Many Carmichael residents are undoubtedly familiar with “The Great Wall of Carmichael,” with its colorful, 100-foot-long mural, which sits near a portion of the Fair Oaks Boulevard side of Carmichael Park.
But a far greater number of these people are unaware of many details about the wall and its artwork.
In an interview with this publication last week, 71-year-old Fair Oaks resident Hugh Gorman, the artist who painted this notable mural, explained details about this wall and other highlights of his life.
In reflecting upon being hired to create the Carmichael Park mural, which was officially dedicated in 2003, Hugh said, “There was an ad in the paper, (which read): ‘Wanted: Mural design for SMAC – Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.’ I applied for it, and it was to be a retaining wall in front of Denny’s (restaurant), which is where Fair Oaks (Boulevard) T’s into Manzanita (Avenue) and Fair Oaks (Boulevard). So, I really wanted that job. I’d already done this mural here (at the Fair Oaks Veterans Memorial Amphitheater in Village Park in Fair Oaks) and I’d done some other murals. I like trying to explain a community on a wall. So, I tried really hard to get (the job), and I did. And I guess there were 13 people who applied.”
Although he was excited to begin his mural project in front of Denny’s, Hugh recalled how his work at that site was suddenly halted.
Hugh said that he received a call from the locally renowned developer George Tsakopoulos (1927-2009), who told him that he did not want a mural in front of his property, which is presently owned by Carmichael Village, LLC.
Following this phone call, Tsakopoulos, Hugh noted, took further action with the matter, and the project was eventually abandoned at that site.
In the process of attempting to relocate the project, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, according to the recollections of Hugh, agreed to keep the project moving forward at a new site.
Hugh noted that, with its delays, the project took five years to complete. But he added that he was required to finish the wall in one season.
And overall, he remembers the project as being 90 to 95 percent well received by the community.
After the mural was completed at the park in 2002, a dedication for the wall was held that year. A much better attended, second dedication was held in non-rainy weather during the following spring.
After being asked to describe the details of his mural, Hugh said, “I tried to do the period of human existence, which is probably 10,000 years, more or less. And I tried to do that from the American River, because I think Carmichael has forgotten it even has the American River as one of its boundaries.”
The largest detail of the entire mural at Carmichael Park is the word, “Carmichael,” which stretches across the upper, mid-section of this grand artwork.
This bas-relief mural, which was created with an acrylic polymer on formed concrete, is divided into five panels, with the first panel showing the flow of the river as it makes its way toward the San Francisco Bay.
In continuing his explanation of the mural, Hugh said, “It’s all about how do you paint something 100 feet long and 7 feet high and not have it look like a big old line. (Avoiding making the mural appear as a straight line) was the best part about what I did, I think, or one of the best things.”
And in speaking further about the mural, Hugh said, “This is that (pedestrian and bicycle) bridge at (River Bend) Park. And we’re going through time, and if you look at the people in the rafts, you’ll see this is earlier and this is later. And that’s me. I’m in there in an inner tube with a beer bottle tied to a string. And you’ll see that everybody (in the rafts) is white at first and then pretty soon, they start sprinkling different colors as the population changes.”
And while pointing to different areas of the mural, Hugh said, “Here’s the Indians right here, and even right here. And here’s the Gold Rush right here. Well, here’s a Jeep from 1945 that marks the end of World War II. And right here are people fishing for salmon, and the way they used to fish for salmon was they just used a pitch fork. And then here you’ll see a family sitting around and the kids playing in the water. They’ve got their little picnic out. And then you go over to the Indian times, and there they are. There are families sitting around and the kids are playing in the water. So, nothing has changed, except for the color of their skin.”
Images of animals, including fish and turtles, are also present in the mural.
Although the area’s well-known Deterding family had permission to use dredgers, they never did dredge the river.
In commenting about the image of a dredger in that area of his mural, Hugh said, “I put it in anyway, because it’s such a part of our history, but from the other side of the river.”
Another feature of the mural, which Hugh spoke about was an image of a historic river vessel.
“I was reading about all these different things and I read about this boat, called the Dixie, which ran the river from Folsom and back (during the 19th century),” Hugh said. “It would go up to the Negro Bar and bring rocks and wood back.”
A feature of the wall that often goes unnoticed is a heart-shaped rock that sits on top of the wall.
Hugh said that he found the rock in his backyard while he was building his art studio.
“Phil Evans, whose a sculptor, drilled holes (in the rock) for me and put (metal) rods in there and then I just set it in the concrete (to secure it),” Hugh said.
Because the Sacramento County Historical Society thought so highly about Hugh’s mural at Carmichael Park, the organization created a new award category, called “Heritage through Art,” and awarded him the first award in that category.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit Hugh’s studio can view his variety of paintings.
One of these paintings is of Ishi, who was the last surviving member of the Yahi Native American tribe. Hugh refers to this painting as “My Mona Lisa.”
During his interview for this article, Hugh also mentioned Donor Plaza, the area near the Fair Oaks Bridge that he designed in commemoration of those who contributed to the project to purchase bluffs over the American River.
“That land was being threatened to be taken over, so I had been fighting that for a long time, this way and that way,” Hugh said. “Eventually, it turned into, ‘Let’s just buy those lots and then the deal is done. And that’s what happened. I designed a thing that included three benches, and we used bricks for steps. We had 350 bricks. So, that’s an environmental art piece that’s well worth looking at, and it’s real neat.”
He also noted that he enjoys carving artistic creations, playing a keyboard, swinging on his backyard rope swing, swimming in cold water in various places in California and collecting vintage automobiles.
Hugh, who was born in St. Helena, Calif. and was one of the five children of Clyde and Grace Gorman, said that he developed a very early interest in art.
“As a little kid, they gave me clay and building blocks and I’d make little faces out of the clay,” said Hugh, who moved to Folsom in 1945 and to the area around today’s American River College in 1946. “I sort of knew how to draw real early on. Everybody always said, ‘Oh, you’re so luck, because you know what you’re going to do. You’re going to be an artist.’ And that was implanted early on, and people hired me to do portraits at 6, 7 years old. Some people are born with different things and I was born as (an artist). My dad was a writer, so he was a creative guy.”
Hugh, who attended elementary school in Carmichael, later took art classes at the old La Sierra High School before making his way to the University of California, Berkeley.
In deciding upon a career choice, Hugh initially began studying architecture in college, then he opted to become a sculptor, and lastly, he studied landscape architecture.
Despite receiving his degree at UC Berkeley in landscape architecture in 1967, Hugh said that he still always saw himself as a painter.
He began his post-college working years as a landscape architect in Santa Barbara.
Today, Hugh resides in a century-old house in Fair Oaks with his wife, Teri.
In explaining his passion for art, Hugh said, “Basically, you’ve got a story to tell. You’ve got something that you think is going to make the world a better place or at least make some understanding or describe what’s beautiful here that maybe you don’t know about. Whatever your point is, you’re telling a story. I’m self driven pretty much. My imagination works real quick.”
And in demonstrating his sense of humor at the end of the interview, Hugh, after being asked how he would like to be remembered in the future, responded, “Well, what’s the difference?”