Growing Mona Lisa | January 11, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - January 11, 2008

Growing Mona Lisa

A local 'concept artist' charmed Alamo - and I-680 travelers - by creating a masterpiece on the hillside

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

A couple dozen workers - artists, architects and bicycle racers among them - gathered in the January predawn at the Alamo Café almost 30 years ago to execute a special project. They'd been chosen for their strong legs as well as for their ability to visualize. And they'd been sworn to secrecy.

This was the crew handpicked by concept artist Will Ashford, then 31 and a resident of Diablo, to bring art to life in 1979. The art was Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, perhaps the best-known painting in the world. The medium was fertilizer, discriminately placed on the wild hillside grasses off Interstate 680 and Stone Valley Road.

Ashford had previously grown the words "green" on the hillside and "landscape," he recalled recently.

"I'd done art out of words. Now I'd do art out of art," Ashford said. "It was the next obvious step."

He had already walked the hillside, marked relevant points, and made a map. He'd also arranged with rancher Hap Magee to graze his longhorns elsewhere. Then Ashford had chosen friends and acquaintances with strong backs and sturdy leg muscles to do the labor with him - carrying almost 800 pounds of fertilizer up the steep hill to spread at designated spots.

Although his mom and step-dad, Lynn and George Cockrill, catered the event, even they didn't know what the result was going to be. They had to wait for spring like everyone else.

"My mother was my guide," said Ashford. "She used to ride to Concord every day, and she would call me and say, 'I can't see anything.'"

As spring approached, the fertilized grass grew longer and darker. The enigmatic Mona Lisa slowly began to emerge, then one day she reclined on the hillside in all her glory, smiling demurely upon Alamo, clearly visible to those riding south on I-680. She was the talk of the town and the delight of commuters.

"People saw it and knew what it was," Ashford said. "And they heard it on the radio. Traffic helicopters noticed it."

Travelers were pulling over on the freeway to get a better look. Luckily there was less traffic back then.

"I was at the Alamo Café one day having coffee with friends and there were two CHP guys," Ashford remembered. "I asked them, 'Has this been a pain in the butt for you guys?'"

They told him they liked the rendering, and the California Highway Patrol was using it as a reference point - "north or south of the Mona Lisa" - so Ashford introduced himself as the creator.

Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Kim Komenich posed Ashford on the masterpiece, grass up to his knees and arms extended, and took an overhead shot that appeared in Life magazine as its "Just One More" photo in July. The National Enquirer had a feature in May, and the London Times ran a story about Ashford and his art in its Sunday Times magazine the following February.

When Ashford subsequently created Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe on the same hillside in 1983, the Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche ran a feature.

Marilyn was, again, art about art. The birds contributed by scattering seed that resulted in yellow flowers for Marilyn's hair, Ashford said. He heard through friends that Warhol knew about the re-creation and approved.

Diablo Country ran a story in June 1986 with photographs of Ashford's "geoglyphs," explaining he said the term means "earth drawing." That was the year that Ashford created one of his favorites, a sunburst, on another 21-acre parcel. Ashford is quick to credit Chevron with providing all the fertilizer - ammonium sulfate - that he needed for his geoglyphs.

Will Ashford was ingrained in the community long before his Mona Lisa sprouted. His stepdad George Cockrill was the butcher at the old Acree's Grocery on Hartz Avenue that closed in 1964 and even today people tell Will they used to stop in for a free hotdog on their long walk home from school.

Ashford graduated from San Ramon Valley High in 1966, and is remembered for the light show he produced at its stadium when the British rock band, the Yardbirds, performed. After graduation, he worked on his artistic endeavors, but they did not provide exemption from the draft and he found himself in basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, the next year.

During a pickup football game, a fellow recruit fell on him and broke his foot so Ashford was delegated to paint battalion crests in the dayroom for the guys just back from Vietnam. When assignments were given out after basic, Ashford was designated an Army artist while the others went on to advanced infantry training.

