Welcome to the neighborhood, museum mural

Pub date April 15, 2011
SectionPixel Vision

Ellen and Lance Anderson are visiting their son in the Sunset, all the way from upstate New York. They’d read about the mural they’re now standing in front of in the newspaper that morning, and decided to make a trip out to the Mission to check it out. “And maybe get something to eat,” Lance told me, looking around at the vendors setting up around us and the mural for the Mission Community Market‘s first day of 2011. 

No snacks being forthcoming, the Andersons settled on peppering artist Ben Wood with questions about the seven years of work that had culminated on the wall in question. Was he really the one who had photographed the 1700s mural on an interior wall of the Mission Dolores, a mural hidden for centuries by the main reredos?

He was, he told them. Wood must be used to answering such questions – his project to transcribe a historic mural has gotten tons of press. But here I zone out and regard the mural itself. I’ve heard its back story

It is something to see the mural there’s been so much buzz about in paint-and-plaster person, and mainly because it’s not what I was expecting. For one, it’s not very pretty, strictly speaking. 

Being familiar with Wood’s work, I probably could have anticipated its realness. He’s not in the business of creating ornamental works, that one. Most of Woods’ projects to date have involved digging up historical events and subjecting them to the public imagination. In the past, that’s meant projecting images of Ohlone Indians on the Coit Tower on the Fourth of July and making a short film that animates the Diego Rivera mural that was removed from the Rockefeller Center with videos of people telling its story.

So here’s the Mission Dolores mural, an exact translation of a piece of what you’d see if you had dropped into that foot and a half crawl space between the altar and the wall on the day that Wood and historian-archaeologist Eric Blind photographed it in 2004. There are meticulously rendered dents, areas where the paint was torn off by less-than-meticulous workers, cracks in the wall, all faithfully recorded by Clarion Alley artists Jet Martinez, Bunnie Reiss, and Ezra Eismont. 

Between the blemishes and the colorful geometric pattern taken from a different part of the church that frames the mural, it’s certainly an artistic statement. But what I find interesting about the piece is that it uses the form of street mural to communicate history and open up years gone by to neighbohood discussion.

Passer-bys and Mission Community Market-goers can interprete for themselves just how much of the Ohlones’ own faith was put into the work, how much Christianity had already penetrated their lives. Maybe it can be a hint to what life was like back then, at the dawning of the Mission District.

At the mural’s official unveiling ceremony and market kick-off, Supervisor David Campos addressed the crowd that had formed as the farmers and vendors finished pyramiding their mandarins, angling their mini-pies, and smoothing their Mission bus line t-shirts for optimal visual appeal. “The Mission is thriving because of the organizing that happens here,” he said.  

Campos passes the mic to Wood, who wonders out loud how much of the journey to the wall behind him he has time to share (not a lot). Blind gets the mic next, and comments on how great it was to work with Woods, sharing his archaeologist’s pleasure at seeing his findings erected in a busy neighborhood farmers market.

“So often we find things like this that are hundreds of years old and it’s so hard to figure out how to share them with large groups of people.”

Martinez talks about the piece’s future on this block as his little boy Lazlo runs circles around him. “We’re not trying to combat graffiti, we’re trying to share the space.” 

The owner of the Mission Market building was surely attracted to the mural project as a way of preventing the tags that still cover the non-muraled side of his property’s wall (for which there is plans for another Martinez mural). One hopes for the best for the Ohlone mural, but even with the explicatory paragraph that Martinez lettered over the door of the indoor marketplace on which it’s painted, the unassuming nature of the piece seems a ripe target for taggers. 

Lazlo cuts the ribbon hastily strung up across the wall and bam: the Mission has a new mural. I hope it treats it well, but either way, welcome to the neighborhood.