Coit Tower artists’ legacy still lives on

Eighty-two years ago, something magical happened on top of Telegraph Hill. In January 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, when anxiety and fear ruled the day, an all-star team of 25 San Francisco artists was assembled and given a mandate and resources to create something inspiring. That diverse group included painters, sculptors, printmakers, a costume designer and a puppeteer — all of whom were ready to put their skills and talents to work on the walls of a curious new building whose recently built concrete walls were barely even hardened. Paid for by the New Deal, they were the artists who would paint the first and largest New Deal art project in the nation: the fabulous fresco murals on the walls of Coit Tower.

Artists and art supplies were everywhere inside Coit Tower that January. One day, Col. Harold Mack entered the building and surveyed the scene. With his hands tucked firmly inside his vest, eyes peering out over his spectacles, Mack said: “This place is a beehive of artistic industry! I know the Regional Art Committee will be very pleased at what is happening here when I make my report.”

Mack walked by Ralph Stackpole, painting industrial pipes and machinery in his Coit Tower mural that were reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s murals in Detroit depicting the auto industry. Then Mack passed painter Suzanne Scheuer and her young assistant, Hebe Daum, working on color panels of a comic strip along the edges of a thin window set smack in the middle of the mural. Mack passed Bernard Zakheim up on scaffolding with his assistant, Julia Rogers, painting the outlines of books jammed onto a shelf in a library scene. Around each corner and up the stairs to observe the artists working on murals on the second floor, everywhere what Col. Mack saw was a “beehive” buzzing with artists at work.

Today, each of the thousands of visitors from around the world who make the pilgrimage to Coit Tower every day sees what Mack saw: the result of all that creative energy in colorful murals that cover 3,691 square feet of the interior walls inside Coit Tower.

But very few people know much of anything about the individuals who painted the murals — who they were and the wide variety of creative work they each did before and after the Coit Tower project. That’s the subject of a newly opened exhibition in the Skylight Gallery on the 6th floor of the San Francisco Main Public Library, “Artists in Action: Coit Tower.” Co-sponsored by the San Francisco History Center and Protect Coit Tower — a group I founded — the exhibit features rarely seen photographs of each of the 25 Coit Tower master artists, along with brief life stories and examples of their work. A short film featuring several of the Coit Tower artists talking about their art in their later years is also on view as part of the exhibit.

The 27 Coit Tower murals are so unified in concept and character that many people mistakenly believe they were all created by a single artist. Perhaps that’s just a testament to the team spirit that flowed through the hands and brushes of the artists who worked at Coit Tower. Their successful model led the New Deal to fund thousands of other art projects across the nation in the years that followed.

From the day the Coit Tower murals opened to the public on Oct. 12, 1934, the craft and creativity of that team has offered delight, hope and a window into a critical moment in San Francisco’s history to everyone who has made the steep trek up Telegraph Hill. Come visit the Coit Tower Artists Exhibit at the Main Library and find out more about the extraordinary artists who did something very special together that every San Franciscan can enjoy.

Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.

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