Costa Mesa's past comes to life

Starting at 7 a.m. Nov. 6, Allyson Jones Wong strapped herself into a safety harness and climbed atop a boomlift. Working nonstop until the light ebbed at 5 p.m. almost every day, she overlooked exhaustion and illness.

Her sole focus: to paint.

"I was so excited to wake up each day and pick up my paintbrushes," Wong said. "It got to the point where I was getting sick but didn't even realize it. Everything in my life gravitates around my work. When I'm working, I'm happy — it's like I get high off of it."

Now, the rear facade of a former Edwards Theater on Adams Avenue has been given a facelift.

Four images and a map — shimmying among different eras — showcase a 61-by-26-foot sepia-toned celebration of Costa Mesa's history.

After an interview process that screened a laundry list of local muralists, John Hill, the architect of the shopping center at Harbor Boulevard and Adams, tapped Wong, a close friend of the property's owner.

"I didn't want to slap people in the face with a lot of color," Wong said of her largest work to date. "This mural had been envisioned as both informational and fun, and we were trying to provide a soothing effect with the rosewood color."

Born in Newport Beach, Wong knew she was going to be an artist as early as fourth grade. Walter Farley, who drew illustrations for "The Black Stallion" and other children's books, was an early influence.

"I was one of those kids who spent a lot of time alone, and I drew all the time, all the time," recounted Wong, now 51. "I even drew in class when I should've been doing other work. I never had any other interests. I always knew that I wanted to pursue art."

Wong, who earned a bachelor's degree in illustration from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and draws from styles ranging from Impressionism to photo realism, favors representational-style murals and plein air landscapes. After working at a tile factory for several years, she also developed a passion for decorative art and faux finishing.

"Very often, I create interesting textures, make a surface look like something else or insert embellished borders," explained the La Habra resident, whose work pops out from children's rooms, laundromats and restaurants across Orange and Los Angeles counties and the Inland Empire. "I try to do it wherever I can get away with it."

A muralist for 15 years, Wong described a feeling of toe-curling exhilaration upon being commissioned for the Elm Avenue-facing mural this past summer.

The parcel at Harbor and Adams, owned by Costa Mesa-based Sparks Enterprises, L.P., once housed the circa-1963 cinema and is now a venue for restaurants, offices and retail.

Tom Sparks, the firm's managing general partner, said the shopping center has been in redevelopment for just about a year — from planning to construction.

"The redevelopment included demolishing 5,000 square feet and adding about 5,000 square feet of constructed space," Sparks said. "We also have new parking spaces."

After discussing the theme with Sparks, Wong immersed herself in research, poring over historical books, collecting renderings and visiting the Costa Mesa Historical Society, before obtaining approval for a scaled-down representation of the mural.

She started working nights, flanked by her husband in a scissor lift, who projected the painting onto the wall, allowing Wong to sketch it with chalk.

Working over pipes and electrical boxes, Wong then painted a train trundling down Harbor, the Fairview Hotel and original movie house with a "Marquis" sign. She also recreated a Daily Pilot image from the theater's groundbreaking.

"In the center is what Costa Mesa used to look like at different times — it's a mishmash of various periods of local history," Wong said. "A lot of people don't know that there was a railroad that came down Harbor Boulevard and Newport Boulevard at different times. This green line indicates an army base during World War II, which is now OCC. This map depicts the transformation of the area."

Wong also crafted a border with a vintage cinematic feel, utilizing three custom-made stencils in most places and painting by hand in others, which exhibits Orange County's agricultural stronghold.

"The community has responded very positively," Wong said. "People come up to me and ask questions. I love telling them the story behind the mural because not many people know about these historical aspects of their hometown."

Having received positive feedback from city officials, Sparks agreed, adding that the idea was based on the fact that 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the city's founding and incorporation.

"It is our goal to honor the location and early history of this property," he said. "Another part of the idea is that we want to encourage people living in nearby neighborhoods to walk or cycle over here and use this walkway as an entrance. We want it to not only look pretty, but also simultaneously educate passersby."

While a fountain, landscaping and additional architectural elements have spruced up the appeal of the building, Wong is overjoyed at having been given an opportunity to contribute.

"Newport-Mesa is my home," she said. "I've got a lot of relations here. My brother lives nearby, and my mother would be as well, if she were alive. Being able to work on this mural means everything to me."

Twitter: @RMahbubani

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