San Francisco’s creative class is alive and well—look no further than the ‘big art’ movement

‘Being in pandemic times has shone a light that art is essential and important and healing’

Big art can be a hazardous business. Meredith Winner knows this firsthand.

There was the time she broke her ankle halfway through the process of putting together a 80-foot whale out of recycled plastic. The time her team completed a light sculpture in the dark and had no idea whether it would turn on once it arrived at its destination in another state. And the time the steel she needed imported from China—for the base of a 25-foot star, naturally—was delayed due to tariff negotiations, throwing off the entire project.

“There’s always something that comes up,” she says. “You’re never going to not have to go to the hardware store a million times, or find out the ground is uneven, or that the measurements are different than you originally thought they were.”

I’ve known Winner for nearly a decade, and have followed her career in the local art industry for just as long. Four years ago, she teamed up with the founder of Building 180, an art consulting and production agency that specializes in large-scale sculptures and installations. The duo has their hands in seemingly every unconventional art project to originate here, from office interiors to Burning Man pieces to the wildly popular Paint the Void initiative, which covers boarded-up storefronts with beautiful murals.

The sheer scale and scope of Winner’s projects, brought to life in a city where people constantly complain about the demise of the artistic class, have always captivated me. So I caught up with her to hear more about the current state of San Francisco’s art world, how creativity can heal communities, and what it takes to construct a life-sized whale on Crissy Field.

A life-sized whale made out of recycled plastic on San Francisco’s Crissy Field is among the projects developed by Meredith Winner.<ins> (Courtesy Nitesh Mor)</ins>

A life-sized whale made out of recycled plastic on San Francisco’s Crissy Field is among the projects developed by Meredith Winner. (Courtesy Nitesh Mor)

I’m a huge fan of Building 180 and your work. But I realize as I’m talking to you that I’m not quite sure what you actually do. We describe ourselves as an art production and consulting agency. The name came from a space on Treasure Island that I worked at with Shannon (Riley, Building 180’s founder). We got to know various artists, like Peter Hudson and Marco Cochrane, and found out we had this shared vision. Now, we’re involved in lots of things: restaurant design, corporate interiors, public art and sculptures, murals, event production. We help artists have sustainable careers and connect them to business opportunities, and we oversee the whole process, making sure everything gets done on a specific timeline.

Why does the name Marco Cochrane sound so familiar? He had a big piece on Treasure Island for years called Bliss Dance. A 40-foot woman dancing. It found a permanent home at the AT&T Arena in Las Vegas.

I can’t even imagine what goes into constructing something like that. It’s not easy to build a public structure! There’s a lot of permitting, and many spots in San Francisco are governed by different city entities. You need buy-in from the community and city officials. A lot of safety things need to happen, like making sure you have the right insurance and that the piece is structurally sound. If it’s not made yet, we have to design, fabricate, build, and install it. If it’s temporary, you have to figure out where you’re going to store it until it finds a permanent home. The whale we made in partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium lived on Crissy Field for a while, and we designed it to be disassembled. When it was ultimately purchased by Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, we moved it across state lines and reassembled it. You want to think about longevity from the start, because so much work goes into the process.

Why are you attracted to this kind of large-scale work, rather than traditional art? I have worked in so many different art industries, and I have my BFA in sculpture. It sounds trite, but I saw one of Marco’s pieces at Burning Man, and I realized it was a convergence of all my interests. I sought him out to see if I could work with him. It’s amazing to see how many people come together on big sculpture projects. It’s not just an artist, alone, tooling away in their studio. There’s a deeper level of community and trust and commitment, and no road map. You have to work together at every phase, and you’re in the trenches the whole time. You don’t get that at a gallery or auction house. For me, the bigger and more complex, the better.

Last year, during the pandemic, you created a 15,000-square foot, augmented reality mural on the side of a casino building in Las Vegas. What are you working on right now? We’re making a family of quail sculptures for a housing complex in Rohnert Park because there’s native quail on the land there. We’re also redesigning some new bars that will open in Las Vegas, doing several corporate interiors, and continuing our efforts with Paint the Void, putting more murals on closed storefronts.

Paint the Void was a huge success. The idea came from two friends in San Francisco last March. We realized all we needed was one artist and one willing business in order to kick it off. We quickly found out that artists were really hungry to participate, so we started fundraising. We thought we’d paint 10 murals and raise $15,000, and now we’ve done more than 150 murals and raised $250,000. As The City reopens, we’re taking the boards down with plans for an exhibition. And we’re in touch with The City to continue working on new murals.

Meredith Winner is co-founder of Building 180 and Paint The Void. <ins>(Courtesy Maximillian Rainey)</ins>

Meredith Winner is co-founder of Building 180 and Paint The Void. (Courtesy Maximillian Rainey)

As cities continue to struggle with fundamental issues like inequality and climate change, how can big art have a positive impact? On the surface level, having art in communities can be seen as a beautification effort. But it also supports people who aren’t in traditional spheres. The artist community is sometimes undervalued. I think that big art, more than anything, shows people that there’s a realm of possibility to think bigger and dream bigger. It’s really inspiring to witness people who can make these things. Art inside museums or sold at auction houses for millions of dollars don’t get the same kind of wide-scale exposure. When you put public art in people’s faces, it shifts the access point.

That makes sense. When I was living in Mexico City, I met someone who commissions murals for underserved neighborhoods. He said that those projects had the power to completely transform an area. We are trying to do impact studies to see if it instills a sense of civic pride. It’s a difficult thing to gauge, but there are people who say bringing art to a neighborhood can make it safer; there’s less crime because it becomes a place to gather rather than pass by. If it becomes a source of pride, people are less likely to vandalize. With Paint the Void, spots that are traditionally tagged with graffiti have not been. It has uplifted the aesthetic and the vibe.

So is it true that all the artists are leaving San Francisco? It’s such a common refrain. What’s interesting about Paint the Void is that we were only looking for local artists. We had more than 2,000 sign up, which is insane to know there are that many artists living and working here still. There are thousands of artists in The City, all working in different mediums. With the influx of tech here, there’s the potential for money to flow to artists. I have felt that there’s a vibrancy of art in SF. And being in pandemic times has shone a light that art is essential and important and healing.

You have your hands in so many things. Where do you find inspiration? Mostly through my relationships with the artists I work with. They are so varied, they all come from different disciplines and backgrounds. Their drive to continue down this difficult path is inspiring. I get excited about projects when other people are excited about them, too. Artists who have this deep ingrained passion rubs off on me, and motivates me to keep doing what I do.

Carly Schwartz is editor in chief of The Examiner.

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