Every summer, the Ocean Beach Street Fair & Chili Cook-off in June is commemorated with a beautiful and semi-permanent way of connecting OBecians everywhere: the community mural.
Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association (OBMA), which oversees the tradition, said the program started in 1999, when then-OBMA executive director Gerrie Trussell came up with the idea to both beautify OB and memorialize the Street Fair. (These murals can be found in the back alleyways of Newport Avenue, Bacon Street, Cable Street, Santa Monica Avenue, Narragansett Avenue, Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and West Point Loma Boulevard.)
Trussell passed the idea onto local artist, the late Rich James of OB’s beloved “James Gang.” From then on, to his death in early 2008, James would serve as the chief designer. His close friend and mentor Janis Ambrosiani, who today designs the community murals, recalls those eight years she aided him with the project.
“The night before, he would cut up photographs and then just drop them on a board, and however they laid out on the board, he kept it that way,” she told Point Loma-OB Monthly. “And I was like, ‘Rich! You can’t do it that way, you gotta do it this way!’ And he was like, ‘Nope. This is how I do it.’
I love the way he did it though,” she continued. “His murals are very unique.”
Sadly, James passed away before he could design the 2008 OB Street Fair & Chili Cook-off mural. So three weeks before the event, OBMA reached out to Ambrosiani to continue the tradition.
The OBMA gives Ambrosiani a new theme each year and allows her to take over from there. The theme may be based on an upcoming event (2016’s theme celebrated the 50th anniversary of the OB Pier), or fall in line with the beach and coastal vibe. Ambrosiani said her favorite mural is 2010’s, which is based on the theme “flip flops.” It won “Best Art Design by the Beach” award in Coastal Living Magazine.
In remembrance of James, Ambrosiani designed the 2008 mural in his honor. It depicts him in a car, and standing to the side smiling and holding a paint palette. James’ mural can be found on Bravo’s Mexican Bistro & Cantina’s side wall, 5001 Newport Ave.
Ambrosiani said the overall pricetag for the murals is in the ballpark of $6,000 for the two to three that are painted and installed during the Street Fair each year. Fair-goers who choose to participate buy a tile for $20 to paint and add to the mural. Knox reported OBMA is lucky if tile sales cover half the cost of the project.
While James’ murals may appear more abstract, Ambrosiani’s display her signature design concept, which she refers to as a “flow.” The flow can clearly be seen in the rise and fall of the pink-hued sand in 2019’s parrot mural (1931 Bacon St.). Although her designs appear more uniform, that doesn’t stop the community from putting their own artistic twist on their tiles.
“It always is much better than what I give them, because every square is a signature to each person,” she mused. “And you never know how it’s going to look.”
When Point Loma-OB Monthly took a walk with Ambrosiani down an alley at 4836 Newport Ave., Gianni Buonomo Vintners’ side wall, she pointed out an entire family painted on a single square in the ocean portion of 2016’s pier mural. With a laugh, she explained that was definitely not part of her original design, but she does her best to never change what people create.
“It’s my favorite day of the year,” she said of the Street Fair & Chili Cook-off. “It’s so neat for me to watch people buy a tile to paint and then have so much fun doing it.”
Today, there have been more than 2,800 tiles painted, and just over 25 murals are still standing strong. Originally, Knox said the OBMA intended to just re-paint over the same mural year after year, but that idea was soon tossed out. “People were so enthralled with having painted a square, they didn’t want us to paint over them!” she explained. “So, we decided to do another one. And so it goes.”
Added Ambrosiani: “Our mural project is very unusual ... you never see a large group of people all work on one project, and that’s what’s so neat to me. It’s something I wish there was more of around the world.”
A handful of murals have deteriorated or been destroyed, whether by storm or old age, but Ambrosiani does her part to ensure those remaining stay picture perfect by regularly inspecting them for damage or graffiti markings. When she sees a blemished mural, she gives it a touch-up.
Knox added that at this point, the existing murals will probably be replaced with new ones.
Born to be an artist
Ambrosiani describes her art training as “inherited”; one of her grandfathers was a sculptor, while her other grandfather was a tailor who would draw his own figures and suits for work.
“I was sculpting nudes at 8-9 years old in adult classes,” she said adding that much to her parents’ chagrin, she chose to attend a non-credited, but extremely vigorous art college to learn from the best teachers. She graduated from the York Academy of Arts, Pennsylvania after three years, having being accepted there as a junior in high school.
Ambrosiani’s work is sprinkled throughout OB, from the famous Hodad’s mural, to the glow-in-the-dark ocean-themed walls in Pacific Shores Bar, to the walls in Wonderland Ocean Pub.
She said she arrived in Ocean Beach in 1983, and two years later was hired by the James Gang’s company to work as a silk-screener. That same year, they signed adoption papers to bring her into their family. “I was like their little sister,” she shared.
Today, she is still close to the family, with no intentions of ever leaving OB. “The town is my family, now. I couldn’t dare leave.”
• IF YOU GO: The OB Street Fair & Chili Cook-off will take place 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, June 27 along Newport Avenue and side streets. The 2020 mural theme has yet to be decided. A map for self-guided walking tours of the OB murals can be found at bit.ly/obmurals