The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Finding Literary Connections In San Francisco's Murals

Video courtesy of the San Leandro Public Library

On Saturday, March 31, Big Readers from the San Leandro Public Library in California braved the rain for a special outing in nearby San Francisco (check out a video of their trip above!). The day began with a guided tour of the murals in the Mission District, renowned for the hundreds of brightly colored murals that decorate its streets. The tour was led by local organization Precita Eyes Mural Arts Association, a frequent NEA grantee, and was followed by lunch and a visit to the Mexican Museum.

The event was inspired by San Leandro's Big Read selection of Sun, Stone, and Shadows, an anthology of 20 short stories by Mexican writers. Just as the book explores Mexican-American heritage, the Mission's murals present a visual history of the area's strong Hispanic roots. In addition to the mural tour, San Leandro's Big Read program included a visit from Jorge Hernandez, editor of Sun, Stone, and Shadows, who hosted two book discussions at the library. There are several upcoming events as well: teens can attend an afternoon of chocolate trivia (and tasting!) or one of several scheduled book discussions before the final fiesta on May 12.

I spoke with Patricia Rose, tour coordinator at Precita Eyes and a muralist herself, over e-mail about the organization, their neighborhood, and her own work.

NEA: To begin, tell me a little more about yourself and how you became involved with the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Association.

PATRICIA ROSE: I started working with Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center in 1980, while I was still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was doing research for a paper I was writing for one of my academic classes, and my research led me to Precita Eyes. I got a very good grade on my paper, but, more important to me, I got invited to work with Susan Cervantes, founder and director of Precita Eyes. It changed my life!

NEA: Where does the name ?Precita Eyes? come from?

ROSE: We have always identified ourselves as community muralists. The work we do is community-based, it is done for the community, and whenever possible we try to involve and engage the community in the work we do. Our original studio is on a very small street called Precita Avenue, with a park right in front called Precita Park, and the neighborhood around that park is known as Precita Valley. So, quite simply, we took our name from our community. But why the "Eyes" part? Well, consider what eyes do: they take in information, and they also reflect light. We feel that we do these same things with our mural work, taking in information and reflecting it back to the community.

NEA: What does ?Precita? mean?

ROSE: Long ago, what is now called Cesar Chavez Street wasn't even a street at all. It was a creek, and not a very deep one, although it was certainly substantial. It was about 60 feet wide, and at certain times of the year the water could get deeper, so in order to protect nearby homes and businesses from higher water, a retaining wall was built along the south bank of the creek, and this is where the name comes from. In Spanish, the word for dam is presa (or sometimes represa). But this wasn't a dam, it was just a retaining wall. It was called the "precita" (or little dam). The creek was called Precita Creek, and the moniker was given to the street and the neighborhood as well.

NEA: What else, besides the tours, does Precita Eyes do? What kind of classes do you offer?

ROSE: Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center mainly designs and paints murals, mostly for our own community, since this is where we live. But we go all over the world, too. We have done many international projects, in Russia (twice!), in China (twice!), in Germany, Brazil, Spain---we will go anywhere, and we bring our own method of involving the local community in the work that we do, so that those local artists have a strong sense of ownership, and the knowledge that they worked to create their mural.

Here at home, we offer after-school classes for children, evening and weekend classes for teens, and our mural workshops for children, adults, teens, and anyone who wants to participate or schedule something like this. We sell mural painting supplies in our art store, as well as mural postcards and posters and other mural mementos. And we offer our mural tours, for those who would like to learn a little more about these wondrous works of art.

NEA: What was one of your favorite international collaborations?

ROSE: The project that inspired me most was probably the youth crew that we sent to the occupied territories in Gaza. I did not participate, as this was all young artists (I'm in my 60s now), but they were able to paint five murals with Palestinian teens during a very troubled and turbulent time, politically.

NEA: What are a few of your favorite murals on the tour, and why?

ROSE: I'm always interested in new work, so new things will always catch my eye. I also like to point out murals that I myself have painted, since people often don't seem to realize the we are still painting them. Most people seem to think it's an old art form, no one does it anymore, and that we are guardians of a kind of museum in the streets. So I like showing things that are incomplete, still in progress, as that really makes it clear that this is a living art form, very much alive in our community, and being done now more than ever!

NEA: Are there a few common themes or subjects that you can trace throughout the murals?

ROSE: There are many themes that are evident in our murals. The Mission District is a Latino neighborhood, and many of our neighborhood's murals are reflections of Latino cultures. Much of the Latino population of the Mission District has roots in Central America, and Central American political struggles/triumphs show up in many murals. There is also a very strong emphasis, within the Mission Community, on murals with positive messages and themes, such as family life, diversity, heritage issues, and our collective history.

NEA: What?s your favorite part of your job with Precita Eyes?

ROSE: I love a lot of things about my job at Precita Eyes. First and foremost, I am really proud to be a working artist. And working in public, as we do, is also really fun! But I also get to meet a lot of other artists, which I appreciate, and I serve as an educator, too, by conducting school field trip tours for every grade level. In fact, I am the only educator I know, or have even heard of, who can move seamlessly from conducting an educational tour for kindergarteners, on to high school students, and conclude with an academic tour for university students, giving everyone lots to think about and ponder, and staying age-appropriate with each group. I find this aspect of my work to be quite exhilarating, and I love it!

NEA: I understand you are also a muralist yourself---tell me a little about the work that you do.

ROSE: I have been an artist all my life, since I was a wee babe in diapers. As I grew, I focused more on painting, and by the time I was about 25 or 30 my paintings were so large that murals seemed to be the next logical step. I started working with Precita Eyes Muralists in 1980, and now I can't even imagine any other type of career for myself. This work has been extremely satisfying, although it is often challenging too.

NEA: The public artist has a unique relationship with the public---we see and interact with their art every day. What, if any, responsibility does the artist have to the community?

ROSE: At Precita Eyes, we understand that we have a lot of responsibility to the community. We have to keep our own egos out of it, because we are really just facilitators. We are here to help our community express its hopes and dreams, its challenges and its triumphs. It may seem odd to hear an artist say this, but we all feel this way about our work, and that relationship with our community is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

NEA: The NEA?s tagline is ?Art Works.? What does that mean to you? How do you see art working in the Mission District and in greater San Francisco?

ROSE: Here in the Mission, we say "Art is Life" and we cannot imagine any life without lots of art. I say that more as a Mission resident than as a Mission artist, because in the Mission, everyone is an artist. We also say, with regard to Balmy Alley, that "Balmy Alley Lives And Breathes With The Community" because our murals are really an essential part of ourselves, and of our lives. Other parts of San Francisco may not have as deep of a connection to their neighborhood's murals as we do in the Mission, but when they come here, they can definitely feel it. Art is as essential to our lives as breathing!

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