Father, son paint murals to highlight lives of Oakland’s homeless

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Mike and John Manente stand proudly together as they look up at their recent creation: Sheila, a dignified woman with a gentle face blended from yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, and earth tones. The setting sun gives her an amber hue.

She’s the subject of the “The Gardener,” the latest in an ongoing series of murals entitled “The People of Oakland” by the father and son team. Last year the two men, both professional artists, created the “People of Oakland” to document the lives of the homeless people living around their studio in West Oakland.

The idea for the series began when the two shared a studio together at 26th and Magnolia Street. “I was doing the best work of my life there,” says Mike, 63. “I’m working man and hadn’t had a chance to devote myself to my art.”

Drawing on his experience as a billboard sign painter for Foster and Kleiser, Mike began to paint small portraits from photographs John had taken of people living on the street around their studio. When Chris Krieg, a fellow billboard painter, suggested Mike expand the portraits into murals, he jumped at the idea.

“Chris’s cousin John was friends with the owner of the Haley Law Office building, an old Victorian downtown,” Mike says. “Matt Haley hired me to paint their sign and I said to him, ‘I’ll do that if you’ll let me have this wall for year!’”

John reflects his father’s sentiments. “I applied for mural spaces and never gotten them before,” he says. “When my dad brought up this idea for ‘The People of Oakland’ series, I felt immediately that we should go ahead and do it.”

Haley was so intrigued by the premise that he offered the muralists the building’s entire south wall to begin the series. The first painting, “The Carpenter,” featured Mike’s landlord Jason as his subject. It was also the father and son team’s first collaboration. “By the time I was old enough to help my father, the technique of hand painting signs was going out,” says John. “This project gave us a chance revitalize that lost art and work together, side by side.”

The work was tedious. It took the men half a day to mix the colors alone. They affixed cornice hooks to the roof and pulled themselves up the three-story building manually on a 20-foot aluminum stage. They utilized pounce patterns, a technique employed by Michelangelo, to outline the image on to the side of the building. “Michelangelo would draw it all out first,” Mike says, “and then perforate the lines with what was called a “pounce wheel” which still is in existence.” He laughs, “Nothing much has changed in this business!”

Mike now owns an installation business, which utilizes lower cost adhesive prints, but he still reminisces about the art of billboard painting. “The one I loved working on was the Marlboro Man,” he says. “It was up throughout the entire 1981 49ers season.” His eyes widen with excitement. “It was on television every Sunday,” he says. “I was so proud.”

Mike was taking photographs at the Alliance Recycling Center when he first met Sheila, the subject of his newest mural. “She and her husband were living next to one of the dilapidated old warehouses,” he says. “Our landlord had hired her to clean out the flowerbeds and I asked if I could photograph her.” He bows his head and smiles. “She just knew how to pose for a picture.”

He doesn’t know whether Sheila will come to the event celebrating “The Gardener” this Friday at the Haley Law Offices. “I don’t think she travels away from the depot much,” Mike says, “but I’d sure like to see her there. She looks so dignified.”

Matt Haley admires the mural that now graces the back of his building. “The response has been unbelievable,” he says. “I’ll walk out the front door and see people standing here, just looking at her.”

The next mural in the “People of Oakland” series will feature “The Vendor” whose subject is a man Mike met at the Alliance Center. “He was selling orchids the day I met him,” Mike says. “He was wary of me but as I was leaving, he softly said to me, ‘My name is Charles.’”

Mike puts his arm around John as they look up at their latest work. “The painting we’re working off of is called ‘My name is Charles,'” he says. “I’ve always liked that.”

The Haley Law Office will celebrate “The Gardener” mural this Friday from 5:30-7:30pm at 1633 San Pablo Avenue.

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