in March 2017. While O’Kelly’s initial grief made him not even want to continue the project, he eventually came to see the mural as a way to remember and honor his son. “I modified it to have it become a legacy and memorial for my boy,” he explains. “I found ways to put him in there without being over the top. . . . His inspiration kept the whole thing going over the last year.”
And of course, the Thomas Fire — aptly described by O’Kelly as “one of the biggest things that’s ever happened in this area” — plays a large role now as well. Tiles depicting the flames and a phoenix rising from the ashes will attest to what the city has been through, and survived. A lasting memorial commemorating not just Ventura’s history but its sense of community as well.
“It has definitely evolved,” the Ventura artist says of his design. “It’s a better mural now. So sometimes it works out.”
The Ventura Historic Mural will be unveiled on Sunday, May 6, at 5 p.m. in front of Mission San Buenaventura, 211 E. Main St., Ventura. For more information, visit the Ventura Historic Mural on Facebook.