When Rich Heimann approached Capistrano Trading Post owner Bill Ortega about a year ago, asking to use his building in Downtown San Juan Capistrano for a mural, Ortega agreed.
There was only one caveat though that Ortega had for Heimann, the president of The Alliance for San Juan Art (TASJA).
“I said, ‘yeah, that sounds just like what people have been talking about for 37 years,’ So I said, ‘there is one condition, Rich, that I don’t have to do anything,’” Ortega said to an amused crowd Friday, Aug. 11.
“And he kept his promise, except for this speech,” Ortega joked to the group of residents, dignitaries and members of the local art and business communities who gathered outside his building to unveil the mural by the late Nellie Gail Moulton.
“He kept his promise, they did all the footwork. They did all the going back and forth to the City Council, they raised the money. They did everything,” Ortega said. “And I think it looks good.”
The mural of the painting “Mission Garden” by Moulton, a prominent artist of the 1920s, now adorns the back of the Trading Post for those visiting San Juan’s downtown corridor to view and admire—part of longstanding plans to beautify the area, such as the walkway between the Trading Post and Hennessey’s Tavern.
“This building has been here since 1944 … and I bought it in 1987. And when I came in ’87, that was all the City Councilmen and a bunch of people around town were talking about, beautifying San Juan Capistrano,” Ortega recalled.
Heimann, who founded the local arts group, spoke Friday about Moulton’s legacy in San Juan Capistrano, and South Orange County, at large.
“This mural was inspired by a woman who was a pioneer in town. And can you imagine that this mural, located here, represents the vision of this artistic person? The vision of art culture and the long history of this town, which is unbelievable, in Southern California,” Heimann said.
The Laguna Hills-based Moulton Museum, which features Moulton’s artwork and preserves historical artifacts and archives from Orange County’s ranching era, donated the image of Moulton’s original painting to TASJA for the creation of the mural on the Outpost building.
“Congratulations to TASJA for raising the funds necessary to make this mural,” Mayor Howard Hart said. “I know it wasn’t a small endeavor, thank you so much for that. And thank you all who participated.”
Ahead of the mural’s unveiling, Hart explained that the mural was printed on vinyl with an adhesive backing. The mural is also meant to have long-term durability and protection from the elements, but TASJA and the city, he added, will review it every five years for wear and tear.
“This process is actually finally happening,” Hart said. “I can’t even remember when Rich first came to me with this idea, I think it’s probably at least nine months ago. Is it a year ago? Yeah, gosh. But here we are. We finally reached this day.”
Jared Mathis, president of the Moulton Museum and Moulton’s great-grandson, spoke Friday about the late artist’s life and told the story of how, as an infant, she survived a tornado that tore through her hometown in Kansas.
“Just to tell you a little bit about her mettle, at 6 months old, she was picked up by a tornado and thrown across her house that destroyed her town. And she survived, thankfully,” Mathis said of his great-grandmother, who died in 1972.
Born in 1878, Nellie Gail and her family would leave Kansas, traveling in covered wagons to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s, Mathis said.
While living in Seattle, Mathis added, “she became a teacher and a principal and was quite an amazing lady in that way. And then in her time off came down to Southern California where her dad ran the El Toro General Store.”
She would eventually meet Lewis Moulton. The two got married in 1908, 13 years after he formed Moulton Ranch.
“So, they were very much connected, not only to Moulton Ranch, but the areas around it and the people. So, they had lots of friends in San Juan Capistrano. Nellie Gail was often in the Swallow’s Day Parade, in her buggy, which we have in the museum right now,” Mathis said. “So, I think she was really drawn to the pioneer spirit that exists in this city, and it was really in their veins as well.”
Mathis also explained how Moulton painted much of her life and continued to be an artist “well into her 80s.” As someone involved in the arts community, Moulton was part of efforts to establish or keep the doors open at a handful of Orange County institutions such as the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Playhouse and the Laguna College of Art and Design.
“So, she was no wallflower. She was a heck of an artist but also a businesswoman and philanthropist and someone that would be, and I know is, smiling down on us today because she loved her art,” Mathis said.
During Friday’s ceremony, Heimann, on behalf of TASJA, received a certificate of recognition from Board Supervisor Katrina Foley’s office, as well as a $300 check from the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce.
With the Moulton mural project complete, TASJA will soon look at getting some of its other murals-in-waiting established in town, according to Heimann.
“A year ago, TASJA, with the enthusiastic support of Domingo Belardes, the curator of the Blas Aguilar Adobe, we agreed to commission new murals for the Adobe,” Heimann said. “These were commissioned and painted by Hyatt Moore … a renowned Dana Point artist.”
“At any rate, these murals have been completed, but they’ve not been installed because we don’t have a city permit to do that yet,” Heimann added before turning his gaze to Mayor Hart. “And maybe, just maybe, Howard could look into that and see if the tangle can be undone.”
Looking toward the other beautification efforts on the horizon, Hart said the mural, along with the nearby Old San Juan Bell, “is really going to anchor what’s soon, what’s going to be soon-to-be beautified Arguello Way.”
The City Council voted this past April to approve the beautification project, which will construct widened sidewalks on the western side of Camino Capistrano, near Arguello Way.
Public Works Director Tom Toman is leading the project, according to Hart, who added that it’s “going to turn what’s behind me into a real promenade and something that’s going to complement what we’ve done on Verdugo Street.”
“They will become an attraction for San Juan that will please visitors and residents alike as they walk from Camino Capistrano in the parking lot to the Train Depot,” Hart added.