Category: Public art

In Defense of Art & Artists

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

On August 6, 2015, a highly praised public mural funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities was defaced by a vandal or vandals. Unashamedly, a leading left-wing activist wrote a vile article celebrating the willful destruction of the artwork because it depicts eleven U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. Then, one of America’s leading “radical” websites published the filthy screed.

What the hell is going on here? Please allow this working artist to fill in the details.

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Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

In 2008 the owners of Mama Ayesha’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Washington D.C., commissioned award winning artist Karla Cecilia Rodas Cortez, popularly known as Karlísima, to paint a large mural on the outside wall of the restaurant.

The mural work was meant to honor the founder of the eatery, Ayesha Abraham, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem in the late 1800’s who came to the U.S. as an émigré in the late 1940s. Abraham opened her restaurant, originally named Calvert Café, and it was a success in the community and frequented by the politicos that worked in Washington. When Ayesha died in 1993, her family renamed the business Mama Ayesha’s in her honor.

Karlísima’s mural depicts Ayesha Abraham in traditional Palestinian dress, flanked on her right by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter, while on her left Abraham was flanked by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In the background one can see blossoming Cherry trees and the White House. The mural is framed on both sides by a border set in mosaic tile that depicts the U.S. flag. No doubt the restaurant owners wanted to praise Ayesha, but they also wanted to laud their establishment as a favored bistro with government workers, ambassadors, and political dignitaries.

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

It took three years on a scaffold for Karlísima to paint her Presidential Mural. The cost of producing the artwork was $25,000, and the funding was provided by the Abraham family, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities. The artist hired some assistants, but most of the work she did by herself. $25,000 is a pittance for three years of labor, is it not? Allow this proletarian artist to explain the concept for you. I support the fifteen dollar an hour movement, so I know that a 40-hour-a-week job that pays the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 nets a worker a yearly salary of around $13,926, or $41,778 for a three year period. This is wholly inadequate as a living wage, but it also means that in three years of hard work Karlísima earned far less than a worker laboring in a fast food business.

On the night of August 6, a vandal, or possibly a group of hooligans, shot up Karlísima’s mural using a paint ball gun or guns loaded with bright red paint. It took time to methodically place over 50 shots in the groin area of the presidents. The central figure of Ayesha Abraham was not destroyed. One of the hoodlums supposedly signed the work with a scrawl reading, “The War Thugs.” Channel 4 NBC Washington reported that the manager of Mama Ayesha’s, Amir Abu-El-Hawa, responded to the destruction by saying: “It’s sad. My family has worked hard for this restaurant - blood, sweat and tears over the past 55 years.” The television station also spoke to the artist, who simply said: “I’m just so devastated.”

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

On August 7, 2015, the Common Dreams website published an article by Sam Husseini with the awkwardly sophomoric title of: On Shooting the ‘War Thug’ Presidents in the (Paint) Balls. A writer and left-wing political activist, Mr. Husseini is the communications director of the progressive Institute for Public Accuracy. His articles on pop culture, media, and political matters have been widely published, from the Nation to the Washington Post, but his Paint Balls essay is utterly reprehensible. From the opening paragraph to the last moral high-horse sentence, Husseini’s anti-art diatribe made my blood boil; this passionate article is the result.

I will be direct, Sam Husseini is a philistine, a classic example of an individual who knows absolutely nothing about art. The fact that he writes about pop culture and media, and his rubbish is published, points not only to the intellectual squalor of our times, but to the bankruptcy of America’s so-called “left.”

In the malicious opening sentence of his article, Husseini informs the reader that Karlísima’s mural had been “transformed” or “made more whole, reborn” by its defacement! He completely dismisses the artist, barely mentioning her, saying only that “the mural was originally labored over by Karlisima Rodas.”

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

Of Mayan ancestry, Karlísima was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and was considered a prodigy for her artistic abilities. As a child Karlísima was mentored by none other than José Mejía Vides, a printmaker, sculptor, and painter now considered to be an outstanding luminary in Salvadoran art. One does not need to dwell on the conditions suffered by El Salvador in the 1980s. As an artist I worked hard to oppose the “death squad” democracy the U.S. hoisted upon the unfortunate Salvadorans at the time, creating a multitude of prints and drawings that depicted that country’s bloody “civil war.” Karlísima left El Salvador in 1984 and emigrated to the United States where she settled in Washington D.C. In 1992 she graduated from Washington University with a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts, and went on to work at the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of African American Art as a silk screen specialist.

