The fence surrounding J Raymond Mireles’ house in Logan Heights isn’t there just to keep people out. In fact, the photographer is using his fence – a symbol of privacy and security – as an experimental public art project meant to bring people together.
Mireles recently mounted seven large-scale photographs he took on a new wooden fence that wraps around his home on Imperial Avenue. The nearly four-by-five-foot portraits feature the faces of people who live and work in his neighborhood.
Next to the stretches of barren chain-link, corrugated steel and concrete fences common in the neighborhood, Mireles’ art installation is striking. The sidewalk’s been morphed into a makeshift outdoor art gallery – people often linger in front of the oversized faces trying to figure out why they’re there.
“I was really nervous at first,” Mireles said. “I put a couple photos up and was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ But the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. There’s almost a feeling of protectiveness over the work.”
Inside his home, Mireles thumbed through a stack of the rest of the large-scale prints he’s preparing to frame and mount on the fence.
“This is Chris,” he said, pointing to a photo of a young man. “He’s always around here. The New Name Club is right across the street. It’s a social club and all day long you’ll hear the slap of dominoes on the table and these guys who go there – they’re so funny – you think they’re about to get in a full-on fight, but it’s just such trash-talking. It’s just fun.”
Mireles flipped through a few more photos, then stopped at the portrait of a smartly dressed older man in a fedora.
“This guy I photographed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is a little further down the way,” he said. “One of the things that got me started on the project is that when I went out to the VFW and there’s all these guys and they’re all dressed up and looking super-fly and I was like, wow, I’ve entered a whole other world that I had no idea existed.”
Mireles is white. Most of his neighbors in Logan Heights are black or Latino. So far, his fence features a patchwork of black and brown faces (he’s yet to meet a white neighbor who’s agreed to a photo shoot).
Before he moved to the neighborhood a few years ago, the longtime local said he rarely saw or interacted with non-white people. He said he thinks the majority of white San Diegans don’t interact much with people of other ethnicities either. He wants that to change and he thinks his public art project can help – or at least get people talking about race relations in San Diego.
“I came to Logan Heights and I found wow, there’s actually black people and they have a whole culture here,” he said. “But if you lived in the world that I’ve traditionally lived in, you’d have no idea. They’re almost invisible. I thought, OK, well, this is something I can do my part in. I can communicate. I can share this reality.”
Mireles will soon fill the rest of his fence with photos of his neighbors. Then, at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, he’ll hold an opening reception at his house (2747 Imperial Ave.) with food, drinks and live music. He’s inviting his neighbors and working to get people from outside the neighborhood to come, too.
“It’s using art as a form of integration,” he said. “And I want to do it in a way that isn’t too preachy or forced.”
Kevin Bernardino works at an auto shop a block away from Mireles’ home. He’s one of the subjects in the photos – the young and tattooed guy with a grease-covered hand held up to his forehead.
“It’s a good image because, with the face tattoos, I look kind of scary,” Bernardino said of Mireles’ photo of him. “But then you can see that I’m a hard-working man now. You can tell I wasn’t on the right path but now I’m trying to get it together.”
The other images try to tell similar stories. Mireles wanted to cast a positive light on his neighbors.
“Someone looked at my work and said, ‘You know, you’re making heroes of these people,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly it,” he said. “I use the same lighting and the same equipment that Annie Leibovitz would use to photograph a portrait of a movie star.”
A few days after he hung the first photos, he said a man in a wheelchair came up to him loaded with questions and one criticism. He said the man wanted him to add a few white faces to the fence.
“I think that’s great,” Mireles said. “I’m making a statement and people are responding to that statement. When people just walk by and they don’t have an opinion and they don’t care, well, you know, then what’s the point of that? I told him, ‘Hey, if you want a white face, then let me photograph you.’”
Mireles said he thinks of his fence project as the first phase of a much larger DIY public art project. He’d like to eventually gain access to other property owners’ walls and fences in Logan Heights and mount more large-scale photos of people in the neighborhood.
“Ideally, what I would love, is people to be able to walk or bike down Imperial Avenue and this becomes just one big gallery,” he said. “And that’s one of the great things about this neighborhood is I can do this here. I couldn’t get away with it in Little Italy. I might have been able to do it 20 years ago in North Park, but you can’t do it now.”