A Captive Audience 

Things get pretty weird for young cutting-edge muralists when their audience, and their potential funding, are products of the juvenile justice system.

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Of the emerging muralists, Catalina is the most underrated and hence the one to watch out for. A high-school dropout who later got her GED, she comes off shy, but has scored numerous private commissions, including backdrops for rock concerts and full-size murals of album covers for San Francisco design company Wet Paint. "Being a farmworker growing up taught me a hard day's work," she says. "Wet Paint taught me how to work fast."

When she first moved to the Bay Area, Catalina sold portraits and smaller things wherever she could. A strip-club proprietor commissioned a whole series of nudes to be framed in his clubs after seeing one of her portraits. The reserved artist then threw herself into erotica, painting live nudes and magazine-style pinups with uncanny Playboy gloss. Her benefactor would give away her paintings to favored patrons, and she amassed a stunningly competent body of photorealistic work.

The nudes led to her first real mural commission, which included putting portraits of 1940s movie characters on a nightclub ceiling. Her first mural wall came next, paid for by the same strip-club owner. "He said vagrants were ruining his construction wall, so just do whatever you want with it." The result, titled The Beauty Way, shows some novice-level composition mistakes, but bears evidence of a savant's skill. While the snobby art world tends to dismiss hyperrealism, most artists can't do it. Catalina has that talent. Far more difficult for her has been mastering the public-commission process. "I'm not getting used to speaking in front of people, so this bid's not going to be easy," she says.

But when she asks the juvie girls what's inside of them, it's the right question: The room gets quiet, and a taller black girl with short braids going every which way and glasses magnifying perceptive eyes just starts talking. She tells the group about her most memorable dream: "I was on a mountaintop but I was still wearing these clothes, yet I was free. I knew I was free. I felt so good to be free. Then I woke up back in here. And it was horrible.

"If you could open me up and look inside me," Ms. Braids says, making eye contact with each artist in turn, "you'd see despair. And sadness. Hopelessness and fear. Pain and doubtfulness and just questions about, 'How are you going to go on?'"

Down the halls, keys jangle and doors slam. Tears pool in a few pairs of eyes.

"Now I have a question for you," Ms. Braids says. "How many a you been locked up?"

Sideways looks. Slowly, some hands rise. The artists laugh hesitantly.

Ms. Braids has a point. Artists always ask, "What do bureaucrats know about art?" But what do Oakland's muralists, even its edgiest ones, really know about incarceration?

"You been in?" She points to eager hand-raiser John Werley.

"Yeah, I taught in a juvenile hall, and ..." he starts.

"No, I mean locked up. Arrested. Handcuffed. You?"

She looks at Galvez, who still has his hand up.

"I was arrested for littering," he says. "I tried to leave some paint under a freeway underpass and someone got my license plate number and they got me. I was held for a few hours. It was really embarrassing."

Ms. Braids nods.

One of the finalists for the lobby tile tells the room he was held for six months for going AWOL during the Vietnam War.

Keba and the other younger artists volunteer nothing, but later confess their sins privately. Without going into details, Keba concedes he has been in both San Francisco's juvenile hall and adult jail. Isis was once cuffed for reckless driving. Catalina was briefly held for shoplifting. Tim doesn't cop to anything.

All four muralists seem concerned about how their records might play before the various art panels. "It's funny," Tim says. "[The kids are] in there telling us what they think we want to hear so we can work on proposals telling another board what we think they'll want to hear."

The only mural finalist who answers the girl's question is diminutive Miranda Bergman, an Oakland public-school teacher and member of this crew's old guard. "When I was younger, I lost my mother and I went down a bad path for a while," she says. "I stole a car and got picked up in a parking garage. I did several weeks. When I was older, I started getting arrested for political things like equal rights and equity."

Ms. Braids nods approval and is thanked for her questions. The girls file out just as the boys did.

After the group breaks up, Miranda chats with Catalina. "Wouldn't it be great if we could do whatever we want?" Miranda asks.

"Yeah. It's always: 'Paint transportation. Paint naked women.'"

"I just want to paint."

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