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Artist Julie Bender in San Pedro California. (photo by John Mattera Photography)
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Julie Bender is exhausted.

The former firefighter turned mosaic artist is entering the final stretch towards completion of the 25th Street Mosaic Mural, a dream in the making for Bender going back more than a decade. The mural, one of the largest community art projects ever produced in San Pedro, now sits on a 2,000-square foot retaining wall spanning three homes on the north side of 25th Street. If you’ve driven on that stretch of road any time in the past year, you’ve certainly noticed it.

Standing next to the mural on a brisk March morning, I ask Bender what it feels like to finally be standing in front of something that was only an idea just 15 months ago.

“I’m relieved that it’s coming to an end and people are so pleased with it,” she says.

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The final step involves grouting the entire wall, making sure each individual tile that’s been placed by either Bender or one of the more than 600 community volunteers is visible, because, in Bender’s eyes, “each tile is important.” It’s a grueling and tedious process that, while necessary, she’s not looking forward to.

“Putting up the tiles was fun and exciting for me. Grouting is the last part, it’s necessary and it does make a drastic change [to the appearance], so theoretically I should be excited,” she says laughing.

She has a right to feel exhausted. It was a long road to get here.

DREAM INTO ACTION

“This mosaic is going to be a true mosaic in every sense of the word,” Bender told San Pedro Today back in January 2018 when she announced her plans to the public for the mosaic mural. “It has ideas from all over; it will be put together by people with skill levels from all over.” She was right.

Bender began the project in early 2017, proposing the idea and navigating the treacherous territory of city permits, ordinances, and getting permission from the three homeowners who shared the retaining wall. She went public with her plans in these pages in January 2018 and was immediately surprised by the community’s reaction.

“I was amazed at how many people believed in me,” she says.

Plans went into full swing in early 2018, as Bender hosted open studio days in the former Sirens Java & Tea location on 7th Street where she had her studio in the back, inviting the community to create the various mosaic tiles that would end up on the wall. Fundraiser nights were set up on First Thursdays so anyone who wanted to make a special tile (usually a home, business or a boat) for the mural could donate money. According to Bender, the mural cost nearly $10,000.

“[We raised all the funds] from donations and volunteers,” says Bender. “We had three major fundraising events. The rest of the money was made from selling custom-made [tiles featuring] houses and boats and selling t-shirts. The San Pedro Waterfront Arts District was our bank and a wonderful supporter.”

Bender soon discovered there was a real passion in the community to help.

“We were inspired by the people and the colors and everything that was coming to us,” she says. “I was underestimating everything. First, I thought we needed 750 houses, but that didn’t make a dent. So, I went to Mary Star High School’s art class and they had 250 kids do 2,000 more. And we needed even more after that.” She even recruited the Mary Star swim team to break tiles into smaller pieces for the project.

It took six months in her studio to create the tiles. Once most of them were completed, Bender mapped the design out on the retaining wall and soon hundreds of volunteers would assist her in mounting them. When all is said and done, Bender estimates it’ll have taken more than 600 volunteers and nearly 25,000 work hours to turn her vision into reality.

“I can’t tell you how many tiles we used, though,” she adds laughing.

ART FOR THE AGES

At first glance, it’s massive. Measuring nearly 200-feet long and covering approximately 2,000-square feet, the mural tells the history of San Pedro through mosaic art, featuring various people, places, things, and events that helped shape the port town. Each piece painstakingly put on by hand by Bender or one of the hundreds of community volunteers.

“This is going to last 500 years, at least,” says Bender. And she’s serious.

The mosaic involves multiple levels of interpretation. From a distance, you can see the main design, which was developed after seeking community input, featuring two large whales (a blue and grey) in the middle, flanked by an angel symbolizing the City of Los Angeles on the right, and a mermaid surrounded by fish representing San Pedro on the left. In the middle is a sign welcoming people to both San Pedro and Los Angeles. “I wanted to make a welcome sign for people coming from Palos Verdes,” says Bender.

Multiple brown pelicans, native to our coast, are featured in the process of flight on both sides of the whales. Below them, spanning nearly the entire length of the wall is a long cliff serving as the focal point for the town, and below that are characters depicting various trades, symbolizing San Pedro’s “working community.” The mural’s eastern end features the Port of Los Angeles filled with various seafaring vessels, the Vincent Thomas Bridge, and Angels Gate Lighthouse (with a working green light). But viewing the mural up-close is when it really comes to life.

Tiles representing hundreds of small businesses, both past and present, are grouped in areas representing corresponding neighborhoods. Among the thousands of nondescript houses made by Mary Star art students are hundreds of personalized ones, made by people during the fundraising nights, featuring family surnames with artistic depictions of actual homes.

Obvious inclusions like the Point Fermin Lighthouse (also with a working light) and the Korean Bell, are mixed with more obscure ones like tiles depicting The Sepulveda Home or a section showing the Paseo Del Mar landslide (with the lone palm tree). There are also a number of hidden “Easter eggs” along the mural, like a geocaching box, an unmarked piece of the Berlin Wall, and a few lockets that open and close where visitors can hide messages or treasure.

“I was thinking about the cliffs, about how I was going to make them interesting, and this lady walked into the studio one day and started saying how mosaics remind her of the human body, because so many tiny pieces are put together to make this one machine,” recalls Bender. “So, I put a box outside my studio door and invited people to bring in little things that wouldn’t corrode. The cliffs are made out of random things brought in by people in the community. I discovered that the people that brought in items ended up having a more personal interest in the project.”

MORE PUBLIC ART

Every tile on the mural tells a story, and Bender is hoping these stories turn into lessons for students studying local history. “I want teachers to bring kids on field trips here so they can learn about our community,” she says.

The mural is not only a history lesson, though. Its very existence is a testament to the power of public art, something San Pedro has been investing in heavily in recent years (murals on utility boxes, the Warner Grand Theatre, and San Pedro City Ballet are just a few examples of recent public art installations).

“Julie Bender’s mural not only adds another beautiful example of public art for San Pedro, it is the culmination of thousands of hours of community organizing,” says Linda Grimes, managing director of the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District. “The art will live on, thanks to Julie’s tireless efforts to engage volunteers to make, glaze, and install all of the elements of this amazing mural. This successful public art project brings a sense of expanded community and neighborhood pride of place, along with adding a compelling visitor destination.”

Councilman Joe Buscaino shares a similar sentiment, saying, “Julie’s mural is magnificent, and her use of materials creates a whimsical ambiance that is appreciated and approachable to all. Julie’s collective and collaborative model for art endeavors is one that I hope to see replicated across San Pedro and Council District 15. This approach to place-making cements a sense of ownership and pride within the community in both the physical artwork and its place in the larger neighborhood narrative.”

For Bender, her journey with this project not only proved to be fulfilling, but also therapeutic. “It was all very miraculous,” says Bender. “There were all these special little things that happened. I really feel that God was giving me the right people at the right time.”

The final community grouting day for the 25th Street Mosaic Mural is scheduled for May 25. For more info and to participate, visit juliebendermosaics.com and join her mailing list.

Joshua Stecker

Joshua Stecker is the publisher and editor-in-chief of San Pedro Today.

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