As Lila Gemellos painted the final stroke of her latest mural at San Pedro Square in downtown San Jose, the pressure of tackling such a historic local destination finally lifted.
“I got to paint something that I have been so fond of for so long, it’s super cyclical,” the 34-year-old said of the mural tucked between San Pedro Street and Almaden Avenue. “I didn’t know I loved this city until I started painting about it. Now that I almost exclusively paint about it, I could not love it any more.”
Born and raised in the Evergreen neighborhood of East San Jose – leaving only to study oil painting at the University of California, Riverside – those roots have translated into Gemellos’ calling card. She strives to make audiences feel through color alone, she said, as shapes detail the people and places that make San Jose home. Her imagery takes between one day and one month to complete.
“For me as an artist, there’s such a wealth of history in San Jose and such a wealth of culture that you could spend a lifetime discussing this place visually,” Gemellos said. “If I can make you stop, that’s what I’m going for every time. Whether it’s educational or just to provoke the thought — I’m not sure, but the history is the low hanging fruit there.”
The history she features ranges from the historic orchards of the Valley of Heart’s Delight to John Joseph Montgomery’s lesser known beginnings of aviation across countless walls on public streets and private residences.
Before filling her five-door Nissan Versa hatchback “up to the gills” with paint to head to a job site, Gemellos said she spends days researching ways to incorporate the area’s identity in a way that will draw folks in.
“I don’t feel like artwork that I have personally painted belongs to me. It’s the investor’s, it is the community’s,” she said. “We are somewhere amazing where people were forward thinking even back then. I think that’s the thing that’s been most inspiring – all of the innovation and change that has happened from normal individuals just trying to live their lives.”
Gemellos has loved art since the age of 5, when she would stay inside from recess to put away art supplies, visit galleries and take every class at the Museum of Art on Market Street and follow along with Bob Ross on TV. But getting her hands on endless reams of green and white perforated printer paper gave her enough “canvas” to kickstart making her art.
“Me and a box of crayons could get along real good for a day,” Gemellos said, who won best in show at the Santa Clara County Fair as an 8-year-old, just three years into the craft. “It gave me the resources to be able to spend 20,000 hours drawing before I ever got to oil painting.”
After her time at UC Riverside, she initially had trouble getting into galleries and shows, instead pivoting to spend time in the property management industry. But she found her entryway back into larger projects by painting over the prolific graffiti that covered dozens of schools in East San Jose.
She started actively building her portfolio in 2007 by beautifying educational environments including the Evergreen Elementary School District, Evergreen Valley College and Silver Creek High School. After scoring her first commission from the owner of Falafel Drive In, her research into the nation’s 10th largest city began.
“Upon hearing hundreds of people’s stories of San Jose every day for four months while trying to paint, you get inspired about where it is you’re from,” Gemellos said. “There’s so much to appreciate here and because we live in it, it’s just our day to day.”
Working historian April Halberstadt, who sits alongside Gemellos on the Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission, said Gemellos’ art helps record and define those old elements of San Jose and Silicon Valley, to locals and visitors alike.
“She knows things because she’s been here,” Halberstadt said. “One of the problems that we have as San Joseans, is every city has their own flavor and culture. But San Jose has a hard time defining that to other people, probably because we grew so fast … So that’s part of what she’s doing, is to point that out to people.”
Gemellos says a combination of subject matter and active interaction between art and the viewer is vital, which these days often means her art finds new purpose as backgrounds for photoshoots and pictures posted on Facebook and Instagram.
“I knew I was creating sense of place murals. What I didn’t realize was that I was doing a form of placemaking that isn’t often captured within the visual arts,” Gemellos said. “I’m somebody who is inspired by the impact our community has with one another. Why shouldn’t art do both of these things – acknowledging the community and giving them a backdrop?”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story contained a quote from Commissioner April Halberstadt that said art can exaggerate “a false sense of history” and questioned Cesar Chavez’s legacy in San Jose. The quote, while accurately reported, was offensive to community leaders and we have made a decision to remove it.