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Photographer Finds the Beauty Within

Photographer Lorena Castillo's art finds a permanent home at the Shell Martinez Refinery.

When Lorena Castillo was given a tour of the Shell Martinez Refinery in 2008 as a photographer for the Martinez News-Gazette, she took hundreds of pictures for the newspaper's archives. But when she printed some out and decided to color them with pastels, she realized she had an art project on her hands.

"I thought, ‘this is pretty cool,'" Castillo said in a recent interview in the lobby of the Shell Martinez Refinery's main office building on Pacheco Boulevard. "I like the contrast of dealing with something that's industrial, and … adding my own dreaminess to it."

Standing in front of one painted photo, called "Emerald City," she said that she and a friend of hers joke that they live in Emerald City because of the way the refinery is lit up at night, evoking a sense of magic in her similar to that of the destination in "The Wizard of Oz."

"Emerald City" is one of 10 artworks displayed in the building’s lobby, along the original photographs Castillo took. Others have names based on what is shown in the photo, such as "Car Wash," "Bikes" and "Warehouse," or more evocative titles like "Alternate City," "Pipe Dream" and "Refined."

The collection was first shown in a one-day exhibition at the Shell Clubhouse. Steve Lesher, public affairs manager for the refinery, decided a more permanent display in the new office building was warranted.

"We were so struck by her work that we purchased it," Lesher said. "It is a wonderful display in our lobby and is a real point of pride for the plant.

"Lorena is a very talented individual, and her art captures some great features of the refinery," Lesher continued. "In addition to the large industrial aspect of our campus, the refinery is a marvel of form and function. That comes through in Lorena’s work."

That Castillo would see art amid the form and function of the plant wasn't unusual. She graduated from the photography program at the Brooks Institute, one of the best-known photography programs in the country, and she is also a screen print artist who has displayed her works in various locales, most recently in galleries or businesses in Martinez.

A panel in the refinery’s lobby quotes Castillo saying that during the tour, "I set out to find the beauty within, acres and acres of metal and oil."

Even without the pastel coloring she did, Castillo said, "I still really loved the photos" for the variety of forms and shapes and sizes. But once she applied the pastels, they took on a new dimension.

One, named "Tower," is of a fairly typical electrical type tower in a tall triangular shape. With the addition of vivid yellow, purple and blue pastels, it evokes a stained glass window or mosaic.

"That one took me the longest," she said, requiring that each small area had to be carefully colored. During the exhibit at the Clubhouse, many people told her that was their favorite picture.

Two large photos, "Emerald City" and "Refined," are printed on canvas, giving the hand-coloring an artistic texture.  Castillo printed and framed all the artworks.

Castillo, who now works as the internship coordinator for Vincente and Briones High School in Martinez, said she "misses" the artworks, but "I like the idea that this work will be here, even if I don’t live here."