Husseini goes on to call the paint ball vandalism “a sort of art work that is literally paint as paint,” and that for the destroyed mural “there’s a case to be made that this more completes the piece than defaces it.” Husseini adds the wisecrack that “some people, including Karlisima, now seem upset by the addition of the paintballs, but murals are not typically done to glorify the high and mighty.” In what would not be his final spasm of mental incapacity, Husseini jeered that “the original mural is not destroyed, it’s not painted over, but used to make a perhaps unexpected point.” Ah, there it is, the postmodern gobbledegook. You see, an anonymous street artist has merely “appropriated” and “repurposed” Karlísima’s mural! It is with the most bitter sarcasm that I must point out that our paint ball vandal could enjoy a lucrative career in today’s trendy art world, if he or she would only step out of the shadows.

Instead of criticizing Karlísima’s artwork, perhaps Mr. Husseini should offer some critical analysis of America’s progressive movement. The U.S. antiwar movement totally collapsed with the ascendancy of Mr. Hope and Change, the “antiwar” president; the left simply folded itself into the Obama campaign and the democratic party, willingly and mostly uncritically. It has not since recovered, and I have serious doubts that it will. The left’s ineptitude and total incompetence has prevented it from impacting the American political scene, and now out of sheer frustration, lefties are attacking an artist for painting the portraits of eleven U.S. presidents.

What really stuck in Husseini’s craw was that Karlísima dared to paint 11 U.S. presidents without giving them devil horns and fangs. In Husseini’s words: “From using nuclear weapons to bombing Vietnam and invading Iraq to deploying killer drones in country after country, the thuggish-ness of these presidents is hard to compete with.” He went on to say that “an augmented mural could include mushroom clouds in the background, and perhaps jet fighters, bombers and killer drones flying overhead.” Yes, but… we are not talking about the augmentation of an artwork, we are talking about artless pillage. Husseini completely disregards Karlísima’s right to freedom of expression because he deems her artwork “politically incorrect.”

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"Nagasaki Nightmare" - Gee Vaucher. Pencil drawing, 1980.

I am in no way opposed to the creation of acerbic works of art that malign the war making ruling class, I have created such images myself. Here I must mention the brilliance of English artist Gee Vaucher. In 1977 she joined the anarchist punk rock band Crass, producing extraordinary hand drawn images that everyone thought were photomontages. In 1980 Vaucher drew the cover art for the band’s Nagasaki Nightmare single, an antiwar musical masterwork. The artwork depicted the leaders of nuclear armed powers and their allies standing on the pulverized remains of Nagasaki, the charred body of a child at their feet. Vaucher’s drawing and the band’s lyrics continue to haunt me: “They’ve done it once, and they’ll do it again, they’ll shower us all in their deadly rain.” If Husseini actually knew anything, he might have told his readers about Vaucher’s works, instead he went for the denigrating cheap shot by belittling an artist and praising a vandal. Crass did not destroy anyone else’s artwork in order to make their point.

Husseini attempts to justify the destruction of an artwork that he does not politically approve of, and he makes light of it. His tone is more appropriate for TMZ or Buzzfeed. He condones the ruining of an artist’s depiction of U.S. presidents, because “all these presidents have used violence.” I find the crudeness and philistinism of Sam Husseini to be frightening. By giving a green light to the defacement of Karlísima’s Presidential Mural, my fear is that he incites some screwball to visit the U.S. National Portrait Gallery and begin defacing the museum’s historic Portraits of the Presidents collection; justifying the vandalism of art is a slippery slope.

Furthermore, Husseini assumes the “transformation” of the mural was carried out as a left critique of power. How does he know the defacement was not carried out by your garden-variety lunatic, or simply as an act of teenage vandalism? The signature “The War Thugs” could have been left by anyone and should not be considered evidence for political motivation.

More to the point, it is so much easier to destroy a work that took an artist three years to create, than it is to produce your own artistic statement. Husseini did not call for artists to step forward to create skillful and persuasive works of art to open minds and touch the human soul, no, he made excuses for an act of sheer brutish intimidation, and no American should put up with it.

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Karlísima's defaced "Presidential Mural." Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

What would Husseini have written about the City of Los Angeles partially white washing the Siqueiros América Tropical mural on Olvera Street in 1932? Would he have written that it had simply been “transformed” or “made more whole, reborn?” I have to wonder how Husseini would respond to a pro-Palestinian public mural being defaced on U.S. streets with red paint ball splats. Would he say that “the paintball artist perhaps admirably exercised restraint from engaging in figurative head shots,” like he did when referring to the ruined Karlísima mural?

It seems so obvious that I hesitate to bring it up, but history has shown us many examples where art and artists were destroyed for political purposes. Starting in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committed destroyed the lives and careers of hundreds of directors, screenwriters actors, and other professionals in the Hollywood motion picture industry, because they were accused of being communists. In the late 1930’s the Nazis began to ban artists that they perceived to be “un-German” and “degenerate,” in particular banning Jewish and communist artists. Husseini’s claptrap regarding Karlísima’s mural reminds me of the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibitions (German: Entartete Kunst), where the fascists exhibited modern art for ridicule and derision before destroying the canvases, sculptures, and prints, or selling them overseas for profit.

