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How JR Created His Photographic Mural of the City

By Matthew Petty

Artist JR’s The Chronicles of San Francisco will be unveiled in the Roberts Family Gallery on May 23 at SFMOMA. (Photos courtesy of the artist)

When you first look at it, you’re not sure: Is that one big photograph? How did he get all those people in one place? Why is Marc Benioff holding a protest sign? It triggers so many questions. In the end, that’s what art is supposed to do — it challenges us and invites the viewer to adopt a new perspective. JR’s intent was straightforward: “The mural aims to be a picture of society, not depicting good and bad, but rather showing that both sides are present in everyone. Every person is presented at the same size, captured with the same light. No one is more important than another,” he explains. But the process of creating The Chronicles of San Francisco, which is being unveiled in the free-to-visit Roberts Family Gallery on May 23 at SFMOMA, was a huge undertaking. Here’s a look at how it all went down.

Create a studio on wheels and position it in different places around the city. JR’s mobile studio was created from a converted 53-foot trailer truck. From January through February of 2018, it was parked in 24 different locations around the city. From Bayview to the Financial District, and Ocean Beach to the Marina. “It is a city rich in contrasts, one that features immense innovation and wealth as well as one of the highest rates of child homelessness in the country — which makes it a perfect canvas for this project,” says the artist.

Invite people inside. The studio welcomed anyone who wished to participate. The final tally came in at more than 1,200, including homeless men and women, protesters, swimmers, drag queens, kids and many others. “The San Franciscans in the mural are the people who were passing by at that location, at that moment. A large part of the mural is therefore decided by chance,” JR explains. Some well-known public figures were also included, such as California Governor Gavin Newsom and Golden State Warriors basketball star Draymond Green. A separate studio was used for larger groups, such as the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

Edit, refine, assemble. Once the subjects were photographed, the images went to the post production team to be extracted from the green background and printed for placement. There was a lot of cutting and pasting and moving things around to create a rough draft. It was then assembled digitally to create the final puzzle — the mural. It will be presented to the public on a seamless span of over 107 feet of LED screens that slowly scroll, taking over an hour to complete the cycle. The size of the project is a first for JR: “This is the first time that I am creating a mural at the scale of a whole city. Since the visit of Diego Rivera in 1931, San Francisco has had a long muralist tradition,” he says.

Photos courtesy of jr-art.net.

Install and marvel. The complete piece is a secret until JR unveils it later this month. The graphic above represents the finished size, with the detail shown for perspective. So, how exactly did this end up at SFMOMA? The experiment was underway before it was destined for the museum. While SFMOMA director Neil Benezra had a lot to do with bringing it in, he credits Marc Benioff, who in an email opined that it should be displayed at the region’s largest contemporary art museum. Benezra sees it as an opportunity to build on a muralist tradition in the Bay Area: “From 1930, when our founding director, Grace McCann Morley, persuaded Diego Rivera to come to San Francisco to complete a series of mural commissions, our city has been home to a rich, and expressly democratic, tradition of paintings made for the public.”

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