A river runs through it

Posted: September 23rd, 2016 | Arts & Entertainment, Featured, Features | 1 Comment

Local artist, volunteers transform sidewalk

By Jeff Clemetson | Editor

When the students of Maryland Elementary returned to class on Sept. 1, they found part of their walk to school transformed from a graffiti-ridden sidewalk to a colorful pathway decorated as a river.

The beautification project was spearheaded by Maxine Lynch, La Mesa Police Department’s community resource supervisor, who was tired of painting over the graffiti as it appeared and wanted a long-term solution to a problem area.

“It’s a sidewalk that has heavy foot traffic,” she said. “Part of that foot traffic is kids going from the residential neighborhood to the elementary school. So what I would find from time to time is that there would be graffiti tags on it — not so much gang tags, but usually it was like body parts with some sexual connotations, things you wouldn’t want elementary kids to see.”


Mary Conly stands on the sidewalk she and other transformed into a river. (Photo by Jeff Clemetson)

Lynch began working with community groups and found volunteers to transform the sidewalk into a public art piece. First, a group of church volunteers painted the sidewalk blue and then local artist Mary Conly, her stepson J.P. and another group of volunteers decorated it with sea grass, rocks, butterflies, flowers and fish.

Conly designed the fish templates and decided where to put them using tape and then volunteers, including J.P., helped stencil in the fish.

Conly — whose father was a professor of both art and history and whose mother was a painter of fine art — started to paint when she retired about 20 years ago.

“I’ve tried every medium there is. I like watercolor a lot,” she said, adding that she has never worked on a public art project before. “I like to work small, actually, so this is quite a challenge to work large.”

The river painting was definitely “working large.” The sidewalk has 48 squares that are approximately 8-by-8 feet. Every part was painted and decorated, except one small area.

“Down there at the very bottom, every time it rains, mud slides in so we didn’t paint in that area but I got as close as I could,” Conly said.

Weather and foot traffic were other factors that the artist had to deal with while creating the river.

“We came in the mornings because it gets really hot here and we would do two to three squares at a time, slowly. The sun was so powerful the paint would dry in 20 minutes,” she said. “I had to paint this and people wanted to walk by and I told them to avoid the yellow fish and finally I said don’t step on any fish because we were using multiple colors. We had to have people walking around us and it was difficult with people with dogs because it is hard to control a big dog.”


Conly holds a sketch of her fish patterns for the sidewalk art. (Photo by Jeff Clemetson)

Despite the hot days and bothersome pedestrians, Conly is satisfied with the work she and the other volunteers did.

“The fun thing was turning something ugly into something pretty,” she said. “Everybody seems to love it, too. I haven’t heard a single bad comment.”

Lynch agrees.

“I think in the end it turned out to be a success,” she said. “There were some neighbors who weren’t happy when it was only bright blue but I think now that its finished, people enjoy it.”

Combating graffiti with public art is not new for Lynch, although most of her projects are on a much smaller scale.

“We’ve gotten community people and schools to adopt some utility boxes and once they get a design on them, they’ll go a year or more with no graffiti, so the savings in my time is huge,” Lynch said. “We also did a wall right front of La Mesa Dale School that would get tagged with graffiti on a regular basis. One of our local churches worked with the kids at the school and did a beautiful painting of all the planets and then the kids put their handprints on it. It has not been tagged in the last three years. It’s been just amazing to take care of some of these problem spots.”

—Reach Jeff Clemetson at

One Comments

  1. Gloria Kirkpatrick says:

    What a wonderful idea! Mrs.Conly is a true artist and very original in her thinking and planning.

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