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Rocky Rische-Baird uses past, present conflicts for inspiration

Kim Harris

Public art by Rocky Rische-Baird is a reminder of Oakland’s rich history and his art raises questions about the ways in which people think about progress. His murals, two of which decorate Piedmont Avenue, beautifully depict the struggles of the past and offer critical observations of the present.

If you are strolling down Piedmont Avenue away from downtown (towards Pleasant Valley Road) you might pass the home of J’s Hamburger and Such. This unique corner building, at 41st and Piedmont, was once a Key System train station before AC Transit bought it in1960, in order to shut it down.

Check out the back wall of the building, where Rische-Baird completed a mural in 2005 depicting the old Key station. This mural, entitled “The Electric Life is Safe Together” is a lively, colorful 12′ by 24′ acrylic piece with the electric rail car at the center, surrounded by a bustling station in the Oakland transit past.

From 1903 until 1948, The Key System operated electric streetcars and bus lines throughout the East Bay and a commuter rail and ferry to San Francisco, according to a January 2008 feature in Oakland Magazine. It said several factors collaborated to end the Key System, which had 70 miles of track: the Bay Bridge, Americans’ growing obsession with cars, the lesser operative cost of buses and the lobbying of car and oil companies.

Of course this mural is beautiful to look at. But Rische-Baird had a deeper purpose in mind when creating the Key System painting. A closer look will inspire questions about the station’s history, and consequently, the history of Oakland itself.

“The top figure is Marion ‘Borax’ Smith,” Rische-Baird said, referring to the figure at the top holding a large gold key. “He would be considered the father of The Key Route System.”

Granville T. Woods, one of the first African American inventors in the electrical engineering field, also appears in the mural, holding an electrical bolt between his hands.

“He invented the still-used notorious electric third rail that made the whole electric train thing possible, as well as many other public and rail safety inventions,” Rische-Baird said .

The mural also depicts images representative of how the Key System became an East Bay success, and how it fell apart. A soldier carrying away a drum of oil represents the rationing of oil during WWII, which increased public transportation’s popularity and use.

In contrast, “There are two shadowy figures shaking red hands beneath an oil well that represent General Motors and Firestone Tires who strong-armed the Key System so they could shut it down,” Rische-Baird said.

If you cross Piedmont Avenue, and walk about a block further, you will find another mural by Rische-Baird, called “The Capture of Solid, The Escape of Soul,” alternatively known as the Ohlone Mural. This mural, on the side of Gaylord’s Coffee shop at 4150 Piedmont Ave., is a 10’x24′ depiction of the subjugation of the Ohlone people, and the relationships between past and present, settler and native, freedom and oppression.

Rische-Baird described the mural as “staged in a way that modern California on the right is looking on to the history that took place regarding the Ohlone after foreign settlers.”

Figures on the right, the “modern California” side, include a man filming a movie, a raccoon holding a soda, and a small boy wearing a toy headdress. A coyote representing the Ohlone’s believed creator points “modern California” to the past, “as if to say for you to be here, this is what became of my children,” Rische-Baird said.

He described some of the many symbols, such as the “green diseased figure,” which represents the small pox that killed many Ohlone people, and a paper-doll rancher suit representing the intention of Franciscans to turn the Ohlone into ranchers.

This wall space is used as a means to spark dialogue within the community where the past is respected, a source of information and wisdom. By creating a link between the past and the present, the artist acknowledges the connection that must be made to endure difficult times. “I think that public art, anywhere, should challenge the public and inspire critical thought. If it doesn’t, it’s just wallpaper.”