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If Walls Could Talk

by Max Blue

Diego Rivera’s “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and the South on This Continent,” which is commonly referred to as “Pan American Unity” (1940). | © Banco De Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico D.f. / Artist Rights Society (Ars), New
York. Courtesy of City College of San Francisco;

The fascinating history of San Francisco’s many murals reaches back to the Great Depression and is alive today around movements and messages.

The walls of San Francisco have a story to tell. For nearly a century, murals have been a medium for resistance, solidarity and hope in the City, in their community-oriented approach and often in their content, from Depression-era scenes to portraits of Greta Thunburg and Booker T. Washington to storefronts adorned in response to the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. Small wonder, then, that there has been a boom in the practice during the last two years of concentrated public and civil unrest.

Apt, too, that many of the earliest major murals in San Francisco were in response to social upheaval: government-funded public works throughout the City, most notably in Coit Tower, that shed light on the conditions of the Great Depression. The 1960s and ’70s saw an explosion of community murals, artworks funded and created by the neighborhoods they directly benefited — from the earliest community mural in the City at the corner of Haight and Cole, “Evolution Rainbow,” by Joana Zegri in 1967, to the response murals at George Washington High School by the legendary Bay Area painter Dewey Crumpler, to Balmy Alley in the Mission and its successor, the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP).

“Frisco Rise,” by Mary Claire Amable and Lorenzo Tamayo-Lee, is a recent addition to the Clarion Alley Mural Project. | Courtesy of the Artists

Art and Politics Intersect

This history and the present place of murals in the social and physical landscape of San Francisco raises many questions. What does it mean to make art in contested spaces like city streets? Does government funding for public art dilute a message more powerful in the hands of community artists? Do murals provide a form of resistance and solidarity regardless of how they are produced? One thing is certain: Murals have always been a political medium.

Muralism in San Francisco grew out of the tradition of Mexican muralism in the early 20th century, particularly the work of Tres Grandes — José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros — who painted large-scale frescoes in the Social Realist style, often promoting left-leaning sentiments. In 1930, Rivera painted the mural “Allegory of California” inside the Market Street stock exchange (now the City Club). By May 1931, he had painted another fresco, “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City,” at the San Francisco Art Institute on Russian Hill. Both works show scenes of field and factory workers, and booming urban infrastructure.

In 1934, the Public Works of Art Project funded the painting of Coit Tower’s lower interior, a 3,691-square-foot, contiguous series of murals painted by 26 artists. The roster was diverse, from European political refugee Bernard Zakheim to San Francisco socialite Jane Berlandina, while the style and content are a cohesive homage to Tres Grandes, painting an honest, gritty picture of California during the Depression.

By 1939, muralism had become a staple of San Francisco’s art landscape. The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island featured live mural painting demonstrations by artists like Rivera, who returned to create the “Pan American Unity” mural, currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art while its permanent home at City College undergoes renovation.

Of the early, government-funded murals, historian Timothy W. Drescher writes in the 1991 edition of his book, San Francisco Murals: Community Creates Its Muse, 1914–1990, that they “were public art, executed for official buildings, not generated by the community in the way that today’s murals are.” Drescher’s “today” was, of course, over 30 years ago. So, how — and why — are today’s murals being produced?

Drescher offers an important distinction here between “community” and “public” art: “Public art is art done for a general, undefined population (although some sort of middle-class standard is probably assumed),” while “community art is created by or with a group of people who will interact with the finished artwork.” Local government has continued funding murals, mostly through the San Francisco Arts Commission’s StreetSmARTS Mural Program, while the community art effort that began in the late ’60s has become the representative mural practice in the City.

In 1972, artist Maria Galvez and children from a local day care center painted the first mural in Balmy Alley. The alley grew as a major site for community art, today featuring the most concentrated collection of murals in the city of San Francisco, according to its website. These were artworks created by the people, for the people, with no city funding or intervention, obtaining permission only from the owners of the buildings and fences the murals were painted on.

Twin Walls Mural Company artists Elaine Chu and Marina Perez-Wong, painting “Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” (2020). | Courtesy of SFMOMA.

Art for All to Make and Enjoy

Muralism is “very accessible to people,” says San Francisco mural artist Susan Cervantes. “It’s a real people’s art, in a sense, since they’re the ones designing and planning and painting it, usually.”

Cervantes, who had painted in Balmy Alley, founded Precita Eyes Muralists in 1977. The art program based in the Mission encourages community involvement in the production of murals. The group has created about 700 murals at the local, national and international levels, often pairing artists with teams of local youth to produce community artworks. In San Francisco, these include the 1998 AIDS mural at Market and 16th streets, representing the LGBTQIA+ community, and the 2019 mosaic mural inside Chase Center, which is meant to unify the two sides of the Bay.

“When we get into true community process, it gets even more meaningful and empowering for everyone who’s involved in it,” Cervantes says.

