Muralist Dan Fontes Paints Large
The muralist likes how his work brings people together and hopes his art makes the world a better place.
Dan Fontes is one of the East Bay's best-known muralists, whose colorful work appears on many public and private spaces in the East Bay and beyond.
Photo of Fontes by Lance Yamamoto; mural photos by Dan Fontes
Alameda muralist Dan Fontes likes the way his work brings people together. Born in Oakland in 1958 at Jackson-Lake Hospital, Fontes is a real Bay Area native. He grew up near the Grand Lake Theatre attending St. Leo’s on Piedmont Avenue, St. Joseph’s in Alameda, and Skyline and Piedmont high schools. After graduating, he attended Merritt College then transferred to Cal State Hayward, completing his BFA with honors in 1981. He’s found a home in live/work spaces in Oakland for decades and took up residence in a houseboat in Sausalito for five years.
While Fontes was a student at Cal State, his painting teacher, Lew Carson, suggested using a classroom wall as a canvas to paint a large reproduction of Fernand Leger’s Three Women on Bicycle. He noticed how the painting brought people together who didn’t normally talk to one another and was instantly hooked on the medium of mural painting. “In particular, I enjoy seeing the faces of people who don’t speak English and how the murals affect them, allowing a sort of communication of ideas despite the language barrier,” Fontes said.
Tired of the visual cliches and vocabulary born in the crucible of the 1960s activism era of mural making, Fontes is aligned with the principles but seeks his own expression. His murals encompass a desire to promote the humanities and showcase diversity, to share his deep interest in history especially of the Bay Area, and to inspire environmental awareness. He also aims to counter blight and the visual bleakness and monotony of the city by using a palette of bright, intense color and imagery that resonates. His artistic guideposts include members of the Bay Area photo-realist community including Robert Bechtle and Richard McLean. He also counts Wayne Thiebaud, Chuck Close, Mel Ramos, and, more historically, Frederic Edwin Church of the Hudson River School and the Pre-Raphaelites as influences.
But the creation of a mural isn’t all about narrative and paint. “Muralists are a little different than other artists. Most people don’t know about the administrative burden. I’d say 60 percent of my time is consumed by RFQ/RFP applications, grant requests, responding to clients, writing draft budgets, or making written proposals,” Fontes said. When it is time to put brush to pigment, Fontes uses the warehouse of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, a 44,000-square-foot space at 1680 Viking St. on the old Naval Air Station Alameda base. There he creates large-scale works on canvas panels that are later mounted on-site. By keeping his artwork accessible, he hopes people will tap into their own experience in ways that are both healing and enjoyable. “I try to tailor fit each piece to its surroundings and enjoy the process of ‘listening’ to the locations for clues,” Fontes said. He also discusses ideas with the residents who inhabit the particular neighborhood of each mural. While gathering this information, he follows his intuition and asks himself the question, “Will this make the world a better place?”
Fontes enjoys the history of his native home and has collected items from the Cliff House, Playland at the Beach, and the Sutro Baths as well as memorabilia from amusement parks, carnivals, carousels, and pinball and arcade games. Fontes has kept a handwritten journal since the early 1980s filled with the details of everyday life. “If it was assembled, it would probably be about 10 feet tall, a million pages long, and impossible to finish. If you’ve known me you’re probably included in there,” he added.
Fontes’ murals are in public places as well as privately commissioned works for interior and exterior walls throughout the western United States including the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland and Macy’s Flower Celebration in Union Square. He is currently awaiting final approval on a mural called Astro, as an exterior, 12-by-12-foot installation on the brick wall facing the parking lot at Webster Street and Santa Clara Avenue. Fontes helps with the board of Oakland’s Rock Paper Scissors Gallery, has shown work at Faultline Artspace Studios and Gallery, and had a retrospective of his work in 2018 at Warehouse 416, also in Oakland. For more information, visit his website at DanFontesMurals.com.