This is from the Fund for Women Artists, known now as WomenArts:
Susan Cervantes on The Women’s Building Mural
Seven Muralists with 100 Years of Experience
When I interviewed her in June, Susan Cervantes pointed out that “Maestra Peace,” the San Francisco Women’s Building mural, was several collaborations rolled into one. Seven very different women muralists collaborated with Women’s Building leaders, program participants, and volunteers in selecting the imagery and scope of this monumental work, which covers two exterior walls of the multi-story building.
The result owed as much to the artists’ initiative and sensibilities as to the original intentions of Women’s Building leaders, as Susan tells it:
“They selected seven of us, a very diverse team. At that time, we had over a hundred years of experience between us. That already made it special.”
“The Women’s Building had this questionnaire that they sent out to all their constituents, over a thousand or so all over the Bay Area that had used the Women’s Building, wanting to know what they wanted to see in the mural. So we were handed a packet containing a summary of a couple of hundred questionnaires.”
A Unique Opportunity to Do Something Monumental Celebrating Women
Women’s Building leaders originally planned only a small mural low on the building’s Lapidge Street side, timed to celebrate paying off the building’s mortgage in 1994. But the muralists had a much larger project in mind, and their ideas carried the day.
“We thought, ‘Look, you have seven really powerful women here, there’s no way that we’re just going to paint this little strip along the side. It just doesn’t make sense,” Susan told me.
“So we proposed to them that we were going to do the whole building, the front and the side, because there was a unique opportunity to do something on a monumental scale that really celebrated women’s contributions.”
The artists knew at the outset that funding on hand for the Lapidge Street section could never match the necessary time investment. They spent three months creating a grand design based on responses to the Women’s Building questionnaires and their own visions.
“We were all very happy that we included everything that we saw in the packet and that we felt was important to us and our own creativity, and that it worked with the architecture and the function of the building. We did a full-color study, and presented it to the Women’s Building trustees and board, who approved it.”
The team helped raise additional funds, putting on a benefit, and the Women’s Building brought in revenue by offering the right to add names to the mural in return for pledges (there’s a wonderful annotated list of hundreds at the Website). Names were lettered in gold by calligrapher Olivia Quevedo, whom Susan considers the “eighth muralist.”
A Gift from the Artists to the Community
More than 85 women volunteered under the muralists’ supervision, hauling paint and water, blocking in color: “It made everybody feel that they were part of the whole process, and it gave all the women ownership.” They weathered a drawn-out controversy when the mural was halted temporarily on account of the building’s landmark status, but the artists triumphed over the bureaucracy, and they’ve returned to add to the mural twice, marking the Women’s Building’s 25th and 30th anniversaries.
When artists collaborate with organizations, funding can be a key question. The more participatory the artistic process, the more time it takes, raising the cost of fair compensation. Artists often decide to contribute part of their time rather than forego a project, but WomenArts hopes that the Harmony Project will document the true value of such artist contributions.
“I think we all worked for about $5,000 each for over a year’s work. Sometimes I had to be there three or four full days a week, which means I’d be working seven days a week, as I was managing the mural center at the same time,” Susan told me.
“At the time, we all had this energy and a lot of passion for the work, we weren’t thinking really about the money. It was a big sacrifice for all of us, but we did it. If you think about it now, you’re talking about something that’s like a $200,000 project at least, that we did probably for about $50,000. For us, it’s a gift to the community and we hope that they see that and recognize that.”
The Maestra Peace Mural covers two exterior walls of a multi-story building.
The themes of the mural are the healing power of women’s wisdom over time, the contributions of women throughout history, and the making of history by women from all corners of the earth.
A few of the famous women included are Audre Lorde, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Rigoberta Menchu. In addition, female icons such as Quan Yin, Yemeyah, and Coyoxauqui lend a timeless and spiritual element to the design.
By Susan Corso
For spiritual nourishment, please visit www.susancorso.com