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Livermore's new 'Dream Big' astronaut mural aims to inspire youth

Ribbon cutting ceremony set for Saturday

Livermore is starting to become known for its public art installations throughout the city, particularly the large murals dispersed throughout downtown on various building walls. One of the newest displays in town is not only intended to capture attention visually but also sends a message to the community to "Dream Big."

The concept of the mural -- which features portraits of astronauts with local ties -- was created by Alan Burnham who is a Livermore resident, founder of Quest Science Center and current Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) contractor with M.H. Chew & Associates.

Burnham owns the building located downtown off Railroad Avenue and North K Street that is now home to the mural. He'd purchased it for potential use by Quest Science Center and other nonprofit organizations.

When he bought it, one of the building walls had "an ugly blotch" and some graffiti, according to Burnham, prompting his interest to spruce it up with some artwork.

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A view of the wall during the sketch phase of the project. Photo courtesy of Larry Lagin

"The inspiration was a combination of having worked a little with one of (the astronauts) at LLNL and my work on the Apollo 11 landing exhibition in the lobby of the Bankhead," Burnham told Livermore Vine in an interview. "The mural design evolved over time, including while painting."

The final version of the mural depicts astronauts Jeff Wisoff, currently the principal associate director of LLNL’s NIF & Photon Science Directorate; Tammy Jernigan, former senior advisor to the Laboratory Director’s Office of Defense Coordination; José Hernández, the son of Mexican migrant farmworkers and a former LLNL engineer for 15 years; Leroy Chiao, a former LLNL research engineer; and Ellen Ochoa, a former researcher at Sandia National Laboratories and the former director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The five of them are depicted in the mural wearing either orange or blue space suits and are surrounded by a galaxy filled with constellations, planets, a space shuttle, the International Space Station, a rocket and the North Star. The words "Dream Big" in large blue writing are emblazoned above their heads.

The months-long process of transferring the mural from idea to reality was no small feat.

With help from Larry Lagin -- a retired scientist and project manager who is also a celebrated visual artist -- Burnham assembled a team of local artists to bring his vision for the mural to fruition.

In addition to Lagin, the group of artists included Anne Giancola, Thomasin Dewhurst and Matt Finders, who is actually a musician and the director of youth jazz band Element 116 but dabbles in the visual arts. "My expertise was mainly getting up on ladders and putting down base coats," Finders joked about his limited visual arts experience.

"I happen to be the world's largest collector of Larry paintings and so, I asked him if he needed help on this," Finders said, adding: "I was mostly up and down the ladders and up on the roof and doing the stuff that wasn't quite as refined but in the scheme of things, somebody had to do it."

Lagin added, however, that Finders' contributions were integral to the project.

"Thank God there were four of us," said Giancola, who oversees the Bothwell Arts Center and serves as the visual arts and education manager for Livermore Valley Arts.

While murals are generally within her wheelhouse as an artist, Giancola explained that this one being so large with so many different elements made it a job for more than one person.

"Most of my murals are more interior, residential and small commercial, so this one was a little bit big," she said with a laugh.

The completed mural is actually more than just a little bit big -- it's 77 feet wide and 17 feet tall.

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A view of the 'Dream Big' mural in the painting phase as it was nearly completed. Photo courtesy of Larry Lagin

All of the artists, including Burnham, had known each other and connected with one another in different ways and for other projects over the years but Lagin said this was the first time that all of them came together and "molded our expertise together."

"I found it to be very collaborative and we would ask each other things like, 'Does that really look like a nose? Is the nostril too off to the right?'" Lagin said of the experience working with the fellow artists.

Giancola noted that Dewhurst was very instrumental in helping bring the faces to life with accuracy as painting portraits is one of her areas of expertise. "She was really great to put all the finishing touches on the faces to really make them look real, believable and recognizable as those of the astronauts," Giancola said of Dewhurst.

The process of creating the mural began back in March at the Bothwell Arts Center where the artists projected the face and torso of each astronaut’s image on mimeograph paper on the wall. "I don't know how many weeks that took us. It was very laborious but it was a labor of love," Lagin said of the tedious process. After completing the sketches of the portraits, they moved on to placing them on the wall followed by the painting process.

The artists agreed that in addition to the visual appeal of the mural, a significant aspect they wanted to come across was the meaning. "We felt really strongly that we were giving a good message to the youth of Livermore," Giancola said. "We really wanted this to say 'Dream Big' – no matter what you want to do. These are five astronauts associated with Livermore but really you can do anything we just want the youth to dream big," she added.

The mural was completed mid-summer but the ribbon cutting ceremony is set for this Saturday (Sept. 24) from 10-11 a.m. at 175 N. K St.

In addition to the artists, the featured astronauts are expected to be in attendance along with several city officials, lab representatives and community members.

The emcee for the event is Kelly Bowers, the new CEO and president of Three Valleys Community Foundation and the former superintendent of schools for Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District.