I am a dedicated realist painter and printmaker with a lifelong commitment to creating socially conscious works of art. If Sam Husseini, his minions and supporters, would care to go through my online portfolio of artworks and writings published on my Art For A Change website, they will find nothing that even remotely smacks of reactionary politics. That being said, I strongly denounce Husseini’s vile contention that Karlísima’s mural was “transformed” and “made more whole, reborn,” by a wretched act of vandalism.

In 1758 the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius published a controversial book titled On the Mind. The work was banned by the Parliament and the Sorbonne while Helvétius came under relentless attack. The Enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire was unimpressed by the book, but when he heard it had been publicly torched, he resolved to support Helvétius.

In 1919 the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall published a book that summarized Voltaire’s position regarding Helvétius in the following words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Hall’s phrase is what Husseini should have proclaimed when announcing his displeasure with Karlísima’s mural. Hall’s words should be ringing in our ears. The act of vandalism approved of by Husseini clarifies her words and brings them new life and meaning.

Truth be told, I don’t really care for Karlísima’s Presidential Mural, as I do not believe an artist’s role is to give uncritical support to those at the top. Let us just say it is the Francisco Goya in me. But when goons attempt to physically obliterate her work, and slippery eels publish rationales and apologia for those attacks… I will stand with Karlísima as a fellow artist.  I would hope that I would have the same support, were my own works ever defaced.

The manager of Mama Ayesha’s, Amir Abu-El-Hawa, has set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money necessary to restore the damaged mural; the goal is to raise $4,000 dollars. At the time of this writing, $3,285 dollars have been raised. Please join me and contribute whatever you can to the restoration of Karlísima’s Presidential Mural.

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UPDATE - 8/12/2015: Craig Brown contacted me on August 11th. As the co-founder of Common Dreams, Mr. Brown directs the editorial content and daily operations of the online publication. He surprised me by writing: “I completely agree with your ‘In Defense of Art & Artists,’” and claimed that since he had not seen nor approved the Paint Balls article by Sam Husseini, its publication was an oversight. To his credit, Brown asked permission to reprint my essay as a rebuttal to Husseini’s piece. In Defense of Art & Artists was republished on Common Dreams on Aug. 12, 2015.

In his e-mail to me, Brown noted that his late wife and fellow Common Dreams founder Lina Newhouser, was also a founder of the Alliance for Cultural Democracy (ACD), and that she would have been infuriated by Husseini’s screed. The ACD was a national arts activism group that organized around issues of cultural democracy from 1982 to 1994. Readers should carefully review the ACD’s Declaration of Cultural Human Rights that was written in 1996.

COP15: Survival Of The Fattest

In Copenhagen, Denmark, the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) opened on December 7th, 2009 at the Bella Center located in central Copenhagen. Some 18,000 delegates from nearly 200 nations attended the international summit, which ended in complete failure on December 18th. The summit was ostensibly held to bring about a new international treaty to help reduce global warming, but it quickly broke down into a standoff between wealthy industrialized nations - who wish to preserve their dominance over world economic resources, and the less developed nations on earth - who seek parity and environmental justice.

But this article is not about the political machinations that took place around the COP15 summit, there are plenty of news sources to follow for that side of the story. My intention here is to write about how artists responded to the Copenhagen summit and the growing threat of climate change. Hundreds of artists in and around Copenhagen produced works ranging from posters and sculptures to light shows, street theater, and installations - all designed to draw attention to the climate crisis and ways to end it. People’s Climate Action and Illumenarts are but two of the Danish groups that organized multiple public art interventions and cultural events in Copenhagen – there were many others. The Telegraph has an online slideshow of 28 photographs depicting just some of the many public inventive art interventions that took place during COP15.

Polar Bear - Mark Coreth and Duncan Hamilton. Ice and metal sculpture. 5.9 ft. Displayed at the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. Photographs taken on Dec. 7, the first day of the summit. Photo: Reuters

"Polar Bear" - Mark Coreth and Duncan Hamilton. Ice and metal sculpture. Height - 5.9 ft. Displayed at the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. Photographs taken on Dec. 7, the first day of the summit. Photo: Reuters

British artists Mark Coreth and Duncan Hamilton positioned their collaborative ice sculpture in Kongens Nytorv Square, close to the Bella Center. To create their sculpture the artists first cast in bronze a polar bear skeleton they sculpted by hand. The metal armature was then submerged in water that was frozen to produce a nine-ton block of ice - from which point the sculptors went to work carving out a realistic life-sized polar bear. Over the course of the COP15 summit the ice slowly melted, exposing the skeletonized bear.

