Renowned muralist returns to childhood school in Petaluma for big project

Max Bala making his mark on Petaluma, has just finished a new mural at McNear Elementary School, which he attended 18 years ago.|

With a happy soundtrack of children’s voices as background music, laughing and calling across the blacktop, artist Maxfield Bala works in the afternoon shade, adding some intricate details to the enormous mural he is rapidly nearing completion of at Petaluma’s McNear Elementary School. The 10-day project, which Bala expects to have completed by Monday, Feb. 13 or so, is of particular significance to the acclaimed artist – who has painted murals all over the country – because McNear Elementary was his own first school.

“I went here from kindergarten through sixth grade, graduating in 2005,” he says with a bright smile. “So it’s kind of a nice story that I’m back, 15 years later, painting a mural at the same school I attended as a kid.”

With a specialized paint marker in hand, Bala stands on the railed platform of a bright orange scissor-lift, carefully adding shading to the image of a leafy green tree painted on a wide exterior wall. The mural - which incorporates elements suggested by the students - features an enormous hand rising up from the asphalt. The hand holds a postcard on which the name “McNear” appears, each letter bearing smaller images: animals, flowers, a rainbow, musical instruments, a basketball, a stack of books. The entire "postcard“ is dramatically overlooked by a large peregrine falcon, posing majestically in the background.

“That looks really good!” shouts a student to Bala, as a group of kids pass by on their way back to class.

“Thank you!” I appreciate that!“ Bala replies, noting, ”I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback. The kids have been really interested. They love to stand and watch me work.“

The McNear project - which will be officially dedicated at a short ceremony on Friday, Feb. 17 - was made possibly by a $10,000 donation from several anonymous donors. Before any painting was done, the project kicked off with a school-wide presentation last year.

“I spoke about who I was and what I do,” Bala recalls. “And then we did a follow-up presentation in the multi-purpose room, with a slideshow, and I proposed some concepts, and the kids all shouted out different ideas. Then we had a smaller meeting with fifth and sixth grade students, and they gave be a clearer idea of what they wanted from the mural.” From those encounters, Bala devised a few concept mock-ups for the principal and staff to consider. “After a couple of revision rounds, we came up with this,” he says, gesturing to the mural.

The process can be timely, Bala notes, but he’s certainly had plenty of experience with it by now. Numerous local schools currently feature Max Bala murals, including Petaluma High, Casa Grande High, Petaluma Junior High, McKinley School, McDowell Elementary, and others. Additional murals can be found on utility boxes, storage building exteriors, and countless walls all over town. Elsewhere, Bala’s murals can be seen in San Francisco, Oxnard, Eastvale, Lake Tahoe and many other locations.

“When I’m done with this one, I’m heading to Tennessee, land of Dolly Parton, to do another mural there,” Bala says. “Then Idaho, out in Wallace, then I’m doing a mural for Amy’s Drive-Thru in Thousand Oaks.” His next Petaluma project will be a large exterior wall near Brewster’s Beer Garden. “That one’s going to be big,” he says. “It’s 50 feet wide, 30 feet tall, on the wall of Buffalo Billiards place.”

That job is scheduled for April, after which he’ll be heading to San Jose to do a mural down the street from the Winchester Mystery House.

“I keep pretty busy,” he says. “It’s fun to travel around, painting murals of all kinds, and then occasionally get to come back home. It’s nice to get to give back to the community.”

Asked how long the students of McNear will be able to enjoy his artistry, Bala notes that the mural will be covered in a clear coat finish designed for the citywide Olympic murals in Los Angeles in 1984.

“I’d say this mural will still look great in 20 years,” he says, preparing to get back to work. “But the L.A. murals have survived almost 40 years, so who knows?“

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