Installing “Nature Inspires” at SLO Botanical Garden

A ceramic mural that for more than 35 years graced Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo has found a new home at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, which plans to hold a welcoming celebration during its Member’s Happy Hour on Friday, April 14 from 5 to 7 p.m.

The mural was installed in 1987 near the Mission Plaza doors of what was then the SLO Art Center.

The mural was created by artist Bob Nichols in 1987 as a public art installation near the Mission Plaza doors of what was then the San Luis Obispo Art Center. It was donated to the Art Center by the Jorgensen family to commemorate their mother, Maggie Jorgensen, a charter member of the organization, talented amateur painter, and community arts advocate.

“Maggie used to love to go painting at Sweet Springs,” Nichols says he was told by her family when he originally took on the project. He never met Maggie. So he shot “many, many” photos of birds and wildlife out on the bay, using them as inspiration for the design that depicts Morro Bay estuary flora and fauna.

Disassembled tiles (top); Nichols grinding stucco off tile backs (middle); piecing tiles in the Jorgensen family barn (bottom).

In order to make the large ceramic corner piece, he cut the clay design in squares and fired them individually, then reassembled the more than 300 tiles at the site, which is now the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. It took him 18 months from start to finish.

According to SLOMA Executive Director Leann Standish, the piece was “carefully” de-installed in February 2022 by staff to allow the organization’s mural program to fully wrap the museum. The museum’s board of directors approved its deaccession from the museum’s permanent collection in June 2022. “When we learned about its new home, we could not have been more pleased,” Standish says.

After conferring with the artist and the Jorgensen family, the museum returned the mural, which had been disassembled back into individual tiles, to the family, who stored the pieces in a horse barn on their property.

Last October, family members met with Nichols and Botanical Garden Executive Director Chenda Lor, and together they reached an agreement to move the mural to the Botanical Garden’s patio area. The family committed to paying for the time and materials involved in reassembling and relocating the piece.

From that time to now, Nichols says, that’s what he has been doing.

He didn’t touch clay or go into his studio for five months while he worked at the horse barn, first carefully grinding up to an inch of stucco off the back of each tile. Luckily no tiles were missing, but some 15 or so required repair using epoxy and in some cases paint to match the original ceramic.

The mural, now called “Nature Inspires,” is approximately 17 feet wide and at its highest seven feet tall.

In order to fit its new home along a patio wall at the Botanical Garden, two feet of concrete cell blocks reinforced with steel rebar were added to the five-foot-high wall to accommodate the highest portion of the mural.

And the edges of the tiles that originally met at a 90-degree corner had to be re-mitered to fit the new wall’s gentler angle.

The installation of “Nature Inspires” at the Botanical Garden nears completion.

“I knew right away where it should go at the garden,” Lor says. “I’m very familiar with the mural and we have a concrete retaining wall that needed something.”

“There was very little problem with the installation,” Nichols says, once everything was prepped and ready to attach to the patio wall.

Lor says the piece is a perfect fit. “The mural adds great texture and depth to the Education Center and gives us a sense of how close we are to the coast and the garden’s relationship with the ocean and its wildlife . . . especially the birds since we are a premier site for bird watching and the annual winter bird festival.”

The dedication plaque, which will be unveiled with the finished mural on Friday, reads: “Nature Inspires” by Bob Nichols given in memory of Maggie Jorgensen 1918-1983 by her children Jerren Jorgensen, Karen Kile, Marti Lindholm.

Karen Kile, speaking for the Jorgensen family, has expressed their hope that the mural will continue to inspire others who visit it.

“After our mother died in 1983, my brother Jerren hired Bob Nichols to create a ceramic mural to memorialize her love of the natural world,” Kile says. “It graced SLOMA’s formal entrance onto the Mission Plaza for decades. When it was dismantled we were lucky that the artist was consulted and his artwork saved. Not long after, my sister Marti prompted its re-installation. We are all so fortunate that the artist was able to repurpose his ceramic masterpiece to fit in so beautifully here. Our mother would be pleased. It is a tribute to her love of plein air painting, passion for the well-planned garden, and her civic and cultural mindfulness.

“With gratitude to all who made this possible, we rededicate this mural to its new home at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. May it continue to bring joy and inspiration to this community and its visitors.”

:: Charlotte Alexander