The artists encouraged people to touch their ice bear sculpture since the collective handling contributed to the statue melting away - a simple demonstration of how humans are directly shaping the environment. In the words of sculptor Mark Coreth: “When the skeleton begins to appear, it’s going to become terrifying. When the bronze appears, it is going to take warmth through the skeleton and melt that ice even more. That is akin to a lack of ice in the arctic north… the deep, dark ocean absorbs heat and continues to melt it.” The ice bear project was funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a major environmental organization that also displayed photographs of the Arctic at their Arctic Program Tent set up in Copenhagen for COP15. The WWF also maintains a webpage on the ice bear project.

There were more complicated and independently produced projects carried out by the Danish realist sculptor Jens Galschiøt, who placed a number of large cast metal sculptures on the streets of Copenhagen for the COP15 summit. A self-taught sculptor who has been working at his discipline since 1985, Galschiøt’s figurative realist creations are striking, but they are meant to do more than just please viewers with a heightened sensitivity to beauty; here aesthetics are mixed with the compulsion to move people to well considered thought and action. In other words, Galschiøt wants us to change the world. He does not eschew skill, craft, or high art aesthetics - making him an artist after my own heart.

In 1992 Galschiøt and fellow sculptor Lars Calmar collaborated on creating a work they titled, Survival Of The Fattest, a nearly life-sized statue cast in copper. The work depicts a colossally overweight European Justitia (the goddess of justice), holding the scales of justice in her right hand - being carried on the shoulders of a starving African man. Galschiøt has said that the sculpture represents the “self-righteousness of the rich world,” which sits on the backs of the poor while “pretending to exert justice.” Since its creation the sculpture has been shown at a number of mass public events.

"Survival of the Fattest" - Jens Galschiøt/Lars Calmar. 2002. Statue cast in copper. 6.5 ft. The developed West is represented by Lady Justice, an enormous obese European woman carried on the shoulders of a starving African man. The woman was modeled and crafted by sculptor Lars Calmar. Displayed at the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy AIDOH (Art In Defense of Humanism). www.aidoh.dk

"Survival of the Fattest" - Jens Galschiøt/Lars Calmar. 2002. Statue cast in copper. Height - 6.5 ft. The developed West is represented by Lady Justice, an enormous obese European woman carried on the shoulders of a starving African man. The woman was modeled and crafted by sculptor Lars Calmar. Displayed at the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy AIDOH (Art In Defense of Humanism). www.aidoh.dk

Survival Of The Fattest was placed in Copenhagen harbor at Langelinie next to the internationally famous landmark statue, The Little Mermaid. Based on a fairy tale by the Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen and created by Danish sculptor Edvard Eriksen in 1913, The Little Mermaid is a national monument seen by an estimated 1 million tourists a year.

In placing his sculpture in the water next to Eriksen’s famous bronze, Galschiøt was assured that his creation - and its explosive message - would receive international attention. The act also brilliantly juxtaposed a fairy tale against the cold and undeniable reality depicted in Galschiøt’s artwork; as if the artist were pronouncing the goals and objectives of the wealthy nations at the Climate Change Conference to be nothing more than fairy tales.

The contradictions Galschiøt alluded to with his Survival Of The Fattest sculpture were made obvious on Dec. 16, when the Obama administration announced at the Copenhagen summit that it would commit $1 billion over the next three years “towards slowing, halting and eventually reversing deforestation in developing countries.” In making the announcement, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack averred; “Protecting the world’s forests is not a luxury - it is a necessity.”

By comparison, Mr. Obama’s other “necessity” - sending an additional 30,000 combat troops to the escalating war in Afghanistan, will cost between $30 and $35 billion per year according to Pentagon estimates; or around $2.5 billion a month. That is no doubt a low estimate.

When President Obama was deliberating on his Afghan war escalation, the Office of Management and Budget sent him a memo estimating that the cost of increased U.S. military presence in Afghanistan over the next 10 years would be $1 trillion - a figure that apparently did not dissuade Mr. Obama from intensifying the war.

Jens Galschiøt’s copper statues of starving African men are displayed wading in the water pond that surrounds the Bella Center, venue for the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. Galschiøt titled his sculpture installation, "The Pulse of the Earth." Photo by Jo@kimlarsen.eu/SevenMeters.Net

Jens Galschiøt’s copper statues of starving African men are displayed wading in the water pond that surrounds the Bella Center, venue for the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. Galschiøt titled his sculpture installation, "The Pulse of the Earth." Photo by Jo@kimlarsen.eu/SevenMeters.Net

One of the other sculptural works by Galschiøt that made an appearance in Copenhagen for the COP15 summit was, The Hunger March. In 2002 the artist sculpted and had cast in copper, a number of life-sized figures of emaciated young African men.

