Murals

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· Allen House, my first mural.
· In the Kitchen, a mural at Hunters Point Shipyard.
· Amateur Artists’ Day, in the lands east of San Francisco.
· Through the Tunnel to Honey Hill, a residential mural project.
· Mural Painting at Cowden Automotive, in a business setting.
· Can You See It From the Moon
· Getting the Word Out
· Ongoing and Upcoming

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Can You See It From the Moon

On a rare hot, sticky June day in 1999 I had plans to pick up my car at the repair shop and go to the movies with friends. Bus to BART, BART to downtown, pick up the car, etc. No sweat. At the last minute I realized I didn't have any kind of comfortable cushion in the checking account I usually use to pay for car repairs. I determined not to panic. Things will work out, I have come to realize, if I can hold on to some sort of positive and creative point of view. The bank where I have my studio account was near the bus. I could transfer funds, add a few twenties from my emergency stash, be reasonably comfortable with my bank balance, and pay, this once, with a business check.

Banking done, I waited for the bus - nearly an hour. It was supposed to come every ten minutes. Chinese exercises took the load off my tense legs. Deep breathing helped in the heat. When I got to the repair shop I still had time to get the car, have lunch with my friends, and get to the movies. Not a moment to spare, though.

Life had more surprises in store for me, however. The first was that my clutch did not need to be replaced, so my repair bill could have been paid from my personal account. Oh, well. The business checks were all I had with me.

"What's Brushworks?" Larry asked, looking at my business check.

"My studio name," I told him.

"What kind of studio?" he wanted to know.

"Painting," I told him.

"But what do you do?"

"I paint." I could see we were not communicating quite on the same wavelength.

"A lot of our customers are in the arts," he said. "Photographers, potters, designers. Have you ever seen that big ice cream cone on Castro Street with fruit coming out the top? One of our customers made that."

Ah, I thought. He wants to know the end result of what I do.

"I paint pictures."

"Like what?" Larry has a pervasive curiosity about life. He looked at me with an intense flash of it. I was being too vague for his taste.

"Well," I said, hoping to be light and funny. "I just happen to have right here a few snapshots of some of my paintings." I got out two tiny key chain albums intended to hold dime store photo booth portraits. A friend's granddaughter is part of the pre-teen fad for hanging all manner of key chains from her backpack. I thought this a great idea and began to emulate it. In the dime store albums I put details clipped from photos of my artwork that didn't turn out well overall. Larry looked at them carefully. I had one eye on the clock and one eye on him. No need to panic yet. I could still get to the movie.

Ironically, the movie I was going to see (for the third time) was Midsummer Night's Dream with Rupert Everett as Oberon and Stanley Tucci as Puck. Ironic because Stanley Tucci as Puck looks enough like Larry to be his fraternal twin. Larry doesn't have the little horns, but his sense of humor is just as playful.

Panel 2 of "Can You See It From the Moon."
Photo: Ami DeAvilla

"I like this one," he said. He started to tell me that he'd always wanted to see a mural on the wall of the shop - a wall over 50 yards long. I listened. We agreed to pursue the idea. I got to my friend's house just as everyone was giving up on me. "We saved you a steam bun and two pot stickers," Juli said.

Anna Ruth has a blue handicapped card because of severe arthritis in her knees. As quickly as I could, I gulped the pot stickers, grabbed the steam bun, and we headed for the Balboa Theater. A blue space right in front was free. We took it. The film started just as we sat down.

Some kind of midsummer magic has been at work ever since. It lasted through the design phase of the mural, various vacations and illnesses, into actually doing the mural, and now, to naming it and choosing a date for a party to celebrate.

The mural is at Cowden Automotive, 875 Folsom Street in San Francisco, near Fifth Street and just two blocks from the Yerba Buena Center. Paul Cowden, who owns the shop, is as wise and courteous about working with me on the mural as he and his staff are with all their customers.

Structural supports divide the mural into ten panels. Larry wanted something done with the columns. It was the right idea. I initially wanted to leave them unpainted. Of various designs for the columns, Paul chose one derived from San Francisco Victorian architecture to give an echo of old San Francisco to the composition, which is a simplified drawing-style panorama reaching from Mt. Tamalpais, across the San Francisco skyline, to the bird sanctuaries south of the San Mateo Bridge.

The column design we chose has spirals at the top. I have both dislexia and astigmatism. Telling clockwise from counterclockwise spirals takes effort. At the top of one column my spiral went in the wrong direction, but I didn't know it. I was up in the loft overlooking the main floor. The loft has become my studio at the shop. I looked out over the half wall and across the main floor. Paul was looking intently at the mural. What part of it is he appreciating, I wondered as my eye scanned the double row of cars, the clean interior, the wooden roof supports with hoses and pulleys attached to them, and the portions of the mural I had completed.

