Ninety-five years ago, a small crowd of people shared a moment outside the Balboa Pavilion that became an iconic part of Newport Beach history.
Even if all they did was show up.
One man, wearing a long white apron, steps out the front door of a shop marked Barker’s, passing what appears to be a card or magazine rack. A yard or so away, a man in a white suit watches him. Three women walk and chat nearby on the sidewalk. A man in overalls stands outside a billiard hall, holding something indistinct in his hands, while a black-suited figure approaches the door.
A viewer, regarding the anonymous subjects in that 1918 photo, might think of the fictional rock band Spinal Tap describing the inhabitants of Stonehenge: “No one knows who they were or what they were doing, but their legacy remains.”
And now, the legacy of that modest Balboa crowd looks to remain a good, long while — on a wall next to the pavilion, where mural artist Art Mortimer is replicating the photo in a salute to the neighborhood’s history.
“That’s one of my favorite parts about it,” the artist said during a break from painting Wednesday morning. “Because in trying to make this look real or have a life to it, I’ve got these enlargements of sections of this [photo], and when I’m drawing this out, I’m, like, studying the people — like how they’re holding their hands and what kind of clothing they’re wearing.
“These are people who had no idea that their picture was being taken. They didn’t dress up to get their picture taken or stand a certain way so it would look good in the photo. They just happened to be there. So this is what it was really like.”
Last year, the Community Foundation of Balboa Peninsula Point enlisted Mortimer — who, by his count, has painted more than 100 murals in and outside California — to ply his craft in Newport. The foundation didn’t give Mortimer a deadline to finish the work, but he’s set one for himself: He hopes to have it done by Christmas.
Working off the photo, which foundation members located at the Huntington Library, Mortimer created a design with the image tilted slightly and the words “Balboa Village, circa 1918" superimposed on a ribbon below it. A green panel in the upper left will provide a synopsis of Balboa’s history.
During the two weeks that Mortimer has worked on the mural, community members have routinely stopped by and joined in the painting. Balboa resident Norm White wielded the brush Wednesday morning; students from Newport Elementary School have also helped to color the backgrounds.
“The story here is largely community involvement in something that will last for a long period of time,” said Ken Drellishak, the foundation’s president. “So we’re trying to get lots of people.”
For the artist, the Balboa mural is both a commission and a chance to relive childhood memories: Mortimer, who lives in Twentynine Palms, spent many summers at his grandfather’s house on Balboa Island and learned to swim at the beach.
Parts of the 1918 photo are a puzzle to him — he has no idea, for example, what kind of merchandise Barker’s sold. In terms of colorizing the picture, he’ll have to do plenty of guesswork, but he noted that an artist a century ago might have had to do the same.
“The color images from then mostly are those old hand-tinted postcards, and a lot of them were done by companies in Germany or on the East Coast,” Mortimer said. “And they would get the black-and-white photograph and they would color it in. They had no way of knowing what the actual colors were.”