Art and nature: La Jolla’s Arcade Building gets a new mural inspired by local sea life

Melanie Atesalp works on her new sea-life mural on the Arcade Building on Wall Street in La Jolla.
(Joan Plaehn)

When she creates her spirituality- and nature-inspired pieces of art, La Jolla High School graduate and muralist Melanie Atesalp likes to draw from the immediate environment. In the case of her latest work on the Arcade Building on Wall Street, she found her inspiration just a few hundred yards away in the leopard sharks, kelp and garibaldi in the waters off La Jolla.

She was finishing the mural Thanksgiving week and plans a COVID-19-safe completion party in mid-December.

“I’ve had art in that building and on the walls for a while and that big blank wall was inviting something,” said building owner Palmer Hughes. “I’ve been thinking about a mural for a while because a lot of people walk through that breezeway every day and I thought it would draw people into the building and my tenants would benefit because people would walk by their shops. If my tenants succeed, I succeed, and they can use all the help they can get.”

Hughes came across some of Atesalp’s work and said it reminded him of Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali in its “unusual elements” and of children’s book author and La Jolla resident Dr. Seuss in its “color and liveliness.”

“I liked the precision in her work and I wanted to include sea life and she had really beautiful works with sea life,” he said. “So she came up with a sketch and I hired her on the spot.”

In drafting the work, Atesalp reflected on growing up in La Jolla and swimming off La Jolla Cove.

Melanie Atesalp's mural in the Arcade Building breezeway
Melanie Atesalp’s mural in the Arcade Building breezeway was almost completed shortly before Thanksgiving.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

“I’ve been swimming a lot with the leopard sharks near The Marine Room, especially during the pandemic,” she said. “I cultivate a lot of calm in the natural environment. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us. Now it is providing us a chance to take in a natural beauty and meditate on it.”

Bringing that philosophy to her murals and mandalas (geometric configurations of symbols), she wanted to include “the kelp forest and garibaldi and leopard sharks that are out there” in her La Jolla piece, she said.

“So many people don’t realize we have such a breeding ground for leopard sharks, and they are a friendly shark, harmless to humans. It’s such a magical thing to watch,” Atesalp said. “Spiritual and natural elements are a common thread in a lot of my stuff, and I have an adaptive quality to my work and find my influence from whatever space I’m in. It’s like I’m having a conversation with the environment. Each piece of artwork I made has been a conversation with the person or place and an adaptation to that environment.”

She’s also had conversations with passersby as the mural developed, and many asked her questions about the ocean and other flora and fauna off La Jolla’s coast, she said.

“I’ve been enjoying watching people develop an appreciation for the natural beauty in these stressful times,” Atesalp said. “It’s also been really nice to interact with people.”

“It’s still nice to talk to people about art and nature,” even from a social distance and through a mask, she said. “It’s been hugely positive. People say we need public art right now.”

Artist Melanie Atesalp models how her mural in the Arcade Building breezeway could be used for photos.
Artist Melanie Atesalp models how her mural in the Arcade Building breezeway could be used for photos. She said she hopes people stand in the center “to become part of the art.”
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Public art, she added, “creates an energetic and psychological change that makes the atmosphere happier. I could tell it has lifted a lot of spirits and moods. It’s like mental or spiritual hygiene surrounding yourself. And we need to focus on the beautiful in times like these.”

To learn more about Atesalp’s work, visit ◆