When I came down, Paul asked, "Did you intend that one spiral to be different from the others?" He notices everything.

I loathe doing things over. I took a deep breath. "No," I said, "I didn't."

Paul patted me lightly on the shoulder. "Oh well," he said, understanding my stubborn temperament well enough to know the light touch would get me to paint it out and do it right more surely than any other method. He showed me where all the gallons of carefully marked wall paint are stored. Now all the spirals are done. They go the same way. They look great.

Deciding on a date for the party needed careful work. The rock band, Professional Help, will play. I had painstakingly arranged the August 26 date to accommodate my schedule (I had to finish the mural first!), the calendars of the band members, and especially Paul's busy schedule. Darrell and Larry hadn't been around during these deliberations. I saw them talking by the main desk and decided it was a good moment to tell them both about the party date.

Paul walked by. Larry asked, "Does he know?" loud enough for Paul to hear and as though I had committed the major social gaff of not telling the owner of the shop that I was planning to throw a party on the premises.

Of course Paul knew the date, but Larry's stage whisper brought Paul to a comical screeching halt. "Know what?" he asked, as though fire had just broken out.

"The date for the party," I said. Paul started to laugh along with the rest of us. It was one of many moments when Larry's humor lightens the end of the day. I got in the spirit myself. "Larry?" I asked, "Did you see the earthworms I put crawling over your severed hand wind up toy?"

"So that's who put those there!" Paul said. I told you he notices everything.

Larry smiled. He hadn't noticed the worms. "But have you seen my new giant ant?"

Martha recently left Cowden Automotive after nineteen years to work for Maria, another Cowden alumna, in Petaluma, closer to the house Martha has built in Mendocino County.

Shortly before she left, she and I were talking in the kitchen about the spirit of the shop. "It's a great place to work," Martha said. "Friends ask me how I could work at the same place for nineteen years. Well, it's a great place!"

Jon rides his motorcycle to work at the shop. Dennis rides his bicycle. Eric and his family just got back from the Oregon coast. Craig brought in his big shaggy black dog who is so tall I thought he was a beanbag chair covered in sheepskin when I first met him.

The dog stayed for a day. He was peaceful and well behaved. Warren is taking Martha's place. Darrell is going to open a new shop in the Mission. Bob is coming on board.

"It's Muriel the Muralist!" Dennis called out one morning. That's become my shop name. I had a teacher named Muriel. She taught Chaucer. It's fine with me to be reminded of her as I work.

I talk about a name for the mural. Craig suggests "San Francisco Scape," which I rather like. "You aren't going to call it 'The Great Wall of Cowden?'" Dennis and Eric want to know.

"Can you see it from the moon?" I shout down from the top of the compressor cabinet where I am sitting painting the Skyline Ridge. Eric is trying to look indignant.

Panel 1 of "Can You See It From the Moon."
Photo: Ami DeAvilla

"'Can you see it from the moon!'" He laughs as he goes back to work under the hood of a red pickup.

"There's a skylight right there." I gesture with my paintbrush. "The moon can see in just fine."

The actual reference, I remembered, is to seeing The Great Wall of China from outer space, not from the moon. But I like the moon. I paint it a lot, too.

Artist friends have asked what times of day I work on the mural. Do I come in after hours? On weekends?

No. I paint during working hours.

"Oh, I could never do that," I've heard as a reply.

I wouldn't have it any other way. Part of this has to do with my love of talking while I paint. Part of it is that I like group effort. As far as I'm concerned, a mural is a group project. I've added to it by group suggestion, always to its improvement. As a balance, Paul reminded me, "It's alright to be inspired," when I was feeling the need to go my own way with some portion of the work. He said this in the same spirit he said to a customer who was deliberating about how long to keep his car, "Your car doesn't have to wear out to justify buying a new one."

I've learned to move equipment that is on good wheels, I've been helped with getting coolant tanks and oil cans out of my way. I've been shown where tools and paint are. I've even been taken for a member of the staff by some customers. I love the extensive space in which I'm painting, the broad gestures a large wall allows me to use. I've gotten to know differences in surface texture. I've learned to use rough areas to advantage to leave space in a technique called dry brush in European traditions and "flying white" in Chinese art.

"Flying white" suits me. It brings the actual art of the mural together with pleasure I have had in creating it, the trust that all will go well together with the fact that it has. Whether or not The Great Wall of Cowden can been seen from the moon, I think I've found a title for it, too.

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