He was stationed in Hawaii at the U.S. Army Headquarters of the Pacific, where he pursued another of his passions: surfing. When his commanding officer got wind of his hobby, he ordered him to befriend the natives as they surfed together.

"I was a surfer for the Army," Ashford recalled with a laugh.

Eventually he returned to the Danville area.

He said he has always been an artist, but being an artist has not always been a good thing.

"I kept fighting it, looking for something more stable," he said.

He worked as a builder for awhile, and in the 1980s he constructed a home on Elsie Drive off El Cerro Boulevard in Danville. His wife Carol Ashford taught at Charlotte Wood Middle School and San Ramon Valley High. For many years, Will focused on raising their son Ryan, who now works in Southern California as a producer and actor. In the mid 1990s the family moved to Calistoga where Carol was principal at the high school.

They now divide their winters between the home they built in Calistoga and an apartment in Lafayette where Carol is associate principal at Acalanes High. Summers are spent in Italy, where Will enjoys the national pastime of bicycling, another passion that also sees him pedaling up Mount Diablo in the Mountain Challenge each fall to benefit Save Mount Diablo.

Lately, Ashford has been traveling around the country installing the Red Bull insignia at sporting events sponsored by the energy drink.

"I'm doing my best to make it art," he said. "The images are not mine but the process is mine."

He designs wine labels, and created a logo for concert promoter Bill Graham, which is still used, as well as the popular California Pedaler design.

In much of his art, words are prominent. He is dyslexic, which was the seed for his fascination with words.

"Other things compensated," he said. "I have a gigantic visual memory."

He loves making puns.

"Words have always held a mystery for me, this thing called words, and my inability to hold onto them," he explained. "I'd find a word that has the ability to define itself and would create that thing."

For instance, in 1976 the University Art Museum in Berkeley asked him to do an art piece in its entrance patio.

"I said I could do the word 'wet,'" he recalled.

He arrived with what looked like a bucket of paint. He masked the word "wet" in a 5-foot by 12-foot patch and painted over it with what looked like water.

"I let it dry and left," he said, "and they must have thought, 'OK, that's that.'"

"I didn't tell them it wasn't paint," he recalled. "The first year it rained, everything else got wet, but 'wet' stayed dry."

He had painted the word with water repellent.

He also laid a canvas on a floor in a public building in San Francisco with a slightly raised area forming the word "dirt." As people walked across it, the dirt collected, forming the word "dirt." He entered this piece in the seventh annual Bay Area Regional Graphic Competition.

"Mine was the oddest of all the prints," he said.

"I feel propelled to do these things," said Ashford. "Mona Lisa is a perfect example."

He said he has gradually come to understand what art really is, and there is a different definition of art for every person; he himself defines art as an artist.

"What do I call good art? That which brings about the notion of thought that hadn't been there before, because of the originality, the original thought," he said. "The idea is art … Philosophers to me are great artists."

"Art is always a self-portrait of the creator," he added.

He said he had perfected his ability to draw by the time he was out of high school. But he realized even then that "art is that which is beyond the eye."

His creations grow inside him, as if in an incubator, he said, and only some come to fruition. He doesn't mind that much of his art, such as his Mona Lisa, is temporary.

"When it's done, it's finished," he said. "I look forward - to the piece I'm going to be allowed to do next."

Future projects might include geoglyphs of surfers riding hillsides that have the forms of a wave. He'd also like to sow the entire San Andreas Fault with mustard seed, so people can see the danger in vivid yellow.

"Getting to do art is the biggest thing for me," said Ashford.


Like this comment
Posted by Annis
a resident of San Ramon Valley High School
on Nov 25, 2008 at 8:01 pm

I knew Will back in his high school days at San Ramon, and still have pieces of his early art. One of his "Captain Chemical" posters was up on the wall at a shop in Gig Harbor, Washington. What a trip running into it there!