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SLO unveils mural on back of Fremont Theater—the largest public arts project in city history 

The Fremont Theater's exposed back wall lines Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo, its bland 80-foot-long expanse doing little over the years to compete with its colorful, iconic entrance on Monterey Street.

click to enlarge HISTORIC MURAL Artist Maria Molteni (left) and SLO Museum of Art's Emma Saperstein stand in front of Molteni's new mural on the back side of the Fremont Theater. It's the largest public art project in city history. - PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo By Peter Johnson
  • HISTORIC MURAL Artist Maria Molteni (left) and SLO Museum of Art's Emma Saperstein stand in front of Molteni's new mural on the back side of the Fremont Theater. It's the largest public art project in city history.

But that's changing in a big way with the city of SLO's largest public art project in history.

Bright blues, reds, greens, and purples explode off the wall now as Boston-based artist Maria Molteni puts the finishing touches on their (Molteni prefers they/their pronouns) new mural that will adorn not just the Fremont, but a side of the brick building that hosts Woodstock's Pizza.

"I don't really leave white. It's not my jam," Molteni says with a laugh on Nov. 5, gazing up at the vibrant, nearly finished murals.

The pieces are the largest that Molteni, who's known nationally for their work painting outdoor basketball courts, has ever done.

"I've painted walls before, but not nearly to this scale," Molteni says. "It's a big first for me in a few ways."

SLO's Seven Sisters peaks, painted side by side using abstract curves, shapes, and ever-so-slight gradations of colors, pop off the backside of the Fremont.

"I like to do as a much research as I can, to really get into a place, and make something that will be meaningful to me and the community," Molteni explains. "The Seven Sisters thing popped up pretty immediately."

Molteni adds that they like to intermix local features, like the morros, with larger, universal concepts. So these murals include references to Greek mythology, as there's a star constellation called The Seven Sisters, named after the Pleiades sisters.

"The Greeks used the Pleiades to help them navigate," Molteni says. "It's easy to spot and it's written about in so many faiths and cultures around the world. I didn't conflate them, but I'm sort of playing with both of them at the same time."

The mural on the Woodstock's building leans into that nautical theme, depicting a large wood ship with seven sails.

Molteni has spent the past month in town to paint the murals—as invited by the SLO Museum of Art (SLOMA), which recently inked an agreement with the city to oversee a variety of SLO public art projects over the next two years.

SLOMA's projects, other than the Fremont mural, include the Mamma Mobius lawn sculpture next to the museum, a brand-new mural on the Marsh Street bridge done by local artists Amy McKay, Missy Reitner-Cameron, and Neal Breton, and future pieces in the works at local traffic roundabouts and bike paths.

"We're thrilled to be doing it," SLOMA Executive Director Leann Standish told New Times, "because it allows us to sort of enhance our mission by bringing art to the community beyond our four walls, especially during COVID. We have these projects and relationships with artists and dreams we want to see realized."

SLOMA's chief curator, Emma Saperstein, was responsible for recruiting Molteni for the Fremont murals. Saperstein said she's admired their work for a long time and at first, Saperstein planned to have Molteni paint a local basketball court. But given the city's plans to renovate parks in upcoming years, the project vision shifted to the Fremont wall.

Molteni said they're having a blast on the project, and passersby are giving great feedback. Saperstein, Molteni, and others working on the murals offered their thanks to both the Fremont and Woodstock's for helping accommodate their work on the ambitious murals. The parking lot by the wall is used by both companies for myriad purposes, including to prepare for concerts.

"It's inconvenient to have a bunch of lifts and equipment and people coming out," Saperstein said. "In the end it's really just about managing relationships."

With Molteni's work wrapping up on Nov. 18, city officials say they're thrilled with the outcome.

"Their work is just phenomenal. It's so vibrant and revitalizes that section of downtown," said Whitney Szentesi, communications manager for SLO city. "When you look at [the Fremont] from the front side, it's beautiful and really stands apart, but on the back side it was just pretty drab. ... It's just pretty cool and unique, nothing we've ever seen in SLO before."

Fast fact

The SLO Roll Community Initiative is celebrating its one-year anniversary with two free roller-skating parties in November. The first was in Atascadero on Nov. 6 and the second is on Nov. 20 at Santa Rosa Park in SLO from 5 to 7 p.m., with all ages welcome. Visit thesloroll.com for more information. Δ

Correction: This article was updated to correct the spelling of artist Amy McKay's name and include Marsh Street mural artists Missy Reitner-Cameron, and Neal Breton.

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson wrote this week's Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to strokes@newtimesslo.com.

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