This week, we are giving the spotlight to Kristen Kong, an illustrator, muralist, storyteller, and El Cerrito local! You may have seen some of her recent work outside of Fat Apples and Prospect Sierra. These murals focus on El Cerrito's diverse history, social justice, sustainability, and why this is such a wonderful place to live!
Where Did Your Art Career Begin and How Did You Get Involved With Painting Murals Throughout El Cerrito, as Well as Illustrating?
I went to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and when I graduated, I had a difficult time making ends meet. I went into graphic design for about 15 years.
During the pandemic, I lost my tech job and had to take a hard look at what made me happy as a creative person. I became a member of the El Cerrito Art Association and really threw myself into making illustration and painting my main priority. Through the ECAA, I found out about a call for artists to paint 3 utility boxes around El Cerrito. I applied for and was awarded 2 of them.
How Did You Come Up With Your Ideas for the Paintings Outside of Fat Apples and Prospect Sierra School? And Where Do You Draw Your Inspiration From?
The call for artists put an emphasis on sustainability and social justice and I let that lead the content of the murals. I wanted the utility box near Fat Apples to be social justice themed because it got a lot of foot traffic. I drew inspiration from those educational panels that you see at east bay parks. They're approachable and create a deeper sense of awareness of the history and surroundings of the space you are in. Howard Zinn's "A People's History..." and "El Cerrito" put out by the El Cerrito Historical Society were also huge in shaping the content. I came up with a list of El Cerrito people of color who were movers and shakers. The sketches came together with all of that stuff in mind.
For the box near Prospect Sierra, I knew I wanted to do a mural that wrapped around the entire box as one long painting and I've always been drawn to artists that have a more graphic style as opposed to a realistic style. Graphic illustration is arresting and can be mind-bending in a way that speaks to the graphic designer in me.
Are There Any Challenges That You've Faced When Painting Public Murals?
Oh yes. The biggest challenges have been cars and the sun. For one mural, the sidewalk was so skinny that my art assistant, Della Watson and I were afraid we'd get hit by a car. Luckily, we reached out to a couple of people and they helped us put up barriers for that side of the street.
I thought working outside all the time would be similar to the end of the movie "Office Space", where I'd enjoy being in the sun all day. Turns out it's pretty exhausting. I made a strange Rube Goldberg-Esque contraption out of lawn chairs, duct tape, and beach umbrellas but it kept flopping over and hitting us in the face. Della brought her collapsible standing umbrella from her house and I've been using it ever since. Thanks, Della!
Do You Ever Have Anyone From the Community Help You With Your Painting?
I'm currently working on a mural for a private client, Sherry Drobner of Sherry's Bagels on Instagram. It's a tribute to her husband who recently passed. Sherry wanted to participate in the painting process and it's been lovely.
What is Your Favorite Part About Living in El Cerrito?
There's no place quite like it. El Cerrito has that lovely small-town vibe. It's small enough to get around on a bike and we meet wonderful, kind folks everywhere we go. When I was working on the utility boxes, I met more friendly faces in those 1.5 months than I had in the last 7 years. Everyone from young kids to city council members to teachers walked by and honked and said hello. They showered us with compliments and it made me feel like painting murals was encouraged by the community.
Do You Have Any Exciting Projects You Are Currently Working on or Will Be Working on in the Future?
I am working on that mural for my private client. Other than that, I've been pitching a big project at an elementary school that I'm really excited about but nothing has officially been approved.