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'May Flower' art initiative injects color and life into downtown SLO

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Downtown San Luis Obispo may not be booming right now, but it's blooming.

Bright orange poppies, purple lupines, and other wildflowers pop from the dozens of storefront windows they're painted on. An explosion of color and creativity enlivens what's become an otherwise eerily deserted Higuera Street at the hands of COVID-19.

The May Flower Initiative is a message from downtown SLO to the community: These once-vibrant streets may be down, but they're not out.

"The idea came up when I was thinking about ways to bring some color and life back to downtown," explained Bettina Swigger, CEO of the Downtown SLO association. "It was shocking in mid/late March to wander through downtown and see our hustle and bustle gone. ... Downtown should be a place people come to get inspired and feel like they're part of a community, and that's what public art projects like this can do."

Swigger and her Downtown SLO team reached out to business owners to see what they thought of the idea. The response she got was overwhelmingly positive, with the number of interested businesses and artists exceeding her expectations, Swigger said.

"I thought maybe we'd get 20 to 25 businesses," she said. "Instead, there are now more than 70."

Participating storefronts could either create their own window art, or let Arts Obispo find artists willing to donate their time and work. The end result is eclectic. Tails Pet Boutique has some irresistible dogs to show off in its windows. The dark panes of Mother's Tavern are lit up by large, bright orange poppies. The Grill House's dandelions offer beautiful detail.

Artist Rachel Hamann said she was excited to be given wide creative latitude for her vivacious piece covering the former Asian Bistro's windows. Hamann worked with house paint, opting for loud red and pink colors to break from her usual style. The piece took Hamann about eight hours over two days to finish.

"I got to do exactly what I wanted, which I usually don't get to do," she told New Times. "l decided to go pretty big and bold, with as much bright colors as I could get in there. My personal art is very detailed. I tried to do something totally different from what I'd normally make."

A window, mural, and sign artist by trade, Hamann said she was eager to participate in the May Flower Initiative as soon as she found out about it.

"When this whole thing started, I wanted to try to give back," she said. "It was really nice to participate in something that is super visual. If you're out on a walk, you see all these beautiful things. It's there for other people to enjoy."

An opportunity to give back also inspired Cambria artist Frank Walker to contribute. His acrylic poppies and lupine adorn the Chamber of Commerce windows.

"I did it really fast—I was wearing a mask the whole day," Walker told New Times with a laugh. "I was excited about it because I feel bad that all those stores and buildings are closed. As an artist, I wanted to do something to fight against the cloud of the virus. To bring some color into people's lives is just a way of fighting that."

The initiative's communal nature brought SLO's artists and businesses closer together, Hamann said.

"I love living here because we do have a such a tight-knit, close community that really supports each other," she said. "I feel like this has made us come together even more."

A map of the downtown window art and a full list of participating businesses and artists can be found at downtownslo.com/mayflowers.

Fast facts

The Diversity Coalition of SLO County donated $6,000 to the SLO Food Bank and $2,000 to disaster relief assistance for immigrants as part of its Giving Tuesday contribution. The coalition, which specializes in diversity education, emphasized the community's growing food insecurity due to COVID-19. "We care deeply about the marginalized in our community, and we are here to support them," board chairman Cornel Morton said in a press release.

• The Community Foundation of SLO County has awarded $120,000 in disaster relief grants since the start of the COVID-19 crisis to grantees such as the SLO Noor Foundation, the Link Family Resource Center, Wilshire Community Services, Atascadero Loaves and Fishes, Child Development Resource Center, Peoples' Self-Help Housing, and Transitional Food and Shelter. Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson wrote this week's Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to strokes@newtimesslo.com.

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