The San Francisco Art Institute was recently awarded a $94,000 Save America’s Treasures grant to restore and conserve two New Deal-era frescoes. The murals are located at SFAI’s historic campus in North Beach on Chestnut Street.
The murals were created under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was founded in 1935 to provide financial relief to artists during the Great Depression. The Federal Art Project was a division of the WPA dedicated to visual art. This project created more than 200,000 works, building a legacy of public art in the United States.
“SFAI played a central role advancing the fresco as an art form in the United States in the 1930s,” said SFAI President Gordon Knox. “… [F]aculty members brought Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to San Francisco for Diego’s first commission in the U.S., the incredible The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, which is open to the public seven days a week at our 800 Chestnut Street campus. Rivera’s presence in San Francisco stimulated the West Coast muralist movement. SFAI began to offer courses in fresco painting and turned classrooms and walls over to the exploration of the form. Nearly all of the 26 artists who worked on Coit Tower were affiliated with SFAI,” said Knox.
MURAL BY FREDERICK E. OLMSTEAD JR.
In 2013, SFAI’s vice president of operations and facilities, Heather Hickman Holland, noticed ghostly traces underneath the walls of a corner hallway. After closer examination, it became apparent the traces indicated figures and buildings — a painting underneath the whitewash. After research of the institute’s archives, Holland identified at least six of these lost frescoes throughout the building. Marble Workers (1935) has been positively identified as a painting by Frederick E. Olmsted Jr. Also called Marble Workers at Fisherman’s Wharf, the fresco measures 10 feet high and 9 feet wide, and depicts a group of nine men at work in the Musto Marble Works, just blocks from SFAI. A grandnephew of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Frederick Olmstead Jr. had previously completed a small mural called Power at Coit Tower.
SOCIAL REALISM STYLE
The sociopolitical experience of the working class informs the artwork of the Social Realism movement. As a reaction to the hardships experienced between world wars, Social Realism depicts workers as symbols of power and strength. “Making the ‘lost frescoes’ visible and accessible for the first time since the New Deal era will help further illuminate the stories, experiences and ethos of the Bay Area public mural artists at an important time in our collective history,” Knox says. “This extraordinary project will allow students, faculty and visitors from around the world to experience the work in the context of other Social Realist murals of the time.”
Marble Workers has been hidden for nearly 70 years and was likely whitewashed in the 1940s. Though it is unclear why the frescoes were painted over, the practice is surprisingly common. Miscommunication during renovations is often the culprit, with painters who are not instructed what areas to paint and what to leave alone. Also, frescoes become damaged over time, and painting over them becomes an option measured against the cost of restoration. The public perception of the murals’ value may also have changed over time. Social Realism was no longer in fashion after the 1940s, when Abstract Expressionism became the popular painting style.
SECOND MURAL BY FEMALE ARTIST?
The first phase of restoration, the conservation assessment, was completed in 2015. Marble Workers and a second fresco called Lost Fresco #6 are the current subjects of this restoration. Lost Fresco #6, according to conservators, may have been painted by a woman as were two other SFAI frescoes by Marjorie Eakin (Sabre) and Eleanor Bates (Streloff). Archives show that several murals on campus were completed by female artists, including Suzanne Scheuer and Una McCann. Located on the northern entrance to the campus, Lost Fresco #6 is the largest mural on campus, second only to the Diego Rivera mural.
The New Deal-era frescoes represent an important era in the history of the United States, and the Save America’s Treasures grant will facilitate the city of San Francisco reclaiming what was lost through preserving the history of WPA artists.
Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at mindtheimage.com.