Teaching about San Francisco Community Murals

text by Jeff Goldthorpe
photographs by David Yu

Here I am with my students, walking down 24th Street past South Van Ness toward Balmy Alley, San Francisco’s first outdoor mural gallery. I am lucky this semester to have David Yu as a student, a professional photographer. He decides to take photos as we do the mural tour. I am also lucky to be in my old neighborhood, where I lived from age 18 to my late twenties. Here on this very corner, I fell in love with my first outdoor mural by Mujeres Muralistas, where Paco’s Tacos once stood. The mural overlooked the parking places for the drive-in. As a semi-native, I feel at home.


I am a composition teacher by trade. Compositions are written in classrooms. How did I end up on this road? I began teaching about a Diego Rivera mural on City College’s campus in 2008, saw the power of the local, as well as the obvious influence of Rivera on local muralism, and found Tim Drescher’s essay about how two Mission District “mural alleys” represented a larger shift in politics and style. By 2011, I had a compare/contrast assignment on my hands.

The Mission is a few miles from the campus where my class meets. No problem. There are thousands of images, and several web sites of varying quality about Mission murals on the web, which I have posted on the class Moodle page. But to not visit these murals seemed ridiculous, given the importance of cultural context and site-specific meanings. So here I am at Balmy Alley, introducing Josue Rojas’ “Enrique’s Journey,” a beautiful rendering of the true story of about a boy who jumps trains from Mexico to find his Mom in the U.S. I don’t talk about how I ended up in the Mission to escape my mom.


Balmy Alley is in the heart of the mainly-Latino neighborhood, and wears its forty years of social realist muralism proudly (there are at least 20 murals in the block-long alley). The day is sunny, the alley is fairly clean and there is no sign of the gang bangers that the Mission is notorious for, so even students who are new to the Mission soon feel at ease. As in any gallery, students at first listen to my lecture, and then drift apart to browse, then bunching up together again unpredictably. I consider the drifting to be a sign of engagement, rather than of boredom.


Soon we run out of time, and walk back through the alley and back up 24th Street to hop on the BART train to 16th and Mission to nearby Clarion Alley. I once lived in this more hipster / skid-rowish side of the Mission as well, so the wilder, pop-and -hip-hop, and graffiti influences here are familiar to me, but sometimes disconcerting to students who prefer the comprehensibility of social realism. Drescher’s essay describes the greater diversity and pluralism of Clarion to be “post modern,” as opposed to the more rational, political, realist style of Balmy. Having read Drescher before our tour, students are on the lookout for hypodermic needles and human waste. Usually the scent of urine is all I notice. Clarion as well has been uplifted, if not gentrified by the art tourists, my class included.


Despite Clarion’s reputation for stylistic anarchy, their mural process is overseen by the Clarion Alley Mural Project. CAMP has audaciously attempted to ride the wave of graffiti-style spray can art while maintaining the traditional boundaries of art making (“good fences make good neighbors”). Nonetheless in two years of mural tours, I have occasionally been rendered speechless by the destruction of my favorite pieces, not to mention the relentless tagging, which I assume is periodically wiped clean by mural guardians. Chuy Campusano’s 20 year old political cubist piece and Jet Martinez’s almost 10 year old “Lo Llevas Por Dentro” are carefully tended by someone’s loving hands. Martinez’s introspective/ geometric nature painting is good marker of how far from social realism paintings can drift at Clarion.


The pleasures of walking outside aside, ending the tour is sobering, mostly due to the desperate decay of the street scene, if not for all the graffiti-devastation on the Mission Street side of Clarion.

The mural comparison assignment this tour leads to is still too difficult. I am still working to structure its contrastive analysis while keeping its choice and chance. The final assignment– analyzing two panels of Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity”– also leads students out of the classroom, but not off campus. One of the early assignments requires two students to describe and interpret one panel (of ten panels) to the rest of the class. We visit the mural site itself, but its enormity and the awkwardness of the architecture, which precludes a single panoramic view, has led me to schedule the panel talks at a campus restaurant where a large scale replica allows both close-up and panoramic viewing. The student talks reduce the intimidation factor in facing the work of a master.


Teaching at a community college with world class piece of visual art is a privilege indeed. Composition teachers may wonder if I am teaching art history (see the power point presentation posted elsewhere on this blog). “Pan American Unity” is so densely historical that any writing that comes close to interpretation must use scholarship to get to point B. A second way that I consider myself highly privileged is that I am able to benefit from the decades of scholarship by Masha Zackheim, Julia Bergman, and Will Maynez among others, to present scholarly materials that give students the context and background to hang their own insights on. I always end my library tour with a visit to the Diego Rivera Archives, so they can feel the weight of this work, and know that if they want to pursue any question about the mural obsessively, there is probably an answer to it here. Below, David shows you an image of the unsinkable Julia Bergman welcoming my students to the Archive.


This entry was posted in Greatest Hits, San Francisco Murals, Teaching Visuals: with, about, through. Bookmark the permalink.

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