Mural of canoe-going women is a conversation starter in Ocean Beach
In an Ocean Beach parking lot, four women perch in a canoe, braving the unknown waters. Two of them face ahead, paddling forward. The other two gaze behind. One clutches a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, the other grips a flag, her head obscured under a large scarf.
It’s unclear how this group of women of varying races and ages ended up on the canoe or where they’re going. But their story starts at Little Lion Cafe at 1424 Sunset Cliffs Blvd.
Little Lion co-owners and sisters Jacqueline and Anne-Marie Coulon were interested in adding color to their cafe’s exterior wall but didn’t have the resources ... until the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We always wanted to do a mural, but the shutdown gave us the time to actually plan, raise money and execute the vision. Plus, in the dark year we all had felt like an extra need for art,” Jacqueline Coulon said.
In October, the sisters created a GoFundMe campaign and asked for the community’s support in funding the mural. In just one day, the campaign raised $4,530 of its $5,000 goal.
“We were blown away by how quickly we raised the money we needed,” Jacqueline said.
They commissioned Aaron Glasson, one of their customers, to paint the piece. Glasson, a multi-disciplinary artist from New Zealand, moved to OB about five years ago and frequented Little Lion Cafe before the pandemic.
“Aaron took a significant pay cut because he wanted to do the project and be accommodating. After 24 hours we hadn’t reached our full goal but made enough to cover his expenses, so we closed the fundraising then,” Jacqueline said.
“I had a beautiful experience painting the mural … it was really cool painting a few blocks from my house and meeting people I’ve never met before from the neighborhood,” Glasson said.
“A lot of people came and talked to me [while painting] ... a lot of distractions, but in a good way,” he said, laughing. “I connected with people who I still call friends who I never met before, local people who have lived there forever to houseless people who live in the neighborhood, so that was cool.”
To create the mural, which took about two weeks, Glasson used a projector and standard house paint.
He chose to depict four of his female friends — three from San Diego — in his design. Rather than stage a group photo shoot, he used separate pictures of each woman for reference when sketching. He placed them all in a long canoe, positioned on reflective, grayish water that blends into the cafe’s asphalt parking lot.
“We wanted the message to be one of hope and love in a general sense,” Jacqueline said. “We’ve always felt Ocean Beach to be a beacon for taking in marginalized personalities with open arms and providing an accepting sanctuary for everyone. From there, Aaron had creative freedom for the actual subject matter.”
Two of the women featured in the mural are Stephanie and Celeste Byers, a mother and daughter from Ocean Beach.
Celeste, who identifies as Chinese-American, said she was surprised by the mural’s theme of diversity. The 31-year-old estimates that her family is one of just three Asian families she knows in the area.
“It’s interesting to ask for a diverse mural, because I didn’t grow up in a diverse environment; I grew up with White people,” said Celeste, who recently moved to Golden Hill after more than 20 years in OB.
“I love Aaron’s idea of including diversity, and I think that just needs to be talked about more and brought to the attention of the public,” said Stephanie, who added that Glasson is “always so thoughtful about those topics.”
“I feel really honored and special that he included me,” she said.
Celeste said she enjoys seeing her mother — who moved to the area from San Francisco in 1983 — represented in the neighborhood.
“It is really cool seeing my mom on a mural, and it’s cool seeing her in a canoe, because I grew up with her taking me canoeing,” Celeste said.
Glasson’s idea for the canoe was derived from a photograph he took in Northern California last summer, when he and a few friends found an abandoned canoe on a lake. The photo was taken at the height of the 2020 wildfires, resulting in a gold- and pink-hued sky.
After taking the picture, Glasson knew he wanted to use it as reference for a future painting, and Little Lion proved to be the perfect fit.
“The composition of that wall dictates that it needs something long and skinny, so that’s how I came to the canoe,” he said. “I immediately thought of that photograph.”
Along with sketching in the people, Glasson tied the painting to the neighborhood by placing the canoe in the ocean, with a dog and seagull on board.
“Being in Ocean Beach, I wanted to do something that was reflective of that environment and the ocean — but it’s kind of hard to do ocean murals and not have them be corny,” Glasson said.
When asked what he hopes observers will take from the mural, Glasson said: “I generally try not to state what my murals are about. ... I want people to have their own interpretation of it and I don’t want to dictate it.”
Celeste said she observes something ominous — but also hopeful — about the mural, noting the wildfire-colored sky coupled with the calm, sunset sheen of the water.
“It doesn’t have an obvious beauty to it, but it has this subtle, maybe darker, real beauty,” Celeste said.
For Stephanie, the mural’s theme of diversity takes center stage. She appreciates “seeing different colors of people” in the painting, as well as the representation of women.
“It just makes you think about other people and that maybe we should just be kinder to people — we’re all in the same boat,” Stephanie said.