Pandemic-inspired plywood murals on display in San Francisco

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By John Ramos

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SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — A unique art exhibition took place this weekend in San Francisco featuring works created at the start of the pandemic that offered hope during a time of great fear.

A long line outside San Francisco’s Pier 70 showed how the art displayed inside touched just about everyone.

In March 2020, San Francisco closed. The plywood covering the storefronts gave the town an apocalypse-like appearance.

“It was sad. It felt like Armageddon,” recalls San Franciscan native Irma Dillard. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, there’s nothing here.’ Everything was gone, everything was closed and gone.

Members of the local arts community have formed a project called “Paint the Void”. They raised money to pay out-of-work artists to turn depressing plywood into images that would give people hope.

Some of these 150 commissioned murals were exhibited in this exhibition called “The City Canvas: A Paint-the-Void Retrospective”. Event curator Heather Whitmore Jain said it shows how crucial performers can be during difficult times.

“I think artists have turned out to be kind of the first responders to our emotional health,” she said. “I mean, they were just there to help us feel good in that moment.”

Murals are as varied as the people who created them. Lady Henze and Brandon Baker worked on a set.

“We were painting alone on the street a bit,” Henze said. “But people were walking by, walking their dogs, walking their kids and we had interactions, of course with masks on and it was wonderful because after being inside for so long, sharing it was wonderful.”

Their painting depicts a woman offering what looks like a bouquet of flowers, but look closely and you’ll see the flowers are actually skulls surrounding a mushroom cloud. Baker says it’s symbolic of how scientific discovery can lead to unforeseen problems.

“I felt like there were a lot of similarities with the advent of nuclear technology and the way things were changing now, with masks and health protocols and vaccines and all that kind of stuff that have since arrived. You know, the start of COVID-19,” Baker said.

Henze added pink rays emanating from the woman, signifying hope and an optimistic future. Some works were simply beautiful, like a gigantic purple flower. Others a little more practical — a roll of toilet paper on a bright yellow background. Then, as the pandemic evolved, the messages became more political, reflecting images of racial unrest and electoral politics.

Whatever the message, the effect is the same: to help people think rather than fear. Irma Dillard said she felt trapped in the pandemic until she heard about the mural project.

“So I started driving, checking them out,” she said. “It really helped me not to feel so claustrophobic in my own city.”

“What really comes to mind is that these artists, they really wanted to give back,” said curator Jain. “They really wanted to elevate their community.”

Wall art isn’t easily stored, so if artists don’t find buyers quickly, many of them will be directed to a landfill. Sunday is the last day of the exhibition – open at Quai 70 from noon to 6 p.m. Due to COVID restrictions, tickets have all been reserved, but organizers say walk-ups can enter if space becomes available.

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