The Healing Power of Art in Chinatown Butterfly mural floats over Moon Gate Plaza

This 12-foot-by-30-foot mural at Moon Gate Plaza is based on a painting by Salinas artist JC Gonzalez | Provided photo


By Kathryn McKenzie

A huge canvas mural of fluttering butterflies now hangs over Moon Gate Plaza in Salinas’ Chinatown, a testament to transformation and renewal — much like the story of this historic but troubled neighborhood.

The mural is the latest sign of progress in this decade-long effort to create new housing for the homeless that also has an arts center at its hub, a way to take care of bodies and souls all in one place.

Moon Gate Plaza has its own “moon gate” as well, installed last December, a bright red Asian-inspired design by Salinas artist Nada Abdelshahid that evokes the mix of cultures in this neighborhood, which includes Chinese, Japanese and Filipino heritage and stories.

In Chinese culture, butterflies are symbols of love, long life and the desire to be free. Symbols were also on the mind of artist JC Gonzalez, who created the original acrylic painting that is the basis of the mural. To him, butterflies are powerful metaphors for change.

“We go through transformations in our lives,” he said, similar to that of butterflies’ metamorphosis from caterpillars to their ultimate winged form. The butterflies fly above the fields of Salinas, depicted in shades of green and turquoise, the colors of “tranquility and peace,” said Gonzalez, an instructor at Hartnell College and artistic founder of Urban Arts Collaborative.


This 12-foot-by-30-foot mural at Moon Gate Plaza is based on a painting by Salinas artist JC Gonzalez | Provided photo

Just as his painting is titled “Butterfly Convergence,” the mural represents the coming together of community, art, caring and support.

The artwork’s installation earlier this month can be seen on the east corner of the Moon Gate development, another step on the way to the completion of the $40 million housing complex. In addition to providing affordable housing, Moon Gate provides a community room with a kitchen, a courtyard with community gardens, bicycle storage, a library and a multi-purpose room. There are also several full-time staffers who assist residents with case management, job search and placement assistance.

“Moon Gate has been an exhausting and rewarding journey for all involved, so this mural represents a special milestone for us,” said consultant Melissa Smedley, who has been working to integrate art into the Moon Gate project for the past six years.

Ultimately, Moon Gate Plaza will also have commercial spaces that will include art studios and a gallery, Smedley said.

Moon Gate Plaza, the result of a partnership between the city of Salinas and Bay Area nonprofit MidPen Housing, seeks to revitalize Chinatown while addressing the area’s growing homeless population. The mixed-use permanent supportive housing community provides 90 brand-new apartment homes, 40 of which were set aside for high-need populations, including the formerly homeless.

Residents began moving into the apartments last January, with 20 of the units housing homeless clients with mental illness. Tenants for the remaining apartments were determined by a lottery of qualified applicants. All of the affordable housing units are now occupied, while final construction of the ground floor suites will wrap up in the next few months, Smedley said.

The journey to getting the mural up began after Gonzalez’s original painting was shown as part of the exhibit “Convergence: Carr Lake Ecology and Community” at CSUMB City Center in January 2020.

To convert the painting into a 12-foot-by-30-foot mural, the original work had to be photographed and the image printed on canvas, and some elements had to be shifted to accommodate the mural’s new and larger proportions.

The final rendition is a collaborative venture that involved Gonzalez, The Digital Nest student mentor Tony Munozledo, and coordination by Smedley, a process that Gonzalez says took about six months. The Digital Nest, a nonprofit that helps young people learn computer skills, has locations in Salinas and Watsonville.


Salinas artist Nada Abdelshahid at the gate she designed for Moon Gate Plaza | Provided photo

With the mural being on canvas rather than painted on the building, it provides the opportunity to change out murals from time to time. Also, Gonzalez notes, the building’s surface wasn’t ideal for painting a permanent mural and it would have taken a very long time to complete.

He’s happy with the end result, though: “It’s finally installed, and it’s amazing.”

Gonzalez, who grew up in Salinas and became interested in art while in middle school, was encouraged on his path by Hijos Del Sol, the arts organization founded by renowned muralist José Ortiz. Gonzales developed his own distinct style after studying art at San Diego State and at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. His Urban Arts Collaborative is a cadre of young artists in Salinas who work together to create art and to engage in the positive transformation of their community.

The plan for the mural had originally been proposed by the Moon Gate architect, but it was up to Smedley and MidPen project manager Betsy Wilson to carry it forward.

“It really was Betsy Wilson’s vision,” said Smedley, who has been working on the Moon Gate complex for six years. “It’s a different take on revitalizing neighborhoods.”

She also points to the installation of the bright red Moon Gate earlier this year as another example of employing art to help people feel invested in their neighborhood.

“It’s so vivid, and it makes people feel proud to be living there, or just walking on by,” she said. “It’s incredibly uplifting.”

When the ground floor suites of Moon Gate are completed, these spaces will incorporate arts, health and wellness, culture and educational programming to serve all Chinatown neighborhood residents.

The mural is just the start of a cascade of art that will come to Moon Gate. Eventually art classes will be held in the yet-to-be-opened commercial spaces as well as an art gallery. Art has the power to heal, Smedley said, and Chinatown needs to heal.

Gonzalez’s work “was a great way to start it,” said Smedley.

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).