Ocean Beach artist delves into Native American history for Kumeyaay mural project

Ocean Beach resident Simon Melnyk has painted murals, including this one at Mariscos Mar de Cortez restaurant in Ramona.
Ocean Beach resident Simon Melnyk has painted murals including this one at Mariscos Mar de Cortez restaurant in Ramona. He will be painting a mural in Ramona that honors the Kumeyaay Native Americans.
(Julie Gallant)

The next mural to be showcased in Ramona will be a tribute to the Kumeyaay Native Americans. And if Ocean Beach artist Simon Melnyk stays true to his ambitions, it will be a historically accurate rendition that celebrates how the tribe lived in harmony with nature for so many years.

Melnyk is just getting started on the 1,200-square-foot mural that will take up about two-thirds of the blank canvas of the Verizon building at 1530 Main St.

“Their history is very long and rich and has also included a lot of hardships and atrocities that can’t be ignored,” Melnyk said about the Kumeyaay. “Here I am in the 21st century paying tribute to ... the original artists of the area.”

To prepare for the mural, Melnyk has done extensive research on the Kumeyaay, delving into their past at the Barona Cultural Center & Museum in Lakeside. The Kumeyaay people, also known as Tipai-Ipai, have lived throughout the border area in San Diego and Imperial counties and Baja California, Mexico, for more than 12,000 years.

The mural design is a work in progress, but Melnyk said it will incorporate the Kumeyaay’s dancing, costumes and rock art. He’s drawing inspiration from petroglyphs and substitutes for a written language: art, songs, storytelling and dance.

Melnyk’s mural will be the 27th in the Ramona H.E.A.R.T. Mural Project. The nonprofit received an overwhelming response to its call for artists for the Kumeyaay tribute piece, according to H.E.A.R.T. Mural President Elaine Lyttleton. Ordinarily, it receives seven or eight applicants, but this round attracted 24.

After the list was narrowed to the top 10, Melnyk was chosen based on his professionalism, detailed artwork and commitment to research, Lyttleton said. Two Native Americans were among the applicants, but Lyttleton said their work and presentations weren’t as strong.

The artist application process included a written presentation via email, submissions of work samples and a biography including qualifications, background and education in art.

Melnyk and the H.E.A.R.T. Mural Project board are consulting with Richard Carrico, a historian and anthropologist who specializes in the history and cultures of Southern California.

Simon Melnyk will paint this Verizon building in Ramona with a mural that pays tribute to the Kumeyaay Native Americans.
Simon Melnyk will paint the Verizon building at 1530 Main St. in Ramona with a mural that pays tribute to the Kumeyaay Native Americans.

Melnyk, 40, who was born and raised in New South Wales, Australia, just north of Sydney, said he has long taken an interest in native cultures of the world, among them the Aboriginal Australians who have lived on the mainland and various islands for more than 60,000 years. Growing up, he visited Stonehenge in England, backpacked from Mexico to Panama, traveled to South America to see the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu and to Central America to see the Aztec ruins.

“Overall, I’ve already had an interest in the way humans existed and lived in harmony with the land,” he said. “When this mural arose, I took the opportunity to research and educate myself a lot more on the Kumeyaay culture and I’m continuing to learn along the way.”

Artist Simon Melnyk was born and raised in Australia.

He moved to the San Diego region with his wife, Lauren Pasas, six years ago to be near her family. Southern California is similar to Australia, most notably in its weather and beach lifestyle, he said. A New Year’s Day outing to watch the surfers in Ocean Beach and then driving to the Laguna Mountains to throw snowballs exemplifies why he loves living in San Diego, he said.

“It’s something that relates to the themes in the mural I’m doing as well,” Melnyk said. “The Kumeyaay existed throughout various landscapes. As a tribe they lived in one of the most geographically diverse areas, everything from the ocean to the valleys and hills, all the way to the Anza-Borrego Desert [State Park].

“With a mural this size I’m able to show all those elements, how they connected to the land and how they interacted with it and how they were highly intelligent. The way they functioned in harmony with nature was very advanced and it was a beautiful symbiosis.”

Visitors look at the Kumeyaay exhibit in 2018 at the Museum of Man, now the Museum of Us, in San Diego.
Visitors look at the Kumeyaay exhibit in 2018 at the Museum of Man, now the Museum of Us, in San Diego.

Laurie Egan-Hedley, director and curator at the Barona Cultural Center & Museum, helped Melnyk in his efforts to prepare his mural bid and depict Kumeyaay’s culture and history.

She showed him books and resources and gave him a tour of the museum, which includes an exhibit about Native American life before the first newcomers — the Spanish — arrived, and a timeline from that period to modern times. Archaeological records indicate the Kumeyaay presence dates as far back as 10,000 to 30,000 years ago, but their people believe they’ve been here since the point of creation, she said.

“It’s their philosophy and belief,” Egan-Hedley said, noting that they had a calendar and scientific knowledge of astronomy and the movement of the sun and stars.

“They knew four ecological zones in their traditional territory, and they moved seasonally to take advantage of resources in each zone,” she said.

Egan-Hedley said the Kumeyaay have been resilient, having adapted and thrived through three waves of newcomers in the past 250 years.

“Now it’s an everyday effort to retain their sovereignty and their culture and tradition,” she said. “The intention is to acknowledge their presence here since time immemorial and to inspire people to learn more.”

Melnyk has been a painter, illustrator, photographer and designer for more than 15 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in communication and media from the University of Newcastle in Australia in 2003. For his business, Simmage Designs, he developed an interest in creating handpainted lettering and unique illustrations as well as murals. Simmage is a variation of his first name, Simon.

His murals have been created throughout Ocean Beach, Ramona, Bird Rock, Oceanside, Hillcrest, El Cajon and elsewhere in San Diego County for residents and businesses, including restaurants, yoga studios, preschools and senior living residences.

Melnyk said he expects the Kumeyaay mural to take several months to paint. A dedication ceremony will be arranged after the installation.

This mural will be special in that it will incorporate a storytelling element, he said.

“So it doesn’t just look pretty, it engages the viewer,” Melnyk said. “I’ll tell a story throughout the scene that engages people with elements of the Kumeyaay’s traditional practices and their environment. The overall theme was to pay tribute to the Kumeyaay and I want to show that by honoring them as the people of the land.”


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