Mural to Trainman Is a Little Off the Beaten Track

When one of the largest, most colorful pieces of public art ever commissioned in the city makes its official debut Wednesday, viewers may have trouble finding it.

The 100-foot-long, 40-foot-high mural, titled "Train of Wisdom," is hidden on the back side of Mission Federal Credit Union, at Park and El Cajon boulevards.

Despite its grand proportions, the mural's brilliant colors and powerful, futuristic images of children floating along on a surreal train pumping clouds of bright purple steam can be seen only if you happen to wander around the building's corner.

That fact does little to diminish the excitement of San Diego muralist Mario Torero for the project he designed and executed this summer with the help of 12 art students from city schools.

"It was just another building like all the other hundreds of buildings we see every day," said Torero, 42, widely known for his murals in Chicano Park. "Now people are noticing this wall because of the art that is on it."

The mural is the final phase of a project honoring a San Diego institution by the name of Frank the Trainman. For 40 years, Frank Cox sold and repaired model trains out of a grubby little store in the building. Ten years ago, he passed his business on to friend and fellow train buff Jim Cooley. When Cooley sold the property to Mission Federal Credit Union in 1987, he asked the new owners to create a monument to Frank the Trainman, who died early this year.

Different, All Right

Cooley, a self-acknowledged old-timer, hems and haws when asked what he thinks of Torero's unorthodox artwork.

"I'm really not of this modern generation, so it's a little hard for me to identify with it," Cooley said. "But, from what I understand, it's well done. It's different, I'll say that. It's a form of art that I don't understand, but that doesn't mean it's not good."

To complete the memorial, $20,000 worth of Cox's antique model trains have been mounted in the branch office of the credit union, and an animated neon sign that once beckoned customers to the shop was refurbished and remounted outside. The architectural firm of Bradshaw & Bundy reshaped the building's stucco exterior into the stylistic outline of a locomotive.

The back wall of the building was left windowless to create a smooth space for a huge mural, the final phase of the project, which was requested by Cox before he agreed to sell the property about two years ago.

When Torero was selected to paint the mural, he had no idea the building was shaped like a train. He visited the site, drew renderings of its big, blank wall, and took them to art students--at O'Farrell High School of Performing Arts and Roosevelt Junior High School--who had been assigned to help create the mural.

The students drew pyramids and children and sun rays, all of which Torero incorporated into his final rendering. But one student outlined a train for the back of the building, and, when the other kids saw it, they loved the idea, with its big cow catcher of green and white stripes. Torero then realized that the building was conveniently shaped like a locomotive.

The mural changed during the two months that Torero and his young staff worked on it. At one point, they realized it needed a stronger tie to San Diego, and they painted a vivid blue Coronado Bridge. The sun they had planned became a sunflower to incorporate nature into the mural, and the wheels of the train float through clouds to symbolize a journey of the imagination, Torero said.

Now that the mural is finished, the artist wants to make sure the community knows it's there. He hopes to create a small public park on adjoining land. The park could prove as surreal as the mural overlooking it. Torero wants to place two plastic cows near the street to catch the attention of motorists.

Seats in a Station

He's asked another artist to design colored cement benches, which he will arrange to look like seats in a train station. Torero hopes a walkway from the sidewalk along Park Boulevard that leads to the mural will draw passers-by. An abstract sign similar to 12 others designed by artist Robert Salas and installed along Park Boulevard near the zoo may also help point the way.

Torero's plans require the approval of city school officials, who own the land next to the credit union.

If that happens, the enclave might become not only a monument to Frank the Trainman, but uptown's first and only train station.

The mural will be dedicated at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at Mission Federal Credit Union, City Schools Branch, 4304 Park Blvd.

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