Since their creation the figures - numbering 27 in all - were displayed on the streets during the World Trade Organization summit in Hong Kong (2005), and on the streets of Athens, Greece, during the European Social Forum (2006).

For the Copenhagen summit Galschiøt changed the name of his sculptural group to, The Pulse of the Earth. Gaining permission from the Bella Center in advance, the artist had the 27 copper statues placed in the water pond at the center’s metro station, illuminating the architectural backdrop with a special installation of pulsating red LED lights. According to Galschiøt, the pulse of the light-installations represented the very heartbeat of the planet.

The Pulse of the Earth statues at COP15 represent “Climate Refugees,” those people who are forced to flee their home or country because of drought, desertification, the sea level rising, or other environmental disasters linked to global warming and climate change. When contemplating the desolate tableau Galschiøt setup in the Bella Center water pond, I found it difficult not to think of the tiny Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu, located in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Hawaii. In 2002 Tuvalu became the first nation to evacuate part of its population because of sea level rising.

This photograph from the artist’s studio shows two of Jens Galschiøt’s copper statues depicting starving African men. Photo courtesy AIDOH (Art In Defense of Humanism). www.aidoh.dk

This photograph from the artist’s studio shows two of Jens Galschiøt’s copper statues depicting starving African men. Photo courtesy AIDOH (Art In Defense of Humanism). www.aidoh.dk

Ian Fry, the chief delegate for Tuvalu at the COP15 summit, delivered a speech at the conference that was an appeal for a binding international agreement to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Expressing the frustration felt by billions of people around the planet, particularly those who live in undeveloped poor nations, Fry noted that “the fate of the world is being determined by some senators in the U.S. Congress.”

Choking back tears, Mr. Fry concluded his speech by addressing the summit and the people of the world, saying - “The fate of my country rests in your hands.”

On the last day of the summit President Obama addressed the conference. Scientists have been saying that in order to avoid climate disaster, developed nations needed to reduce their green house gas emissions by at least 40 percent by 2020 - in his speech Obama only offered cuts “in the range of 17 percent.”

There were immediate angry responses to Mr. Obama’s speech. The Executive Director of Greenpeace U.S.A., Phil Radford, said Mr. Obama “now risks being branded as the man who killed Copenhagen.” The President of Friends of the Earth said; “President Obama’s rhetoric is empty. The U.S. has failed to significantly improve upon the weak position it brought to these talks.” The Director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, Kassie Siegal, said; “Obama the President is, when it comes to actual actions on climate, far closer to President Bush than Candidate Obama.”

The COP15 summit ended in disaster, scuttled by greed and the narrow self-interests of the world’s biggest polluters. The so-called “Copenhagen Accord” was pieced together by Mr. Obama between the U.S., China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. It was forced through by the summit chair, who according to the Associated Press; “gaveled in a compromise decision to ‘take note’ of the agreement, instead of formally approving it. Experts said that still meant the accord could go into effect.” Mr. Obama effectively kept the majority of dissenting nations out of the negotiations while to all intents and purposes forming the alliance of major polluters who would hammer out the pact.

Mr. Obama called the final 12-paragraph Copenhagen Accord document an “unprecedented breakthrough” and a “meaningful agreement.” What a laughable statement! The accord makes no mention of a target date for the creation of a legally binding climate treaty, it provides no target dates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it provides no verification or enforcement mechanisms. In short it is a toothless and unenforceable document.

The Executive Director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, said the accord included so many loopholes that “you could fly an airplane through it - Airforce One, for example.”

Artists and designers played a significant role during the COP15 summit, and they will continue to do so in its aftermath. There is unquestionably much work ahead, and the creative community has an important part to play, not just in keeping the issue of climate change before the public, but in arousing the consciousness of the people and spurring them to constructive action.

The Art of Bernard Zakheim

Enthusiasts of American social realism are generally familiar with the outstanding murals that were painted in 1934 on the interior walls of San Francisco’s Coit Tower. Few however, can name a single artist out of the twenty-six that worked on the murals inside the splendid Art Deco tower. One of those artists was Bernard Baruch Zakheim (1896-1985), a Jewish immigrant from Poland who would make San Francisco, California his home in 1920, becoming active in the Jewish community and the city’s bohemian circles of artists and left-wing activists. A number of Zakheim’s works are now exhibited at the A Shenere Velt Gallery on the Westside of Los Angeles until October 23, 2009.

Artwork by Bernard Zakheim

A Shadkhn - Bernard Zakheim. Costume design sketch for L.A. production of Sholem Aleichem’s, The Doctor, circa late 1920s. Shadkhn is Yiddish for “Matchmaker”, and in Yiddish Theater the matchmaker was portrayed carrying an umbrella. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo by Kirsten Cowan.

