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Napa Valley Artists in Residence: Joshua Murillo, art meets physics in Napa Valley
Artists in Residence

Napa Valley Artists in Residence: Joshua Murillo, art meets physics in Napa Valley

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Joshua Murillo finished a gigantic commissioned mural last week that can be seen at the car wash at Jefferson Street and Imola Avenue.

In addition to working with acrylics for his murals, Murillo uses oil paint, chalk and pastel, charcoal, graphite and ink for a wide range of subjects, including portraits, landscapes and nature, street painting, plus astronomical art and abstract particles and waves.

The artist is also a physicist who has been teaching at Napa Valley College for the last two semesters.

“For some reason, it seems like I’ve been more productive artistically during these times than I had been before all this (COVID-19 pandemic) started,” Murillo said during a phone interview Saturday, the day of his 33rd birthday.

“I’m not totally sure why, but I think it has a lot to do with how soothing the process of making artwork can be,” he said. “Sure, it generally takes a lot of patience and can be both physically and mentally taxing, but it’s also like a meditative activity for me.”

“I think I may have gravitated back to making more artwork partly as a way to ease my mind,” he added.

The threat of spreading COVID-19 has caused major changes with Murillo’s “day job” of teaching college physics.

Because of social distancing, his classes are online now, and he has been making YouTube videos of his lessons that he said he will be able to reuse. Murillo is saddened whenever he observes people demonstrating a lack of empathy for those most at risk for the virus, when they “treat this all as just an impediment to doing what they want to do.

“I think there are many more people who appreciate how dangerous this is and understand that most of us aren’t sheltering in place for our own sake, we’re doing it for others,” he said.

Isolation has been his biggest challenge during this time.

“We’re lucky that all these video chat platforms exist, but that’s not the same as being physically with other people,” Murillo said.

When this is over, he looks forward to hugging his friends and family.

“We never really know how much we take for granted,” Murillo said, pondering what he has learned since COVID-19 cast its gloomy presence over the entire world.

Murillo’s art hasn’t taken a new direction since the pandemic began.

“The subject of my art has always varied quite a bit,” he said. “A tiger here, a galaxy there, maybe a castle, then a person, and throw in some abstracts for good measure.”

He prefers using graphite for portraits, oils for landscapes and acrylic with his murals.

While every artist’s body of work carries with it at least one underlying message, Murillo said he has never “intentionally” put much thought into what his message is, but when he thinks about it and looks back at his work, one thing stands out for him.

“There is beauty everywhere you look in this world, in the mundane and the exciting, from the minuscule to the astronomical,” Murillo said. “I choose to look for the beauty, and I attempt to reflect that in my art.”

When he starts a drawing or painting, Murillo said his desire is to create something beautiful or striking or thought provoking, yet the “practical act of producing a work is much like figuring out how a puzzle fits together.”

Murillo’s art journey began when he moved from Ventura to Napa as a child and began drawing superheroes and villains with his Uncle John, who liked to draw comics.

“My uncle was more like a cousin because he was only four years older than me,” Murillo said.

Together, the two boys drew characters like Spiderman, Magneto, Wolverine and more.

After a while, Murillo began adding some trees and bits of landscape to his drawings and occasionally took a “stab at portraits.”

“Looking back, I think in those early years I was mostly training my fingers, hand and wrist to create the lines I wanted,” he said. “A curve in just this or that such a way. It was useful that most of the comic characters were drawn with sharp, defined lines and shapes.”

It wasn’t until taking an art class in high school and other art classes in college that he realized how important it is to “train your eye,” to see what’s there and not “what you think is there.”

“You can draw a line exactly the way you want, but your brain tends to play tricks on you,” Murillo said. “We’re evolved to extrapolate from what we see to ‘what’s there.’ So that you imagine fingers always look like narrow cylinders, even though they actually appear as awkward circles when pointed at you.”

Murillo began street paintings, at the suggestion of his art teacher in Napa when New Technology High School launched an interactive celebration of arts and community through “La Strada dell’ Arte” Street Festival well over a decade ago.

In this event, award-winning, internationally known professional and amateur artists took their chalk art to the pavement to create individual and team chalk art. Guests at the festival were enthusiastic over Murillo’s chalk version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

Later, while going to college in Santa Barbara, Murillo continued participating in chalk art for festivals near Santa Barbara, San Rafael and Napa. In his chalk paintings, he often uses cosmic imagery. Photos of his street painting can be seen on his website.

“Chalk art is a really different way of making art,” he said. “It feels interactive with people walking by and making comments. Of course, it disappears. Sometimes I’ve wished I could have it on the wall.”

Higher education

Murillo had never encountered anything like the Philosophy 101 course he took during his freshman year in college. He loved it. Part of his enchantment with philosophy was that it appealed to his fascination with solving puzzles.

“I like finding out how things work and how all the pieces come together,” he said. “I believe this is why philosophy struck me on a base level.”

“It pointed out that there were puzzles of every kind, at every level, all you had to do was look a little closer to notice them – or sometimes step back a bit.”

“I think this is also what eventually drove me to physics,” Murillo said. “Philosophy is great, but like most other humans, I wanted my puzzles to actually come together at some point.”

“Physics is fantastic at looking for puzzles and proceeding in the grand tradition of scientific exploration, coming up with ideas to resolve them, and then putting those ideas to the test to see if they stand up to the searing light of observation,” he said.

Murillo earned bachelor’s degrees in both philosophy and physics from UC Santa Barbara.

Later, he earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. While in Hawaii, Murillo also created large-scale murals inspired by cosmic imagery in addition to his studies in physics.

Physics has inspired much of his art.

Much of his recent work has been inspired by his studies in the field of particle physics.

“I love the idea of creating art inspired by science, which can spark a curiosity for science in turn,” he said.

He has been creating a series of oil paintings that “attempt to illustrate the collisions and disintegrations of sub-atomic entities.”

Although he does classic landscapes, Murillo also likes to go beyond hills, trees, mountains, valleys, seas and skies.

“In a sense, the images from Hubble, and other telescopes, of galaxies and nebulas, are also landscapes, with just a broader sense of what land means,” he said. “They show us the gigantic forms and colors that pervade the universe – although many of the colors are outside the visible spectrum and need to be adjusted to be seen.”

He likes to capture the most gigantic forms and colors of the universe as well as the most minuscule.

“Even though our usual notions of form and color don’t apply well to things a billion times smaller than a blood cell, I want to at least attempt to (make) visual these quantum landscapes,” he said.

“In the end, I make pretty pictures,” Murillo said. “But the more I think about it, the more I see that these explorations of cosmic and atomic landscapes contain something of a ‘grand scheme of things’ message.”

“On the most fundamental level, our world — that we usually think of as solid and predictable, arises from an almost unimaginably minuscule cacophonous symphony whose next movement is anything but certain,” he said.

Murillo points out that, on a grand scale, the Earth resides in this solar system, but our system is just one of “billions within our Milky Way galaxy, which, in itself, is one of many billions of galaxies we see when we look out into the cosmos.”

“We are at once vastly insignificant, and at the same time, we may be the most significant thing in the universe, because we might be the only beings to grapple with our own significance,” Murillo said.

To see more of Murillo’s art, go to

Series: Napa Valley Artists in Residence

While much of the world is staying inside their homes to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Napa Valley’s artists are quietly and passionately creating art. These are their stories.

“There is beauty everywhere you look in this world, in the mundane and the exciting, from the minuscule to the astronomical. I choose to look for the beauty, and I attempt to reflect that in my art.” Joshua Murillo

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