The Muse Returns
After my uninspiring blog post on the media literacy conference (9/7/13 post), I fell so deep into my City College-On-Death-Row-Semester that I could not think about posting, or even writing for myself. There was a whirlwind of meetings, conferencing with students in the intensive class, department meetings, committee meetings (ten called for each attended), and the meetings I forgot to attend. And let’s not forget the students’ compositions.
Today it’s “faculty day” (formerly Columbus Day), when I should be grading papers and preparing midterm grades, but instead I’ve been leading tours of Balmy and Clarion Alleys in the Mission (see “Teaching About San Francisco Community Murals” 5/18/13). I’ve been doing midterm tests this week, predictably cranking up tension. My teaching week ended with missed sleep, and misgivings at home and at work. I wonder at times like this if I would do better to catch up on paper grading, which I am behind on now. Now that the mural tours are done, I am reminded of how special it is to get off my beaten comp-track, back into my old neighborhood just as Indian Summer tapers off and a cool breeze announces the arrival of San Francisco’s Day of the Dead season.
The first sign I had that this tour would be different was on the BART train, reading an essay by Aaron Noble, realizing how much of the polarity between Balmy and Clarion Alleys comes down to graffiti, and the more punk/ hip-hop individualist culture that flowed through the eighties, leading to a different sensibility toward mural painting in Clarion (all praises go to Tim Drescher’s “Street Subversion” essay on the two Alleys’ murals in Chris Carlsson’s Reclaiming San Francisco, City Lights, 1998).
It was not all in my head; when I walked into La Boheme to get a cup of coffee, one of my students was practicing her “Frida Kahlo” speech in preparation for upcoming speech tournament. The casual stroll down 24th Street allowed me to soak up so much more about my students than I can normally pick up in the classroom—(I keep wondering why these people look so much taller) – one from Guangzhou Province, another from Bayview with her puppy, another with a 11 year old in middle school, and another who brings her grandmother along, but regrets leaving her pot-belly pig at their Daly City home.
When we arrive at Balmy and I begin my spiel, I see that the Bay Bridge and the mother figure in Josue Rojas’ “Enrique’s Journey” is gone, patched up with some nebulous clouds. The vague narrative of this immigrant story is weakened, but I sense that the clouds are a filler as the artist figures out what he really wants to paint. But that is only the beginning of the change I witnessed today. As we walk past a few more murals, a man is working on one of the older murals in the Alley, titled “Culture Plants the Seeds of Resistance…” scraping and sanding it down into a ghost of its former self. Turns out it is O’Brien Theile, soon joined by his original collaborator Miranda Bergman, and they are restoring the once brilliantly colorful mural (a social realist classic finished in 1984 or ’85).
My students are most interested in two pieces on San Francisco, one a cartoon fantasy sprinkled with satire, Sirron Norris’ “Victorion” and the other a more blunt social realist satire “Mission Makeover.” Since beginning these tours in 2011, I have seen years of peeling paint, and cracked, blistered, splintered wood warping murals. The freshly painted restorations are reassuring to me. As we take to BART to 16th Street to see Clarion Alley, I worried about the damage, deterioration and death-by-tagging that I saw when I was last there in the summer.
The plaza at 16th and Mission was a good sign: 100% less menacing than usual. Arriving at the entrance to Clarion, “Who is the Tamale Woman?” we ask, and there is no easy answer to the question. “Opium Horizons” is still there at the entrance, as colorful, eye-popping and horrifying as ever.
There is another young woman hard at work nearby, less at ease with me addressing my little crowd than O’Brien Theile was, but there she was creating a familiar pair of unicorns , like two chess pieces facing each other. Oh, and people are painting on the pavement now, two paisley shapes with stenciled images inside Marilyn Monroe in one, and Che Guevara in the other.
Megan Wilson has painted over her tag-ravaged “Capitalism is Over! If You Want It,” and replaced it with the more direct “TAX THE RICH,” but with more densely painted pop art flowers that resist the tagging onslaught.
New murals abound, and tagging damage is receding— the sun is coming out. I have been to Clarion Alley enough times so that I can no longer be shocked at the fleeting life cycle of some of my favorites, but I did not really foresee the disappearance of the “Giant Blue Head” that made it onto the cover of Annice Jacoby’s Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo. Something new but vaguely familiar has replaced it. The slightly whacked out guy touching up another painting (who claimed the mantle of CAMP—Clarion Alley Mural Project) said that the same artist (Mats Stromberg) is painting it. It is clearly mid-way in the process.
It was great to walk through Clarion, seeing the accent on creation rather than destruction. It still has a lot of the graffiti style murals, many of which I don’t care for, but it continues to have both a profusion of styles and colors, and some respected classics (the black and white cubist satire of Chuy Campusano and the abstract geometric landscape of Jet Martinez) which will hopefully never disappear, to be replaced by The Next Big Thing, in my lifetime.
Thank you to muralists whose works grace my blog post, to my students, and to Tim Drescher, for pointing out to me to polarity of these two mural alleys, giving me and my students food for thought for a very long time to come. I have finished writing a blog post—the muse has returned.
Text and photos by Jeff Goldthorpe