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Artist Rico Martin drowns near Lake Shasta

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Richard “Rico” Martin, the artist responsible for the dramatic bright-hued transformation of more than a half dozen Springs businesses, drowned last weekend, while swimming near Mt. Shasta.

On Monday evening, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that Martin, 61, drowned July 29 in Cliff Lake. His body was located the following day some 70 feet down in water of about 38 degrees.

Cliff Lake is a remote mountain lake located southwest of Mt. Shasta in a rural area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

The accident took place only days after Martin returned from a two-month-long trip to Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

Martin is best known in Sonoma for transforming eight storefronts along a two-mile stretch of Springs neighborhoods on Highway 12 with a bright palette of colors that garnered him both loyal fans and some harsh critics.

He grew up in Santa Clara and San Jose and attended Cupertino High School. Despite his Irish and Italian roots, he was known to friends by the nickname Rico.

Martin has said that he was drawn to art as early as age 3. He earned a degree in sculpture from San Jose State and then studied conceptual art and design on a full scholarship at CalArts.

He lived in Hoboken and worked in New York City in the mid-1980s, where he was a lead art director for HBO. During that time, he designed the relaunch of Cinemax and branded campaigns for the Discovery Channel and Columbia Pictures. His more recent work has been in traveling shows in the United States and Japan, and collected both privately and by the Library of Congress.

Martin returned to the Bay Area when he turned 30.

He first got involved in the artistic community in the Springs when he offered to transform the interior of La Michoacana ice cream shop for his friend, owner Terasita Fernandez.

In 2015, he worked with four local businesses to use a $15,000 county facade improvement grant for paint, materials and permits, and then donated his time. As more businesses signed on for the transformation in 2015 and 2016, Martin told the community that he hoped the project would encourage travelers between Sonoma and Santa Rosa to stop in and enjoy the Springs community.

“Rico wanted the Springs businesses to look special,” said Fernandez. “He wanted to draw attention to the area and for the Springs to be a place of interest, that people noticed.”

In an interview with the Press Democrat in 2015, Martin said that he wanted to wake up drivers who were passing through the community.

“When you do something like this, they start engaging with the community and their neighbors,” he said.

On his website, wONEder.org, Martin explained, “It is amazing what simply bright beautiful colors can do to bring lightness and smiles to a neighborhood. It has been witnessed throughout the world that adding bright colors to run down areas creates a boom in business and help to transform local communities.”

During the period that the community seemed split over the relative merits of the bright storefronts, Martin told the Press Democrat that he stayed positive.

“I don’t take anything personally,” Martin said. “I don’t buy into the divisiveness, which is the opposite of what I’m all about. What I want to do is actually delight the eye. Once you have an idea behind the color, it lifts the eye and is totally positive.”

Fernandez described Martin as the “most positive” person, who connected with people everywhere he went. He had more than 1,500 friends on Facebook, hundreds of whom posted emotional condolence notes as news of his passing spread.

“He was such a beautiful person and so full of life,” she said. “The world was his playground and life was his canvas.”

Sonoma County 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin worked closely with Martin during his work on the Springs building transformations.

“Rico’s death is tragic,” she said when reached for comment. “He enlivened the community conversation in the Springs with splashes of color.”

Martin’s most recent Springs project was the makeover at El Brinquito Market at Stanton and Highway 12, including the colorful three-dimensional 13-foot-wide rooftop chicken.

With Martin’s ongoing “Springs wONEder Project,” he had hoped to inspire other artists across the country to beautify their communities in similar ways by “transforming areas beaten by time.”

Martin lived in Forestville. He is survived by five siblings, including an identical twin brother; his girlfriend, Caitlin Code; his 16-year-old daughter Leilani; and her mother, Pamela Wirth, from whom he was separated.

“Rico said that his greatest achievement, his greatest legacy, was his daughter,” shared Fernandez. “She was the most important person in his life. He was so proud of her and he said that she made him a better man.”

Wirth said that at the time of his passing, Martin was very happy.

“He was with dear friends and family, at the height of his artistic expression and had just come from a world travel adventure,” said Wirth. “He was known for his exuberant and irreverent spirit and loving heart. He leaves behind a community of friends and loved ones and will be fondly remembered by so many.”

A memorial service will be held in Martin’s honor on Sunday, Sept. 10. The time and location have not yet been determined.

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.