Childhood blooms in new mural

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

One day when Athena Hahn was six years old, she and her father took a trip to the Claremont Post Office.

“That’s the first time I remember seeing murals,” she said, regarding Milford Zornes’ enormous 1939 masterpiece, “California Landscape,” which wraps around the four walls of the lobby.

“I looked at those images by Zornes that we all see all the time, and I was just completely blown away. I just thought it was a magic trick. Like, ‘How did this whole other world come through the wall? Daddy, what’s that?’ That was really formative for me in getting into doing artwork.”

Now, decades later, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars…and Everything,” Ms. Hahn’s five foot, six-inch by 32-foot acrylic on panel mural, has been installed in the children’s section of the Pomona Public Library.

“In some ways that was the sort of special part of doing a public art mural, was this feeling of connecting with my six-year-old self across time, and getting to fulfill the vision she had for my life,” she said.

It’s the Claremont artist’s first large public installation. She was awarded the commission in June of last year. Work began then, but was interrupted in March by the COVID pandemic. The planned fanfare of its unveiling was of course scuttled in light of the current circumstances.

“It’s just hilarious because my first big public art piece is going into a closed library, straight into the vault!” she said with a laugh.

Though “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars…and Everything” is indeed her first large public commission, since that morning at the Claremont Post Office, Ms. Hahn has been set on the artist’s life.

She’s collaborated with musicians and writers, designed restaurants and developed product lines. Her work has been exhibited at the Claremont Museum, The Ontario Museum and The Maloof Foundation.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in art and symbolic systems from Pitzer College and her master’s from Cal State Fullerton. She has apprenticed with artists James Turrell, Carl Hertel, Paul Soldner and Bill Gersh, among others.

“When I read about it, I didn’t think I would ever get it,” Ms. Hahn said about the request for proposals for the new mural. “But I thought I’ll give it a try and see how the process works.”

The timeline was tight—she had just 14 days to come up with a design concept, a budget and complete “tons of paperwork.”

“This mural has been designed to model engagement and creative thinking,” she wrote in her cover letter to the Pomona Arts Council. “My primary goal in this design is to provide images ripe with narrative potential in the mind of the viewer. There is a subtle theme of ‘hide and seek’  running throughout the mural design, which reinforces the overall theme of the joy of discovery. In order to emphasize a sense of place, the geography represented in the background landscape is taken from old photos of the Pomona Valley, with stacks of books following the line of the foothills.”

The mural shows some of the children she interviewed and photographed—with their parents’ permission of course—during her research phase. She also incorporated demographic information from the 2010 Census and the Pomona Unified School District.

“I wanted to do something that had real kids from the community and described the diversity of place,” Ms. Hahn said, “and that modeled kids being in a creative setting. Kids are engaged in books, and have elements for their imagination to spin off of. All that symbolic theory stuff, that people form their own associations, you just give them stimulus and cues to have their own experience.”

The mural also gives a nod to the history of the library, which opened in 1969.

“I did a lot of little details,” she said. “There’s a moon in the painting and it’s not just any moon. I modeled it on a picture taken from the Apollo spacecraft.”

She also depicted indigenous animals. “I used baby animals instead of full grown ones because I figured having an adult mountain lion next to a kid would be not so good!” 

After winning the job, she got to work.  She had about four months work done before the pandemic hit. The mural’s initial sketch, or “underpainting,” with figures sketched out and shaded, was complete before the world shifted.

Then post-COVID she developed the piece’s color, and finally began to “start playing with some of the things happening” in the mural.

“There’s an opossum carrying a bunch of babies on her back, and I thought, why not a little prehensile tail and a baby kind of hanging off it, like that monkeys game?” Ms. Hahn said.

“And seeing a telescope on a stack of books next to a blue jay. Just all the little fun things you get to tweak around within the parameters. It sort of comes at the end of everything, and then you sort of feel like you wish you had more time, because that’s the fun part.”

Though it was made more difficult by the pandemic’s restrictions, the Claremont artist is grateful in for the comfort the yearlong project brought, as well as for her work she’s done with the Community Home Energy Retrofit Project (CHERP) to help integrate art into the nonprofit’s future plans.

“I feel very lucky thorough this COVID thing, where I feel in some ways really helpless to help with all these issues going on in the world, that I’ve had two projects that I feel like have some level of social consciousness and care to contribute,” Ms. Hahn said. “It’s really good during this time to feel like you have something positive.”

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