Every day, tens of thousands of people crisscross the intersection of Broadway and 17th streets in Oakland, including commuters who’ve spilled out from BART’s 19th Street station. And when they look up, they see Joshua Mays’ Beacon Frequency Reader, an almost-10-story work that looks over the intersection the way Big Ben looks over London’s Westminster corridor. Like Big Ben, Beacon Frequency Reader features a clock-like circle. Two of them, actually. Also like Big Ben, Beacon Frequency Reader acts as a kind of directional, even if that directional emanates from its title and its visual elements, which include a large beacon held by the artwork’s central figure.
“When I first made the original painting, the staff she’s carrying is a particular device that has a mystical function to it that I describe as frequency reading,” Mays tells SF Weekly. “But the placement of the mural, and this figure being right there — at the 19th and Broadway BART stop, she’s right there — the story in my head is that she’s opening a portal into a new realm, to new experiences, or for those who engage her.”
But it’s not just “her” who engages passers-by. Beacon Frequency Reader features a phalanx of pelicans — some flying, some poised like guardians — and an almost baroque mix of colors and patterns that are typical of Mays’ artistic style, which is derived from years of self-teaching (he attended art school for just a bit), years of working his art (he’s 43), and what he calls “inspiration from Art Nouveau and psychedelia, and definitely by baroque and stained-glass designs, and designs of pre-17th century churches — and even new architecture and religious buildings.”
Beacon Frequency Reader went up in 2017 through the orchestration of the Oakland-based ABG Art Group, which commissions murals. It’s Mays’ largest artwork to date. And his most vertical.
“I do have a bit of a fear of heights that I have to work against on every project that’s taller than 12 feet,” Mays, an Oakland resident, says. “I had to get used to the bumps of going up and down on the swing stage. And also just the scale — getting on the wall and realizing that it was too big for me to play around and do gestural ideas. Because if I swung my arm around into a six-foot circle, it would be a great sweep up close, but then I’d go down to the street and it would be a pimple on the cheek of the subject.”