Behind the brush: Connecting art and community with Leo Bersamina

Leo Bersamina in front of the mural he and his team designed and created.

Art brings communities and people together culturally, through the capacity to tell a shared story, to inspire reflection, and form connections that transcend differences. It’s a tall order, but when done authentically, art delivers every time. The artist’s medium options are endlessly expansive — it’s all about seeing the world as the canvas for connection.

One of our main priorities for Adobe’s new San Jose North Tower (and Silicon Valley’s first all-electric building), is to inject San Jose’s rich and diverse culture into the architecture itself.

To achieve that, we collaborated with Bay Area-native, painter, and sculpture artist Leo Bersamina and a team of his former studio art students on an outdoor mural on the East Wall of the building that celebrates Indigenous American and Latinx communities.

“I have always felt an affinity to San Jose and its people, while being drawn to its diversity, creative convergence of ideas and different cultures, and support for the arts,” Bersamina says. “In the past, I had enjoyed spending time here while visiting my sister, eating great food, listening to live music, and enjoying the parks and cafes. San Jose’s ethos as a rich cultural and historically significant central hub for all Californians, and for me, especially Latinx and Asian communities, is evident to this day.”

Leo Bersamina in front of the mural he and his team designed and created.

Looking to his roots and the world he lives in

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) and to celebrate the power of cultural visibility and representation, we sat down with Bersamina to talk about what goes into commissioning a mural of this scale, how ethnicity inspires art, his unique artistic perspective, the nitty-gritty of his creative and collaborative process, and what he’s learned from over three decades of using Adobe Creative Cloud.

“When I make work, I set out to make a unique object that draws from the way I look and perceive the world that I live in. Sometimes this process relies on some specific visual element or artifact from my various backgrounds (as a mixed-race person, as a father, as a surfer, as a teacher), sometimes it is implied, and other times it exists very quietly in between the layers of paint.”

On creating a multisensory experience with a building:

“I painted all the concrete ‘tile’ siding units with vibrant colors of acrylic paint as a base (after prepping and priming all of the surfaces). I then used stencils to lay down the initial pattern designs that are based on my various ethnic backgrounds (after designing them in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator). We then hand painted the designs with a color that responded to the ground color in some way (complementary, value, analogous, warm, or cool).

Within the mural are references of patterns that are inspired by my Filipino, German, Mexican, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Indigenous-American roots. While using each cultural pattern as a starting point, we synthesized the shapes and compositions of each pattern and transformed them into a depiction closer to my personal vision of Self. I would not call myself an identity or political painter, but as an artist of color who responds to my interactions with the world I live in, somehow, it becomes evident in the work.”

“I wanted to make sure that all areas were touched by the hand. It allows for process, intention, and history to be experienced by the viewer and gives the work more integrity.”

On the criteria for building his team:

“Each person [I chose] always goes above and beyond what is asked of them, are excellent problem solvers and creative thinkers, have a steady hand with a brush, are from the Bay Area (some are actually from the surrounding neighborhoods of San Jose), and are dependable and hardworking. They are former students who are either finishing up their studies in design, architecture, and art, or are out in the world practicing what they have learned in the studios, classrooms and beyond. It has been such a pleasure to get to know everyone better, while they have risen to this occasion in a magnificent way.

I wanted to include artists, students and designers that are from the Bay Area (and San Jose) community to help me create this mural. This is important to the project as it allows the local community to not only interact with the mural, but also be a part of the process. We’ve been renting a house about a mile from Adobe’s offices, so we’ve made a point to go and check out our downtown neighborhood. By doing that, we’re getting to know the community, and are so drawn to the diversity and energy that this area conveys.”

Leo Bersamini and his team.

Leo Bersamina (center) and his core team L-R Coco Leeper, Saffron Munkres, Mike Andrade and Sean Coghlin

On the deeper story behind the color palette:

“I am often drawn to vibrant colors, having been influenced as a native of the California coast. These are colors I have been surrounded by while growing up and traveling, and in the subcultures that I have existed within. They are colors that I have often connected to in my life while being a surfer, having hippy parents, experiencing the Northern California landscape, going to museums and galleries, traveling to Europe and Mexico with my family, etc. I am drawn to these colors through a life of visual sampling. I’m also interested in color relationships that become optically eclectic – the sense of movement and dynamic interaction between colors is so exciting to me.

