.Silicon Alleys: Silver Ochre Paints Picture of US Through Vibrant Murals

KEYED UP: Thollem McDonas wrote the music for ACVilla’s images for ‘The Now of US,’ short films screening Saturday at WORKS/San Jose. Photo by Ariele Monti

The Greek Muralist iNo said, “If you want to learn about a city, look at its walls.” This is exactly what musician Thollem McDonas and video artist ACVilla are doing.

Under the name of Silver Ochre, the duo is currently crisscrossing the country, gathering video footage of murals and making new recordings, all to create short films they hope will elevate the national discourse as we race our way toward the presidential elections. They will present the project, The Now of US, at WORKS/San Jose this Saturday night.

A graduate of SJSU’s School of Music many years ago, McDonas has spent over a decade living as a peripatetic musician, relentlessly touring the world, gigging, presenting, teaching, performing and recording a gargantuan amount of music. ACVilla also has deep San Jose roots. Her father was the legendary Chicano activist and social worker Jose Villa.

The Now of US is a true collaboration in the sense that McDonas and Villa are together during every aspect of the process, from beginning to end. McDonas is present to see how Villa approaches each individual mural, how she takes photos and how she films various dimensions of the experience. As a result, he develops formalistic ideas of how he might approach the music. Likewise, Villa is usually present in the sessions when McDonas records with other musicians. Both are constantly talking about how to proceed with the project.

“It’s collaborative in every single way,” McDonas said. “I feel, for me, that collaborating with other people, whether they’re musicians or artists or other mediums, that I learn a lot about my own process. So it’s all informing me, all the time.”

The Now of US is Silver Ochre’s second multimedia experience of the US, following their previous 48-state odyssey, Who Are US, which took place three years ago. This time, the focus is on the immediacy of present-day America. As the duo travels to various cities across the land, local muralists are joining them at the gigs to participate in the discussion. For the show at WORKS, Erin Salazar of Local Color will join the conversation and talk about her work on a variety of fronts. The audience will thus witness two natives from a previous generation, McDonas and Villa, returning home to collaborate with a current-day artist, Salazar, all to celebrate the power of murals. What an idea.

And in the current era, with Facebook trying to cannibalize everyone’s memories, and when live video art with musical accompaniment almost seems “old school,” it’s important to remind ourselves that murals have a long history of political and creative expression. Some of the greatest works of art in the 20th century were murals. They often carry more authentic emotional attachment than any of the “stories” on Instagram.

“Murals are seen by people in their everyday lives, constantly,” said McDonas. “At the same time, they also are out in the elements, and they degrade over time in the wind, and rain, and sun, and soot. Or people come knock down the buildings, or paint over them. So they’re just really interesting things to us, in all these different ways.”

The name Silver Ochre itself emerges from a harmonization of opposites. Macrocosm meets microcosm, agriculture meets concrete, intimacy meets distance, all to combine the present-time awareness of Zen perspectives with the technology of digital synthesis and video performance techniques. Silver Ochre trains the eye on small moments of time and also trains the ear to grains of sonic experience, helping the viewer/listener to zoom in on the everyday and the mundane, all through the lens of murals.

McDonas says the Silver Ochre project emerged because murals are modes of expression, identity and/or dissent that exist in a physical space where people live their lives.

“That’s why we’re intrigued by them,” he said. “And also, murals are seen primarily for this reason by people who live there, local people. So by us traveling around the country, we’re using our life, our lifestyle, to be able to accumulate all of these works that are otherwise just primarily local, and, by accumulating them together, we’re making it into a national compilation of artists. Of muralists.”

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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