Muralism in San Francisco grew out of the tradition of Mexican muralism in the early 20th century.

Inspired by Balmy Alley and Precita Eyes Muralists, CAMP was founded in 1992 by six artists and activists living in the Mission, with the prospect of bringing the community together around art. “Why can’t we build community where we are, with the people we live with and next to, in the neighborhood?” asks codirector and board president Megan Wilson.

The project has also used its platform to become immersed in the neighborhood in other ways, such as securing legal representation for elderly residents facing eviction in buildings along Clarion Alley.

One of CAMP’s recent murals, “Frisco Rise” (2022), by Mary Claire Amable and Lorenzo Tamayo-Lee, on the corner of the alley and Valencia Street, was created in conversation with the Black Lives Matter movement and to raise awareness around anti-Asian hate crimes. The mural celebrates the history of a residential hotel on Kearny Street that was a home to many Asian immigrants and also speaks to the displacement of Black families from the Fillmore in the 1970s.

Norah Bruhn creates beauty into the void at Gough and Hayes Streets while Chez Maman was boarded up during the pandemic. | Courtesy of Paint the Void.

Muralists as Storytellers

The 2020 shelter-in-place mandate and subsequent civil rights movement fueled the City’s latest mural project, Paint the Void, a nonprofit offshoot of cofounder and executive director Shannon Riley’s arts production company, Building 180. “People need a nonviolent way of communicating,” she says. “[Murals] are hopeful. Some messages might not be hopeful, but they’re not hurting anyone, and they make your brain think of things from a different perspective.”

The project has funded more than 150 murals on boarded-up businesses and construction sites in the City. Many are by artists local to the neighborhoods they paint in, and in collaboration with community members, often in direct response to current social and civil unrest, while others present beauty as a form of joyful opposition.

“I think any art, but especially art placed publicly and not behind a ticketed museum, can speak to so many people,” Riley says. “It can speak to people in a museum as well, but I feel like public art is a message by the people for the people.”

In response to pandemic-related closures, SFMOMA found a way to offer institutional support to community art with Bay Area Walls, an ongoing program of murals inside the museum coinciding with the loan of Rivera’s “Pan American Unity.” Another impetus behind the project was to enable artists to respond to the current social and political climate with more immediacy than the timeline a regular exhibition would allow. The first mural to go up was Twin Walls Mural Company’s “Our Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” (2020), which shows a diverse group of young women dancing around a tree above water, underneath which police cars and national monuments are submerged.

“I think any art, but especially art placed publicly and not behind a ticketed museum, can speak to so many people.” — Shannon Riley

Initial 2022 additions to the program include “Reparations,” by Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from the 1960s to the ’80s and an artist and activist who shaped the visual culture of protest and revolutionary imagery still influential today. “It felt urgent to engage with him, given the times we are in,” says Jovanna Venegas, SFMOMA’s assistant curator of contemporary art.

“Reparations” portrays chained Black bodies spelling out the titular word and is complemented by a plethora of Black Panther ephemera from the museum library, as well as being displayed adjacent to an exhibition of WPA art, A Living for Us All. It’s worth noting that both the Douglas and Rivera murals, plus the most recent addition to Bay Area Walls by seminal San Francisco photographer Michael Jang, are located in the museum’s free space.

There is a rhetorical dualism to public and community art: Sometimes, the content directly addresses a political message; all the time, the very act of creating art in a public or community space is a political and social statement, engaging viewers in the social discourse they exist within.

The complex, ongoing response to Victor Arnautoff’s mural “Life of Washington,” painted inside George Washington High School in 1935, illustrates how murals function as sociopolitical texts and create opportunities for civic engagement. It depicts Washington leading a group of settlers West while standing on the back of a dead Native American, as well as scenes of slavery. Since the 1960s, students have demanded the removal and replacement of the mural with an uplifting and empowering message to people of color. Dewey Crumpler, who, like Arnautoff, traveled in Mexico and studied the Tres Grandes, took a commission to produce response murals at the school in the ’60s.

As recently as 2019, the debate over the historical relevance of the mural has continued, along with debate over whether or not Arnautoff’s intention was to condemn or celebrate westward expansion by showing its atrocities. Crumpler opposes the censoring of the 87-year-old work, arguing that doing so would detract from his own murals there by removing their context.

The context of murals, then, is the physical area, community, politics and history that they exist in proximity to, immediately as well as broadly. In a city like San Francisco, that means everything from national, civil and social unrest to the displacement of local residents and community politics. Murals, in their content and by their very creation, reflect our city back at us. It is one full of diversity, adversity, radical movements, justified frustrations and, wonderfully, art.

It is in murals that beauty and struggle intersect messily, both in content and the medium itself as one that is always in conversation with its ever-changing surroundings. The next time you stop to look at one, consider it as an opportunity to engage with it beyond the visual experience it offers. Ask not only what art can do for you, but also allow art to ask what you can do for the community you live in.

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