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Here's what happened to portrait of homeless man on downtown Modesto wall

Phil Murillo of Working Class Studios works on a new mural, titled "Pollination," on Saturday, March 31, on the J Street wall of Ralston's Goat in downtown Modesto.
Phil Murillo of Working Class Studios works on a new mural, titled "Pollination," on Saturday, March 31, on the J Street wall of Ralston's Goat in downtown Modesto. jwestberg@modbee.com

A dramatically different mural has replaced the image of a homeless man that filled a space on the J Street side of the Ralston's Goat restaurant in downtown Modesto.

Where there was black, white and gray, now there's a palette of colors.

Where there was a polarizing figure, now there's an iconic image symbolic of the region's agricultural base.

"Pollination," showing a bee on an almond blossom, was completed Sunday by Phil Murillo, a graphic and fine artist. He is one of two artists who worked with Martin Baker, a defense attorney who created the mural of Rick Hernstedt that previously filled the space.

The painting of Hernstedt, who died in September 2015 after being struck by a car, was intended as a powerful reminder of the need to deal with the issues that result in people becoming and remaining homeless, Ralston's Goat then-co-owner Chelsea Addison-Torres told The Bee in February 2016.

But the mural created a bit of a stir around downtown because of the particular face it gave to homelessness. Several businesspeople said Hernstedt, who struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, would sometimes spit on people, call them obscene names and threaten them. He reportedly would pass by people dining on restaurants' patios and grab food from their plates.

Addison-Torres said she envisioned the Hernstedt mural being up for only 2016 and then making way for a new painting. That makes its replacement more than a year past due, Murillo said.

Ralston's Goat General Manager Mike Shelton said Murillo did his restaurant's logo and sign, so he asked him to do the new mural. "I come from a farming background; we have almonds on our family property," Shelton said. "I just mentioned almond blossoms and he ran with it. He did a beautiful job."

In his nearly three decades as an artist, "Pollination" is the first mural Murillo has done entirely on his own, he said, and he loved having free rein. He visited an orchard to shoot blossom photos when it struck him to put a bee in the forefront. "I don't like to work from others' compositions or photos," so he waited with his camera for just the right image of bee on blossom.

With the mural, he wanted to encapsulate the Valley but also draw attention to the Earth, bee colony collapse and how precious life is, Murillo said.

When not working his job, he spent 77 hours — Sunday through Sunday — on the J Street sidewalk creating the mural. He got compliments on the work in progress, but also complaints, mostly from the homeless community and those who knew Hernstedt.

"I can't tell you how many people wanted Rick to stay up there forever," Murillo said. "About 50 times over the last week, I explained he was only supposed to be up for a year."

Murillo said he and Shelton haven't talked about the expected life span of "Pollination," but the artist hopes it's up for a couple of years.

Then he figures he could make peace with it giving way to something else.

Shelton, who said he enjoys downtown's murals, painted utility boxes and other art features, indicated what he wouldn't mind seeing go on his wall or elsewhere. "I love the 'Graffiti' pieces, but George Lucas did another movie, too — 'Star Wars.'"

Sharing an image of TIE fighters pursuing the Millennium Falcon across a planet's sky, he asked, "How much of a draw would that be" to see such a mural on a downtown Modesto building?

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