The overlaying design pulls all of the elements together while creating movement and visual complexity. The larger design also draws upon inspiration from Indigenous American/Mexican motifs, which are a part of my ethnicity and whose community is deeply rooted in San Jose.”

On finding belonging through art:

“As an artist, I am constantly finding ways to investigate personal narratives/symbolisms through representational and abstract works, while allowing access for all viewers to achieve while experiencing my artwork. In other words, I have my intentions in making the work, but my hope is that these intentions are just a starting point from which to engage an audience.”

On the dialogue between art and artist:

“I often use a sketchbook to make thumbnail sketches for composition. If I am trying to create an image that is representational, I will coax out the image with a light touch in pencil until I can trust and believe in my image. I will then build the image with confidence, weight, form, and nuanced mark-making until it can become believable to me and represent itself on its own. If I am working abstractly, I have an overall image in my head based on shape and color. I will lay down a shape or mark often with paint, then that shape tells me what to do next, and so on. It’s a very responsive process.”

On the takeaways from art school:

“It has become a purpose in my studio practice to always have a personal reference in whatever I make. I try to find ways to reference my identity, where I grew up, what I do, what interests me, what I love, etc. The personal as an element in art is always more interesting to the viewer.”

On an inspiring inner circle:

“[I find inspiration from] mother the quilter, my partner Marie Van Elder the painter, who goes to her studio to make something just about every day, my daughter and stepdaughters who live creative, and active lives—they all inspire me. Artists and designers who can foresee and harness the power and ethos of society’s conscience and interpret it in a meaningful way with originality, power, honesty, beauty, craft, conviction, and clarity hold a certain place for me to achieve.”

On art as a universal language:

“I rely on the viewer’s ability to make references through their own experiences to connect to the work. I have my intentions while making the work, but ultimately, the work tells its own story, a different story, each time a different person experiences it. The art I make often relates to geometry, space, color, scale, repetition, personal history, and the human touch. These elements are a universal way of communicating. All are welcome to participate.”

On the impact of representation:

“In the past, most of our visual histories have been told by only those who held power. For us to understand each other more deeply, we must be open to telling, and experiencing, other views and visual exchanges that are not always familiar nor comfortable.”

“By being exposed to visual narratives and concepts not from our own culture, we begin to see the bigger human picture and as a result, perhaps let go of old fears and become more understanding of others and ourselves.”

On 30,000 year-old wall art:

“Art is the oldest human nonverbal communication method that exists. Humans were drawing on cave walls 30,000 years before there was a written language. It is deeply embedded in our DNA to respond to, decipher, and process a visual experience. Art can tell the human story of struggle, sacrifice, redemption, beauty, connectivity, and heartbreak. Art allows for a community to identify with and feel empowered. It is also important that communities reach outside of their base to make connections and bridge ideas and shared interests.”

On cutting-edge creative tools:

“I have been using Adobe products for over 30 years to help create and share my artistic vision to others. The products are always on the cutting-edge, inspiring millions of artists and designers who have chosen a creative life as a career. Many of my students use Adobe products in their creative process as well. Adobe products have refined the way artists express the way they see their world and I am grateful that I am able to utilize them in my work. To have my artistic vision supported and encouraged by Adobe is humbling, but also a validation of believing in my creative path in life. I am very grateful.”

Leo Bersamina is a visual artist from the Bay Area who received his MFA from Yale School of Art in Painting and Printmaking. In addition to his art practice, he has served on curatorial committees and panels at Southern Exposure (San Francisco), SFMOMA Artists Gallery, and the Berkeley Art Center. His work can be found in the public and private collections of The Oakland Museum of California, Stanford University, and Google. He has taught studio art at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Pont-Aven School of Art (through RISD). Bersamina is represented by Anglim-Trimble Gallery in San Francisco, Artsource Consulting, and Heather Marx Art Advisory. He enjoys traveling, any type of coffee, camping, surfing, and gallery and museum-hopping.