Titled Bernard Baruch Zakheim: Paris, San Francisco and Beyond, the exhibition is made up of 24 paintings and drawings created by the artist from the early 30s to the late 50s. I attended the opening of the exhibit and was pleased to meet the artist’s son, Nathan Zakheim, who regaled me with tales of his father’s life and work. It was a fortuitous encounter that gave me further insight into the creative output of Bernard Zakheim. Consisting mostly of sketches, watercolors, and studies for murals never created, the exhibition presents works that have rarely, if ever, been shown in public.

Nathan Zakheim told me that his father lived in Los Angeles for a short time in the late 1920s, and at some point produced costume and set design sketches for the Yiddish theater. A number of sketches created for a production of The Doctor by the famous Yiddish playwright Sholem Aleichem, are included in the exhibit. The gestural and humorous nature of these drawings makes them a sheer delight, but they are also important in that they are documents of the vibrant Yiddish theater scene that once existed in L.A. The adaptation of The Doctor that Zakheim worked on took place at the Wilshire Ebell Theater – then a major venue of literary Yiddish plays in L.A. along with the Assistance League Playhouse in Hollywood and The Globe Theater (now the New Beverly Cinema).

Study for WPA mural - Bernard Zakheim. Tempera on paper. Circa 1935. This full color sketch was submitted to the Works Progress Administration for a mural on the subject of immunology research. Regrettably the WPA did not commission the work. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo by Kirsten Cowan.

Study for WPA mural - Bernard Zakheim. Tempera on paper. Circa 1935. This full color sketch was submitted to the Works Progress Administration for a mural on the subject of immunology research. Regrettably the WPA did not commission the work. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo by Kirsten Cowan.

Two works on display in the exhibit, a finished sketch for a mural on medicine and immunology and a preliminary painting titled, The Donner Party, were submitted as mural proposals to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the mid-1930s, but unfortunately were never commissioned. Zakheim’s sketch for the immunology mural is related to the well-known 1935 mural he created on the history of California medicine for the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. Notwithstanding being a classic example of art from the 1930s, the mural sketch on display at the A Shenere Velt Gallery is a lost treasure of sorts. I can only speculate as to why the WPA did not approve Zakheim’s immunology mural, but the drawing certainly belongs in a museum collection.

The Donner Party is an especially moving painting based upon the doomed party of some 80 American settlers who attempted to reach California by covered wagon in 1846, but instead became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada – where they resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. Painted with tempera on paper, the study has the look and brush strokes of a fresco mural, and no doubt Zakheim intended it to be a mural for a post office or school. The painting depicts two figures, a seated man in a state of torment, and the woman who comforts him with her merciful touch. The man’s left hand is clenched into a fist of anguish and he wears a look of dismay upon his face, having just realized what he must do in order to stay alive. The woman has placed her hand upon his in a gesture that conveys acceptance of the unavoidable. The profundity of Zakheim’s painting goes well beyond the depiction of a tragic event in American history, instead it speaks of the “human condition”; the needless suffering people everywhere must endure in life. The work was also prescient, as the couple Zakheim painted could have been – just a few years later – European Jews contemplating annihilation under fascism.

Student Scholar - Bernard Zakheim. Tempera on paper. 1931. The artist captured Judaic life in Paris, France prior to the Nazi occupation. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo by Kirsten Cowan.

Student Scholar - Bernard Zakheim. Tempera on paper. 1931. Image courtesy of Nathan Zakheim and A Shenere Velt Gallery. Photo - Kirsten Cowan.

Bernard Baruch Zakheim’s life as an artist was set in motion when he was a young man in Poland, but one could say that his professional career actually began once he settled in San Francisco. In June of 1930 he organized the city’s First Yiddish Art Exhibition, a showing of Jewish painters, sculptors, poets, and composers from San Francisco. He had developed a fascination with the socially engaged artists of the Mexican Muralist Movement, and was particularly interested in Diego Rivera, and so he sent the Mexican muralist a portfolio of drawings for comradely appraisal – a deed that would end up transforming Zakheim forever. Rivera would invite Zakheim to his studio in Mexico City, and when the two met in 1930 Rivera praised Zakheim’s drawings of Jewish life, commenting that “every artist puts into his work something of his own soil, of his own people.” Zakheim worked with Rivera long enough to know that his future lay in creating public works of art that were challenging in nature.

