Battle lines drawn over plan to paint over Bernal Heights mural

Mike Koozmin/The SF ExaminerDisappearing soon: A mural on the Bernal Heights Library depicting late Chilean activist and folksinger Victor Jara has deteriorated and is set to be replaced.

A proposed new mural that would replace existing artwork commemorating a martyred South American folksinger and political activist is dividing residents of the Bernal Heights neighborhood.

Work on the new artwork at the Bernal Heights Library could begin soon if the Arts Commission signs off on the design in January. The mural, which is planned for the library’s exterior façade, would replace a deteriorating artwork that depicts working women, clasped hands and a quote from Chilean political activist and folksinger Victor Jara.

Planning for the mural began after the library’s renovation in 2009. The current mural was painted in the 1980s and is in poor condition.

But community members disagreed about what should be done. Some wanted to restore the existing mural, others wanted to return the building to its original state and others wanted to paint a new mural.

The debate has become less polarized over the past year, with some people who originally opposed a new mural warming to the idea, said Beth Roy of the Bernal Heights Library Artwork Project Committee, a community group organizing the project.

But others, including  Peter Warfield, executive director of the Library Users Association, still feel strongly that the mural is an irreplaceable part of the neighborhood’s history.

“It’s a wonderful mural with a wonderful history,” Warfield said. “It has been neglected. It should be appreciated, restored and refreshed.”

The Arts Commission conditionally approved the new mural design — which would feature a tree and a book that opens to elements of nature — in August, but requested that project designers tone down the color palette and use a medium other than tile for a side of the building that is not flat. The Arts Commission is expected to review those changes in early 2012.

Approval from the Arts Commission would be the project’s last procedural hurdle in what has been a lengthy community debate, Roy said.

“I think it’s a very good fit for the library,” she added.

The new mural would span three sides of the building. Two sides of the building are intended to incorporate elements of the original mural and honor the library’s history: A tree on the building’s Moultrie Street side and a painted tile tribute to the four elements — earth, wind, fire and water — on the building’s main entrance, facing Cortland Avenue. Details of the mural for the side facing a playground have not yet been determined.

The project cost for the Moultrie and Cortland work is estimated at $70,000, about $40,000 of which will come from a city grant, with the remainder raised by the project committee, Roy said.

sgantz@sfexaminer.com

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