Walk a trail behind Ace Automotive & Truck Repair – or glance at its back wall from a passing train car – and the image unfolds like a dozen animated frames.
From left to right, a bearded fireman appears to turn his head to the side. In his outstretched hands he clutches a helmet, from which a seedling emerges, straightens and finally flowers.
For the husband-and-wife owners of the repair shop on Action Avenue, the mural taking shape behind their building is more than the latest artwork to grace the Napa Valley Wine Train and the Vine Trail that flanks its rails through much of the city. Mike and Ryvonne Bruno describe the work as a tribute to a firefighter who came from hundreds of miles away to battle the Napa County wildfires last October – and helped to steer flames away from the rural home their family has owned for five generations.
“Cody had our back during the fire, so we want him to be at our back,” Ryvonne Bruno said Wednesday as the painting inspired by Cody Zetlmaier, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter belonging to the Big Bear Hotshots unit, took shape under the guidance of an Australian artist.
Arriving in the Wooden Valley area on Oct. 9 – one day after the eruption of firestorms that would kill 40 people and destroy thousands of buildings across the North Bay – a 20-person Hotshots unit spent three days on the Brunos’ ranch north of Napa and saved the main house, although some outbuildings burned, according to Mike Bruno.
“I ran equipment for his crew in a combined effort to save our place,” he recalled of the team that included Zetlmaier. “It didn’t matter what his name was; there was this bond. Now we’re friends from the ash.”
The homage to a protector against the Napa Valley firestorms may be the most personal imagery to emerge out of the Rail Arts District Napa, an effort to beautify a stretch of the Wine Train long marked by gritty industrial backdrops and graffiti spraying instead of the picturesque wineries found Upvalley.
Work on the mural, which has the working title “The Firefighter,” began June 4 and was expected to wrap up last Saturday, according to its Sydney-based creator Fintan Magee, a specialist in outdoor artworks.
“I knew a train moves quite quickly, and it’s a long wall, so it came up to me as an idea almost like cel animation where the frames seem to move,” Magee said at the work site on the Wine Train’s west shoulder. He was starting to fill out the 12th and final likeness of Zetlmaier, the fireman.
A digital animation to be released on the artist’s website fintanmagee.com will turn the dozen images into a stop-action-like snippet, showing the firefighter’s head turning to one side and the blooming of the plant from his helmet.
Scott Goldie, one of Wine Train’s owners, said that the building owner, the city of Napa and the Rail Arts District review each mural selection. In this case, the building owners had a strong preference for a mural that captured their personal wildfire experience and Fintan was more than happy to accommodate their request, he said.
Encompassing 1.7 miles of the Wine Train’s Napa corridor, the Rail Arts District covers some of the Vine Trail’s most industrial and urban stretches. Property owners along the route are encouraged to sponsor or install outdoor artworks for the benefit of those cycling, jogging or walking the pathway, which currently runs to 12 ½ miles as far north as Yountville. Wine Train management has contributed more than $100,000 and continues to spearhead fundraising campaigns toward the art district.
The first railroad-facing murals began going up west of Soscol Avenue in early 2017, including “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” behind the Napa Valley Register offices, “Floating Napa” at the back of the neighboring NAPA Auto Parts store and “Chromodynamica for Napa” at Matthews Mattress.
More installations have arrived this year, such as the colorful, 110-foot-long “Jack & Jill,” by the Los Angeles muralist known as Bumblebeelovesyou, depicting a reclining boy and girl.
When funded and completed, the Vine Trail is expected to extend 47 miles, from Calistoga south to the Vallejo Ferry Terminal.