After his encounter with Rivera, Zakheim would make a sojourn to Paris, France in 1931, where he created a number of sketches and watercolors. A few of these are included in the exhibit, like the spontaneously painted watercolor portrait, American Girl in Paris, and Student Scholar, which provides a depiction of Orthodox Jewry in Paris just prior to the Nazi occupation of 1940. Zakheim returned to San Francisco in ‘32, receiving his first mural commission a year later from the newly-built Jewish Community Center at the intersection of California Street and Presidio Avenue. While Zakheim was a secular Jew absorbed in socialist politics, he always thought it important to highlight Jewish culture and heritage in his art, and so his mural for the center was a celebration of Jewish life. The mural depicted a festive Jewish wedding celebration, with rabbis, wedding couple, musicians, dancers, and athletes. The press wrote good reviews about the mural, no doubt pleased that the bohemian left-winger had avoided doing something controversial - but that would soon change.

The Library - Bernard Zakheim. Coit Tower fresco mural. 1934.

The Library - Bernard Zakheim. Coit Tower fresco mural. 1934.

In 1933 Zakheim and fellow artist Ralph Stackpole lobbied the government for a commission that would allow artists to paint murals on the interior walls of San Francisco’s newly constructed Coit Tower. Their efforts paid off when in 1934 the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) gave twenty-six artists – Zakheim and Stackpole included – the task of creating the Coit murals under the direction of Victor Arnautoff.

Zakheim chose to depict a U.S. public library in his mural - it would become his most well-known and contentious work. He painted a number of his friends into the mural, like the anarchist poet Kenneth Rexroth, depicted on a ladder reaching for a book on a top shelf. In the upper-right corner of the mural Zakheim painted the modernist sculptor Beniamino Bufano reading a paper with the headline, B. Bufano’s St. Francis Just Around The Corner. It was a reference to Bufano’s 18-foot granite statue of St. Francis of Assissi; a sculpture finally set in place in front of the Church of St. Francis in San Francisco on August 27, 1955. Bufano was certainly a colorful character; thoroughly bohemian, but a devout Roman Catholic in addition to being an anarcho-pacifist. When President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in 1917, Bufano chopped off the trigger finger of his right hand and mailed it to the president as a protest against America’s entry into the war.

The Library - Bernard Zakheim. Detail of Coit Tower fresco mural. 1934. Zakheim included a portrait of fellow artist John Langley Howard reaching for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

The Library - Bernard Zakheim. Detail of Coit Tower fresco mural. 1934. Zakheim included a portrait of fellow artist John Langley Howard reaching for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Zakheim also worked fellow Coit Tower muralist and friend John Langley Howard into The Library – reaching for a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Zakheim was twice asked by officials to obliterate the reference to Marx from his mural, and his refusal to do so almost scuttled the entire project. Ultimately Zakheim’s stubbornness prevailed and Das Kapital remained.

Starting in 1940 Zakheim began a series of remarkable easel paintings titled Jewish Patriots of the American Revolution. The works revealed and commemorated the historic role of Jews in the anti-colonial American Revolution waged against the British Empire. When American patriots began the Revolutionary War of Independence against Great Britain, there were fewer than 2,000 Jews living in the 13 colonies, and the majority of them championed and fought for the anti-colonial cause. Zakheim wanted people to remember that history, and so began his group of paintings. One of the canvases was titled, Revolutionary Patriot Chaim Soloman revealing secrets of Red Coat military activities to an American Officer.

Revolutionary Patriot Chaim Soloman revealing secrets of Red Coat military activities to American Officer - Bernard Baruch Zakheim. Oil on canvas. 1940. A wealthy broker, Chaim Soloman became a leading financial backer of the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain.

Revolutionary Patriot Chaim Soloman revealing secrets of Red Coat military activities to American Officer - Bernard Baruch Zakheim. Oil on canvas. 1940. A wealthy broker, Soloman became a leading financial backer of the Revolutionary War against Great Britain.

Chaim Soloman was an early member of the Sons of Liberty, a secret mass organization of anti-colonial rebels in the Thirteen Colonies whose slogan was “no taxation without representation.” The Sons of Liberty attacked the property and symbols of British power, with the group’s most famous propaganda of the deed being the 1773 Boston Tea Party. More importantly, as a wealthy broker Soloman became a primary financial backer of the American Revolution. Zakheim painted a tableau in which Soloman appears as a revolutionary spy, passing on intelligence information about the Red Coats to an unidentified commander of the American Continental Army. In actuality the British arrested Soloman for spying in 1776. Though pardoned, he was arrested again in 1778 and sentenced to death. He escaped to the rebel capital of Philadelphia were he resumed his duel role as financial broker and pro-Independence revolutionary.

Mass Executions in the Stadium - Bernard Baruch Zakheim. Watercolor. 1939. Zakheim, an ardent supporter of the Spanish Republic, depicted the fascist troops of dictator Ferdinand Franco butchering workers in an amphitheater, the scene illuminated by an army searchlight.

