Aaron Glasson’s Ocean Beach mural is a conversation starter
In an Ocean Beach parking lot, four women perch in a canoe, braving the unknown waters. Two of them face ahead, paddling forward. The other two faces gaze behind; one clutches a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, the other grips a flag, her head obscured under a large scarf.
It’s unclear how this group of women — ranging in race and age — ended up on this canoe, or where they’re going. But their origin story starts at Little Lion Cafe, an eatery on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.
Little Lion co-owners and sisters Jacqueline and Anne-Marie Coulon were interested in adding color to their cafe’s exterior wall, but didn’t have the resources ... until the pandemic.
“We always wanted to do a mural but the shutdown gave us the time to actually plan, raise money and execute the vision — plus the dark year we all had felt like an extra need for art,” Jacqueline said.
In October 2020, the sisters created a GoFundMe campaign and asked for the community’s support in funding the mural. In just one day, the campaign raised $4,530 of its $5,000 goal.
“We were blown away by how quickly we raised the money we needed,” Jacqueline said. “Aaron (Glasson) took a significant pay cut because (he) wanted to do the project and be accommodating. After 24 hours we hadn’t reached our full goal but made enough to cover his expenses so we closed the fundraising then.”
They commissioned Aaron Glasson, one of their customers, to paint the piece. Glasson, a multi-disciplinary artist from New Zealand, moved to OB about five years ago and frequented Little Lion Cafe before the pandemic.
“I had a beautiful experience painting the mural … it was really cool painting a few blocks from my house and meeting people I’ve never met before from the neighborhood,” Glasson said.
“A lot of people came and talked to me (while painting) ... a lot of distractions, but in a good way,” he continued, laughing. “I connected with people who I still call friends who I never met before, local people who have lived there forever to houseless people who live in the neighborhood, so that was cool.”
To create the mural, which took approximately two weeks, Glasson utilized a projector and used standard house paint.
He chose to depict four of his female friends — three from San Diego — in his design. Rather than stage a group photoshoot, he took separate pictures of each woman and used those images for reference when sketching. He placed them all in a long canoe, which is positioned on a reflective, greyish ocean that blends into the cafe’s asphalt parking lot.
“We wanted the ‘message’ to be one of hope and love in a general sense — we’ve always felt Ocean Beach to be a beacon for taking in marginalized personalities with open arms and provided an accepting sanctuary for everyone — from there Aaron had creative freedom for the actual subject matter,” Coulon continued.
Two of the women featured in the mural are Stephanie and Celeste Byers, a mother and daughter from Ocean Beach.
Celeste, who identifies as Chinese-American, said she was surprised by the mural’s theme of diversity. The 31-year-old estimates that her family is one of just three Asian families that she knows in the area.
“It’s interesting to ask for a diverse mural because I didn’t grow up in a diverse environment; I grew up with white people,” said Celeste, who recently moved to Golden Hill after more than 20 years in OB.
“I love Aaron’s idea of including diversity, and I think that just needs to be talked about more and brought to the attention of the public,” Stephanie said, adding that Glasson is “always so thoughtful about those topics.”
“I feel really honored and special that he included me,” she continued.
Celeste noted that she enjoys seeing her mother — who moved to the area from San Francisco in 1983 — represented in the neighborhood.
“It is really cool seeing my mom on a mural, and it’s cool seeing her in a canoe, because I grew up with her taking me canoeing,” Celeste said.
Glasson’s idea for the canoe was derived from a photograph he took in Northern California last summer, when he and a few friends found an abandoned canoe on a lake. The photograph was taken at the height of the 2020 wildfires, resulting in a gold- and pink-hued sky.
After taking the picture, Glasson knew he wanted to use it as a reference for a future painting, and Little Lion proved to be the perfect fit.
“The composition of that wall dictates that it needs something long and skinny, so that’s how I came to the canoe,” he said. “I immediately thought of that photograph.”
Along with sketching in locals Celeste and Stephanie, Glasson tied the painting to the neighborhood by placing the canoe in the ocean, along with adding a dog and seagull on board.
“Being in Ocean Beach, I wanted to do something that was reflective of that environment and the ocean — but it’s kind of hard to do ocean murals and not have them be corny,” Glasson said.
When asked what he hopes observers take from from the mural, Glasson shies away from the question: “I generally try not to state what my murals are about ... I want people to have their own interpretation of it and I don’t want to dictate it.”
Celeste observes something ominous — but hopeful — about the mural, noting the wildfire-stricken sky coupled with the calm, sunset sheen of the water.
“It doesn’t have an obvious beauty to it, but it has this subtle, maybe darker, real beauty,” Celeste said.
For Stephanie, the mural’s theme of diversity takes center stage. She appreciates “seeing different colors of people” in the painting, as well as the representation of women.
“It just makes you think about other people, and that maybe we should just be kinder to people — we’re all in the same boat,” Stephanie said.
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