Every family has a member who ends-up with the boxes of old family photos. San Jose’s Margaret Ma is that person in her family.
But unlike most keepers of hand-me-down nostalgia, Ma figured why let the family history just rot away in a dusty shoebox when there was a perfectly good stucco wall outside her home. So she hired an artist to turn the family photos into murals — for everyone to see.
“It was just the big white wall,” Ma said. “I saw — gosh — this looks like a canvas.”
In her Palm Haven neighborhood in San Jose’s Willow Glen, Ma hired artist Scott Willis to paint a series of murals on the exterior wall of her historic home — based on her family photos of the region.
“My great-great-grandparents came to Watsonville and Santa Clara in the 1850s,” Ma said, ticking off her family pedigree, which includes a past San Jose Mayor. “So I wanted to put up things that were both general historical interest and also have a family connection.”
On one mural Willis painted Ma’s great-grandfather’s Keystone wholesale grocery business in San Jose from around 1908. In another, a hunting party of men and women pose in nearby Watsonville. A colorful mural shows Ma’s grandmother and aunt standing in front of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk donning 50s bathing suits. There is a painting of nearby Lincoln High School with Ma’s relatives standing out front.
“Three generations of us went to it,” Ma said.
Another mural shows the strawberry fields once ubiquitous in Watsonville. Ma said the picture is a nod to her great-great grandfather Robert Eaton who she said was the first strawberry grower in the area to ship strawberries by train.
“Everybody knows about Silicon Valley,” said Willis, painting from his perch among the branches of an olive tree. “But few people know what was here before. It was a great agricultural center.”
Neighbors have closely followed Willis’ progress since the murals began to pop-up and take shape. They stop. They look. They occasionally weigh-in with their own artistic suggestions.
On a recent day, Ruben Villalpando paused during a stroll to take-in Willis’ labors, suggesting the homeowner cut down the two small olive trees in front of the wall to not impede the view of the murals.
“What she is doing to the neighborhood is very special,” Villalpando said, settling back into observer mode. “It gives you a lift because you’ll see that nowhere else.”
Ma and her brothers grew-up in the Palm Haven house her parents purchased in 1962. She and her husband eventually bought the home. It’s not hard to see how the neighborhood came by its name; its streets are lined with towering palm trees that make the neighborhood look as if it was plucked off a vintage Los Angeles post card and plunked down in San Jose.
The traffic on nearby Bird Avenue is noisier than it used to be, Ma said. But she thinks neighbors are more close-knit.
“You gotta take the good with the bad,” she said. “I don’t think it’s better or worse — it’s just different.”
Willis put the finishing touches on a painting based on a favorite picture of Ma’s, showing her and her brother standing with a go-cart at the end of the street in front of the home decades earlier.
Willis, who has painted other large outdoor murals in San Jose said he’s enjoyed working on the project — and appreciates that Ma is keeping a bit of family and area history alive — and visible.
“I think everybody has boxes of old photos,” Willis said. “For the most part they just sit there. And it’s too bad when the information is lost.”