Mass Executions in the Stadium - Bernard Baruch Zakheim. Watercolor. 1939. Zakheim, an ardent supporter of the Spanish Republic, depicted the fascist troops of dictator Ferdinand Franco butchering workers in an amphitheater, the scene illuminated by an army searchlight.

Unfortunately the Zakheim exhibition at the A Shenere Velt Gallery is rather limited in scope, presenting only a small number of sketches and paintings from the artist’s enormous body of work. Perhaps a comprehensive retrospective of his art will someday be mounted by a museum; such a showing is certainly long overdue. In the meantime I have attempted to pique the interest of those unfamiliar with Zakheim by mentioning some of his paintings not included in the exhibit just reviewed. I also suggest visiting www.bernardzakheim.com, which handles the artist’s estate.

UPDATE: 3/14/2016

Bernard Baruch Zakheim: Paris, San Francisco and Beyond ran at the now closed A Shenere Velt Gallery, once located on the Westside of Los Angeles.

The Harvey Milk Public Monument

On May 22, 2008, a monumental bronze bust of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office anywhere in the world and a martyred hero of the gay rights movement, was unveiled and officially dedicated in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, but was shot to death by an assassin a year later at S.F. City Hall along with the Mayor of the city, George Moscone. The unveiling of the commemorative statue, officiated over by San Francisco’s current Mayor, Gavin Newsom, occurred on what would have been Milk’s 78th birthday.

Portrait bust of Harvey Milk by DFH

[ Harvey Milk - Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group. 2008. The image shows the portrait bust of Milk as an unfinished work in progress before the clay model had been cast in bronze. ]


The realistic bronze bust of Milk stands atop a solid granite base, situated upon a pedestal faced with a bas-relief bronze plaque, and taken as a whole the monument is 75 inches high and weighs over 200 pounds. The slain gay rights activist is portrayed flashing his famous winning smile, his tie fluttering in a gentle wind. The relief plaque portrays three scenes from Milk’s life and times, his service in the U.S. Navy, riding in a Gay Pride Parade, and a depiction of the massive spontaneous candlelight march held by thousands in San Francisco the night of the assassinations. A quote by Milk appears on the pedestal as an inscription - “I ask the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give ‘em hope.”

Some years ago the S.F. Board of Supervisors passed a resolution authorizing the statue, and a private committee raised the funds to secure and build the memorial. The San Francisco Arts Commission held a design competition, and selected a panel of jurors to judge the submissions. Out of three finalists, the commission was awarded to the Daub Firmin Hendrickson (DFH) sculpture group, a Berkeley, California based team that excels at creating figurative realist sculptures and bas-relief plaques cast in bronze.

DFH is a partnership between sculptors Eugene Daub, Rob Firmin, and Jonah Hendrickson, and their collaborative, traditional style bronze statues have appeared as public art works across the nation. In their own words, the trio specializes in “sculptures devoted to the aesthetic illumination of important histories and uplifting allegories, created in monumental scale cast in bronze.” I commend the Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group, not just for continuing the tradition of realistic monumental public sculpture, but also for seeking and accepting such an important commission as the Harvey Milk memorial. DFH should also be applauded for avoiding the “great man” theory of history that so often explains momentous events being the work of solitary individuals. By including panels on their memorial sculpture showing a mass movement of people, DFH gives us the view that history is made when enough people move together towards a common goal.

The assassin of Milk and Moscone was Dan White, a former police officer and a disgruntled law maker who had just resigned from the S.F. Board of Supervisors. Armed with his police revolver and extra ammunition, White secretly entered City Hall through a window in order to avoid detection and shot the two politicians at close range. The gunman surrendered himself to the police and his trial would be closely watched by the nation - it ended up being important for several reasons.

White denied the shooting was premeditated, and his legal team successfully argued that he suffered from “diminished capacity” due in part from eating too many Twinkies - the media came to call this the “Twinkie Defense”. Rather than receiving a murder conviction, White was instead found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and given a seven year prison sentence. San Francisco’s gay community and its allies immediately reacted to the verdict by filling the streets with angry protest, and thousands turned violent. On the evening of the “White Night Riots”, twelve S.F. police cars were set ablaze by furious rioters. White would serve slightly more than three years of his prison sentence before committing suicide, and in 1982 the California legislature would do away with “diminished capacity” as a legal defense. These events and more are covered in the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk suspected that someone would eventually try to assassinate him, so he recorded a statement to be played in case of that eventuality. In that public statement Milk said; “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” While some obstacles barring gays from enjoying full democratic rights have been done away with - others still remain. The memorial bronze of Harvey Milk placed in San Francisco’s City Hall should be a constant reminder of what has yet to be achieved.