This first time meeting the muralist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith in person was almost an accident. Driving along the Jefferson Underpass in Redwood City, I noticed major progress on the Racial Equity Mural and felt a surge of pride at serving on the Steering Committee that conducted dozens of Zooms in the 18 months it took us to vet applicant artists, gather community input, and select and contract with Rachel.
Then I noticed why the mural was taking such shape: Rachel in full swing on the underpass, working furiously, paintbrushes flying, in the throes of the passion that fuels her purpose. I pulled into the strip mall where her 4,700-square-foot wall ended and waved at her from behind the barrier.
She walked over, and I introduced myself, not expecting she would recognize or remember me from group Zooms with our committee. “I know who you are,” she said, laughing.
“The work looks amazing,” I said. “Obviously we liked your renderings, but to see this at larger- than-life-size instead of on a computer screen…I’m so glad we chose you to do this mural.”
“Me, too,” Rachel answered, laughing again. We talked process, planning, technique, and timing, all in just a few minutes. My steering committee work had landed me on a new Arts Advisory Work Group. I had to get to that first meeting I was driving to, and I did not want to keep Rachel from her work. The deeper, doper conversations about “race” — and all that means and all it doesn’t — would have to wait.
We got to some of that about 10 days later, when Rachel hosted Community Paint Day on the underpass. The connections and ideas spilled as we shared common interests in Comrade Sisters and the Women of the Black Panther Party Mural that Rachel had painted on the side of Jil Vest’s house.
Again, we couldn’t talk long. Volunteers of all ages, sizes, and abilities arrived for their painting shifts and needed Rachel’s direction. Then there were the arts commissioners, the politicians, the press, and some random folks ignoring the barricades.
Rachel engaged anyone and everyone who wondered at her work. She somehow simultaneously kept painting, directing her crew, and graciously greeting and training volunteers. Despite the high-stakes possibility that an errant or misguided volunteer could ruin her work, Rachel placed her faith in even the least artistic people.
Community Paint Day energized this stretch of Redwood City. Drivers on the underpass honked and slowed their roll to take in the activity. People shot photos from across the street, where their cameras could capture panoramas of the mural and reveal its narrative arc, in contrast to what you could see while standing on the sidewalk right next to the mural.
Everyone seemed joyous and united, rallying around this art. Just witness the triumphant looks on our faces in our team photo.
At the time, Community Paint Day felt like the culmination of a year-and-a-half of hard work conducted almost entirely via Zoom. But we reached an even higher peak a few weeks later, when the city held its official Racial Equity Mural Celebration.
That event held extra meaning, because my daughter, Eleni, joined us. The site of our Celebration was just a block or so from the start of the group bike ride she was leading for Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. She met my committee colleagues, and we shared our mutual pride in a day of multi-generational social impact work.
The Celebration included public speeches that acknowledged the project originating as a response to the murder of George Floyd and whatever racial reckoning has followed. The event also was a chance to learn from Gregg Castro, representing the Ramaytush Ohlone, on whose land we were standing.
It was a chance to hear Rachel’s perspective, especially regarding the internal work entailed in seeking racial equity and social justice.
It was a chance to be publicly recognized for our work.
It was a chance to take a private tour of the mural, where Rachel led us further into her art.
It was a chance for meaningful multi-lateral private conversations that will inform our future work, individually and collectively, toward Racial Equity.