By George Howell
Artist Gloria “Glow” Muriel is touching up the large eyes of the “Mystery Lady,” whose wavy hair flows along the wall of El General Market in Azalea Park. Someone has “tagged” her, subtly adding brown paint to her eyes.
Muriel notes the graceful way the eyes were tagged and then squeezes a burst of spray paint.
“I’m improving their work,” she laughs. “I’m helping them.”
I first saw Muriel’s work in Tijuana’s Pasaje Rodriguez, the creative marketplace off Avenida Revolución known for its terrific assortment of murals. Muriel, born in Mexico City and raised in Mexicali, studied graphic design at the Universidad Ibero-Americano in Playas de Tijuana and came to San Diego in 2002 because of a medical crisis in her family. Although she continued to sketch during the illness, she put her art career on hold for several years, and then developed a unique style — a catalog of female characters with exaggerated eyes and abstracted expressions who range from the childlike to the mature to the mystical.
Muriel’s career as a street artist began with a humble blue owl on a friend’s property in the neighborhood. In fact, this small slice of City Heights, located to the west of Fairmount Avenue, is the home of a number of Glow’s murals, which turn out to be a beautiful mini-survey of her growth as a wall artist.
The El General mural on Poplar Street, Muriel’s first project in City Heights, began as a memorial for a young man shot and killed in the neighborhood. Muriel says the idea for a mural came from Linda Pennington, the City Height’s coordinator for San Diego Canyonlands, the environmental group that sponsors trail building and cleanups along the city’s arroyos.
“Linda thought it was a really nice idea to dedicate the wall to Johnny. That’s why we put up the dove, and they also wanted a map of the trails. So I joined forces with my friend, Beth Emmerich. She’s also an artist and a tattoo artist, and we elaborated this wall for them.”
When I ask if the mural, completed in 2012, was planned out ahead of time, instead of “free-styled” – painted spontaneously, at the moment – Muriel says, “For this one we did because we had the whole Canyonlands team working on it. At the beginning they wanted a map, and I was like, ‘Hmm, why don’t we do some street art?’ I was new to murals, I started painting walls in 2011. So I talked them into letting me put up one of my characters and the flora and the fauna here in the canyon, and they loved it. This is like the Lady that takes care of the space.”
The community’s reaction to the mural surprised Muriel.
“It was amazing, all the people welcomed it. I had people just being really helpful and warm and protective of us and the art. And so it’s lasted for a while, being in City Heights. I think they were calling her the ‘Mystery Lady’ because she has that mysterious, dark sense. She is very potente [powerful], like she’s there, very present, and she’s somewhere other, like in a weird forest. She’s a protector for City Heights, right? She’s pretty.”
From Poplar Street, we drive over to an alleyway located between Pepper Drive and the much-used, much-loved community park. The murals, running from 2011 to a spectacular ensemble done in the spring of this year, line the exterior walls of property belonging to her friend, Marisa Gallego.
As Muriel describes the process of working with her artist-friends, it becomes clear that her approach to street art involves collaboration, joint decision making and respect for each artist’s style; altogether, an energizing sense of team work.
The owl, a simple blue shape with big eyes inside a black oval, shares the wall with a colorful, strange pale blue and purple beast.
“This is by one of my friends, Tecui. He’s now in Sweden. He’s very ancestral. We were in college together, we were graphic designers, but then he went into really cool stuff, Huichol [Indigenous Mexicans of Western Sierra Range] and different cultures. It’s an alejibre, those hybrid kind of animals that you see in Mexico. It’s very folkloric and very colorful.”
Muriel says the project was a tentative first step. Encouraged to work on walls by artist-friends like Dave “Persue” Ross [pronounced “Per-Sway”] and Michael “Monstrihno” Amorillo, she says of the effort, “I was using it for a practice wall because it’s different when you paint in the studio. This is what I was doing, little owls, because everyone loves owls. I still paint them.”
You can see more of Muriel’s owls on a wall at the community gathering space on Manzanita Place, overlooking Manzanita Canyon.
But the blue owl wasn’t the beginning of her career as an artist; she had already been actively exhibiting the female characters.
“I was doing the girl faces, I was putting animal elements to the canvases, very surreal, drippy backgrounds, yep, all of that. If you go to ‘gloriamuriel.com,’ you can see how those styles have changed. I was very, very fine arty, and there was more of a human essence in my paintings. Now they’re morphed into more nature and a little less of the human. I think it’s not being afraid of what you’ve got inside, no?”
How much of the faces are self-portraits and how much personae?
“Yes, of course there’s an element of projection, you know. I like the female figure, the female representing nature because I don’t draw a human figure. I like the fantasy, the whimsical, the uncomfortable, the challenge of bringing something out that nobody else has seen; it’s not something that exists.”
Does she paint male characters?
“No, I don’t do the masculine.” Then she jokes, “My excuse is that I’m very ‘masculine’ myself, I’m tomboyish, and so I put the feminine out there.”
Near the alejibre and the owl is an abstracted female face, from 2015. It replaced an earlier work – a blue fairy – painted by Beth Emmerich which was damaged.
“Someone from UCSD wanted to film some street art. We did a little project in four hours, so they could get a really cool video, which they did.” [Note: Since I began this article, Muriel, working with a Mexicali artist named Beto, replaced this face with another design.]
We next walk around the corner to see the “chicken” mural. I have to admit I didn’t see chickens when I first looked at the two large eyes, framed with ornate curls, resting over an abstract background. Small blue figures, deer and strange headless runners, race across the surface. The mural takes in the entire wall, including the wooden door to the driveway.
“The chickens,” she says, pointing to the eyes. Muriel and two friends – Monstrinho and Alex Branach, her partner and collaborator – painted the mural in 2016, the year of the rooster.
“Marisa has some chickens and we got inspired from them because they’re so cute. Chickens were something very simple to do because we didn’t have all day; actually, we painted in a half day. So Monstrinho was starting to do some abstract figures, circles and hard lines, and I painted the character on top and then Alex did the blues.”
Looking at the blue figures, I remember that Muriel likes deer as mythic animals. They also remind me of petroglyphs you might see at La Rumorosa, an ancient indigenous site near Mexicali.
“It is very Indian, it is, and it’s so funny because Alex is more into science and neuroscience, but he’s also got that duality. He’s very into plant medicines and cactuses and all kinds of things that our ancestors did, so it’s very ancestral stuff there, yeah.”
Writer and artist George Howell moved to Wonder Valley, a unique desert community outside of Twentynine Palms, California, in December 2013. His articles, reviews and artist interviews have appeared in Art Papers, Sculpture, Raw Vision and other publications.