By Imani C. Davis
A four-paneled grayscale mural depicting Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and mural installation workers appeared on the wall surrounding the construction site of the new science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) building on Frida Kahlo Way in Spring of 2023. This mural was painted by City College students as part of a mural-making workshop, a result of a continual collaboration between City College and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).
The joint effort to steward the Pan American Unity mural between City College and SFMOMA includes a new comprehensive program of conservation, public education and City College student internships with the SFMOMA.
The program has hosted several artists in the past, including Emory Douglas, Favianna Rodriguez and artists featured in the documentary “Alice Street.” According to Nicole Oest, the longtime point person between SFMOMA and City College, “The invitation to do a workshop was devised by CCSF faculty and SFMOMA, following a meeting at CCSF together with CCSF students who wanted a visiting artist series.” In October 2022, after being delayed 2.5 years due to COVID-19, the program brought Brooklyn-based muralist Esteban del Valle to discuss and teach his contemporary mural-making process in both a lecture and workshop.
The mural-making workshop was organized by City College art department professors, and funded by SFMOMA. Art Professor Nancy Mizuno Elliott headed the “huge team effort,” temporarily taking the reins from Oest.
Del Valle’s simplified 8-hour workshop covered the process of creating a mural, start to finish. Del Valle says: “I designed it to be a black and white grayscale just to teach the students the basic mural process, which comes from having an image and using a grid to scale the image up.” The process was taught on four panels with teams of 2-4 students per panel. The paintings were composed of images based off of photos of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo while in San Francisco, as well as photos of workers installing the Pan American Unity mural. Having done several workshops in the past, with folks of varying ages and skill levels, and under varying time limits, del Valle was impressed with City College students’ collaborative spirit. “I was really impressed with how much work they got done, how well they worked together and how they were really into the project, which always helps.”
Painting students at the time, Barbara Bolls-Guillory, Itzli Ceja and Xiaoyu Luo painted the Frida Kahlo panel together. The three benefitted from the workshop in a multitude of ways, from the community aspect to the technical skills learned. The technique of breaking down the image to enlarge it was a big gain for Ceja. “I think the big eye opening point of the mural workshop was just breaking it down into that grid. And then from there, you’re kinda like, oh, it’s much easier to approach the drawing and the painting of it.”
Luo also commented on the new technical skills acquired during the workshop. “I learned how to use material[s] and equipment that I had never touched before, like the chalk reel and spray paint. The color blending technique and tips will be beneficial to my art skills as well.” Luo also found the camaraderie with other art students, as well as del Valle, valuable. “Esteban told us all the steps on how to make a mural and shared many real life stories from his own experience, which [were] very helpful and interesting to me. I had a lot of fun getting paint onto my hand[s] and clothes; also the team work made the whole experience extra fun.”
For Bolls-Guillory, the communal aspect of bringing together students from all over the department meant a lot, and she made sure to document the day’s progress through photos.
“I think when you’re talking about community and connection… I wanted to show that part of, like, we’re all working together. I mean obviously it’s as art is: anywhere we can make artwork- you know, if we can, we will. And again having to do this with a group of people, of talented artists. And I mean, everyone had varying backgrounds, you know?”
Like Luo, she was moved by del Valle’s sense of community and his gift of knowledge to the group. “[Esteban] was very inspiring. He was very helpful. He gave us tips. He was very generous with his tips and how he works when he creates murals. And so we learned a lot and again, the camaraderie between the people as we progressed through the day painting. You know, that was fun.” She was grateful for the experience, but ended the day with the question of the mural’s final whereabouts. “It was a wonderful event. So happy to be a part of it. And at the end of the day, when everything was said and done, we took pictures and, we just wondered ‘where would- all our work- where is this gonna go?’”
After completion of the mural, there was a period of which, much like the Pan American Unity mural in a way, it was displaced and traveling around the art department. Elliott explained, “Esteban asked us, you know, ‘are you gonna put this somewhere permanent or is this more temporary?’ And I said, you know, we really don’t have a space for this, so we’ll just call it temporary. We’ll just call it an experience.” As Robison was searching for a home for the mural, the construction company building the STEAM building came to her, requesting a mural for the long, empty, sky blue wall surrounding the construction site. “As I was asking around, one of the contractors called me asking if I had any students or faculty that would be willing to create murals on the construction walls. I told him we had four beautiful panels ready to go…They were thrilled and so was I!” They were mounted in Spring of 2023, taking several by surprise, including those who had worked most intimately with the project.
Elliott explained after returning from a short leave she unknowingly ran across them: “Our expectation was really for it to be a learning experience in a workshop. We had no expectations in regard to presentation, that it would be put in such a public space and enjoyed by so many people.” Bolls-Guillory had a similar sentiment. “I was just so grateful to hear that after all that effort that we’ve done that at least community will get to enjoy them for however long they’ll be there.”
An extensive project with a storied history to it, catalyzed by Diego Rivera’s gift to City College, the mural workshop has left lasting ripples. Ceja is inspired and motivated by her time working on the project. “Maybe we can come together since we kind of know the techniques and just, do one, as a community, just organize it. Like maybe this article will be the impetus to start that, like, that would be cool to do another one.”
She invites students to reach out to her to develop the possibility together. “I’m committing to trying to put this together. So if anyone has any ideas or wants to help, I’d be happy to put my email out there just to see if there’s any interest.” To reach out to her about this new-forming project contact her by email at email@example.com.