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Costa Mesa resident hopes to make a splash with art display at John Wayne Airport

Bonnie Matthews, an artist and children's book illustrator, paints a baby whale cutout at her apartment.
Bonnie Matthews, an artist and children’s book illustrator, paints a baby whale cutout at her apartment. One of her works, “Set in Motion, a Change for the Ocean,” was commissioned by Mesa Water District and will hang in John Wayne Airport in recognition of Earth Month.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)
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From a bungalow apartment that doubles as a studio, Costa Mesa artist Bonnie Matthews has been working to create a piece of public art that showcases her whimsical style while conveying a message about the importance of environmental stewardship.

And, boy, is it one a whale of a project.

A wood panel cut into the shape of a baby gray whale is covered with brightly painted scenes of a beach cleanup. People on shore and in the water engage in brisk work as fish, grateful for the housekeeping effort, dart through blue waters.

"Set in Motion, a Change for the Ocean" was created by Costa Mesa artist Bonnie Matthews for Mesa Water District.
“Set in Motion, a Change for the Ocean” was created by Costa Mesa artist Bonnie Matthews for Mesa Water District as part of a countywide water stewardship campaign.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I thought, why don’t we show people volunteering and being happy,” Matthews, 58, said Monday, applying thinned-down acrylic paint to a figure in a technique resembling watercolor. “And the fish are happy because they can swim in the water, and it’s nice and clean.”

The work, titled “Set in Motion, a Change for the Ocean,” was commissioned by Mesa Water District and will soon be hung in John Wayne Airport in recognition of Earth Month.

It will be one of 40 whale-shaped art pieces created under a monthlong campaign “Streams of Hope,” a collaboration of the nonprofit Wyland Foundation, the Municipal Water District of Orange County, the Orange County Conservation Corps and the county of Orange.

Bonnie Matthews, seen on March 28, 2022, uses a painting method "gouache" to create a vivid yet lightly applied color scheme.
Bonnie Matthews uses a painting method called gouache to create a vivid yet lightly applied color scheme.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The baby whales — each uniquely designed but all named “Stella” — will be displayed throughout the county to remind viewers how they can prevent water pollution and be good water stewards.

“It’s a fun community outreach campaign,” said Mesa Water spokeswoman Celeste Carrillo, who stopped by Matthew’s residence Monday. “It’s a great way to get the word out there about water and educate folks on the importance of water and how we can keep it clean.”

“Streams of Hope” will also include several community cleanup events leading up to Earth Day on April 22, which will be listed alongside a slate of activities online at mystreamsofhope.com.

A utility box art wrap created by Bonnie Matthews in 2020 stands at the corner of Bear and Bristol streets in Costa Mesa.
A utility box art wrap created by Bonnie Matthews in 2020 stands at the corner of Bear and Bristol streets in Costa Mesa.
(City of Costa Mesa)

Carrillo said representatives of Mesa Water District — which serves 110,000 customers in Costa Mesa and portions of Newport Beach and unincorporated Orange County, including John Wayne Airport — had a few artists in mind when they discovered Matthews on an online directory of artists who’ve worked with the city of Costa Mesa.

Matthews created a large-scale art piece in 2020 that was applied to a utility box at the corner of Bear and Bristol streets. She’s also participated in ARTventure, an annual local art show organized by the city, its Cultural Arts Commission and Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

“As she was telling us about her illustrations and her passion for what she does, we thought, this is the perfect fit,” Carrillo recalled.

A longtime children’s book illustrator who also produces and photographs cookbooks, Matthews moved to Costa Mesa in 2013. Though she spent decades working in typography and as an art director, her creative art is self-taught and typically done with a method called gouache, which produces an opaque watercolor effect.

Bonnie Matthews' illustrations can be found 25 children's books, as well as catalogs and other publications.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The result is both vividly hued and gentle, which, when paired with Matthews’ deft ink drawings of quirky creatures, kids and animal figures, gives her art a sprightly and fantastical feeling that seems a natural fit for educational materials.

Aside from her love of art, Matthews is also an avid snorkeler who’s traveled to Honduras, Bermuda and the Cook Islands and has seen firsthand the environmental damage that’s being inflicted on coral reefs and other marine habitats.

She said she chose to depict a beach cleanup scene because it illustrates how easy it can be to make a difference.

“I hope this will promote some discussion,” she said. “If kids are there and looking at it, maybe they’ll start a conversation with their parents and decide to take some action.”

"Set in Motion, a Change for the Ocean," a Stella whale created by Costa Mesa artist Bonnie Matthews.
“Set in Motion, a Change for the Ocean,” a Stella whale created by Costa Mesa artist Bonnie Matthews.
(Courtesy of Bonnie Matthews)

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