In 1940, Diego Rivera stood on a ladder with a pistol in each pocket and painted a mural for City College of San Francisco. He was in front of an audience in an aircraft hanger on Treasure Island, fearing for his life after the recent assassination of his friend, marxist Leon Trotsky.
On large slabs of wet plaster, Rivera painted indigenous Mexican craftsmen and gold-miners in the U.S. He painted an Aztec deity and an auto plant stamping machine. He painted life and death.
The mural, “Pan-American Unity,” puts U.S. technology side-by-side with Mexican culture. Painted about a year before the U.S. officially joined World War II, it was a call for the Americas to come together at a time of war against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
More than seven decades later, the mural remains at City College. It is the largest single piece Rivera ever painted, and one of three of his works in San Francisco.
The problem is, no one has ever been able to view the mural as it was meant to be seen, according to mural historian Will Maynez, a retired physics lab manager. The 74-foot-wide mural is housed in the small lobby of the Diego Rivera Theater at the Ocean Avenue campus.
“One of the big themes in the mural is dualities — yin and yang,” Maynez said on a recent Tuesday. “He’s put something on one side that you’re simultaneously supposed to see on the other side, but you can’t because you can’t get far enough to see it.”
Last month, the CCSF Board of Trustees voted to move the mural to a new performing arts center slated for construction on campus. But the college still has to find funding for the project, which is expected to be built in phases and to include three performance halls.
Plans to move the mural and build the performing arts center have fallen through before.
“To prevent that from happening again, I’ve done all the homework,” Maynez said.
Maynez has helped hire an art conservator, art mover and structural engineer to figure out how the mural is installed, and moving it should be “no problem,” he said. The college just needs to raise the money to move it.
“The money is out there,” Maynez said. “The people are out there. All the legwork has been done. It’s just time to gather the tribe together to take care of this mural.”
Administrators estimate the entire project will cost $154 million to build and will require $1.7 million in annual operating costs. The college has just $47 million from previous voter-approved bonds for the project.
The costs could be a problem for a college that has until recently been criticized for lacking fiscal stability.
While CCSF has appeared to turn a corner, earning its accreditation for another seven years in January, the college is still grappling with class schedule reductions after losing a third of its students during the accreditation crisis.
Even in tough times, some still see the mural as a priority.
“This mural is part of City College and it needs to stay here,” said Kristina Whalen, dean for the School of Fine Applied and Communication Arts.
Whalen pointed out that the ram at the center of the mural is CCSF’s mascot, and Timothy Pflueger, the architect who commissioned Rivera and designed the first building at CCSF back in 1935, is shown carrying plans to build a college library that never came to fruition.
“These are all things that really ground this mural in this space, which is City College of San Francisco,” Whalen said. “That’s why we have to be good stewards of it. That’s why we have to make it visible, make it open to the public and really honor the Rivera family, too.”
For two decades, Maynez and CCSF librarian Julia Bergman, who died in January, made it their mission to preserve the mural and its stories.
“This is like gold-mining,” said Maynez, who had just returned from a trip to Mexico City, where he researched Rivera and made connections in the art world. “I spend a whole lot of time to get a little nugget.”
After it was painted, the mural was kept in storage for two decades until 1961, when it was moved into the just 14-foot lobby of the Diego Rivera Theater.
In 1999, Francesca Pique of the Getty Conservation Institute visited the mural and told Maynez to think about how the mural could be preserved for the next 200 years.
To preserve the mural, Maynez had a 3-D image taken with photogrammetry software in 2015.
“She changed my life,” Maynez said. “This is going to last 200 years.”
Editor’s Note: The story and photo captions have been updated from their original versions.