Precita Eyes at 40: Champion of Community-Based Art

by Jean Schiffman

One of the few community mural arts centers in U.S., Precita Eyes recently received a Latin Heritage Legacy Award for “murals that celebrate culture, unity, history and nature.” 

The murals in the heart of the Mission District are personal to the experience of its residents, says Precita Eyes muralist/guide Patricia Rose on a warm fall Sunday, to a group of us assembled to take one of the nonprofit arts organization’s weekend mural tours. 

This neighborhood has a large Latino immigrant population, and the stories told on its walls are about gentrification, environmental concerns, AIDS, the dead, economic displacement, immigration and more. 

Our tour focuses on the murals in Balmy Alley, around the corner from Precita Eyes, off the 24th Street “Paseo Artistico,” a designated arts corridor that’s part of this historical neighborhood. We pause on Harrison Street to look at one example of a particularly personal image, a relatively new mural (some are decades old): a memorial to a beloved neighborhood figure, whose portrait appears in black and white spray paint, with doves and a crucifix on a chain. 

Precita Eyes, now 40 years old and still directed by its founder, muralist Susan Cervantes, facilitates the collaborative design and painting of many murals here in the city and beyond, in addition to providing art classes for all ages, programs in the schools and other public venues, walking tours like this one and community painting days. It is one of only a few community mural arts centers in the United States and it recently received a Latin Heritage Legacy Award for “murals that celebrate culture, unity, history and nature.” 

Cervantes says that when she first started working as an arts educator with kids in the Mission District in 1971, there were only three or four murals in the neighborhood. Now there are more than 650 in the Mission District alone and more per capita in San Francisco altogether than in any other city in the country. (The oldest is in Mission Dolores, dating to 1791.) They occupy walls, garage doors, sides of buildings, parking lot enclosures and in at least one case every inch of the exterior of a Mission District home—“The Kings of Latin Rock,” a tribute to the musicians (104 portraits, painted by youth) who emerged from this neighborhood.

Rose points to a 25-year-old mural with Native American imagery. It’s slated to be demolished; the nonprofit that owns the building is remodeling and will install new murals. In fact, murals don’t always last forever—paint, whether acrylic or spray, fades over time, and restoration costs more than creating new art, says Rose. Precita Eyes preserves its murals as archival photos.

Sometimes murals remain unfinished, abandoned, like the 30-year-old tribute to such heroes as Cesar Chavez, Frida Kahlo and others. But new ones continually arise: a recent one, on Shotwell at 24th Street, called “Once Upon a Time in the Mission District,” is a colorful collage: a picture-postcard-like memorial to “people who have disappeared, maybe killed in violence,” says Cervantes. It is nevertheless upbeat in tone; its pictorial images range from skulls to a black cat sleeping on a window sill to the iconic #14 Muni bus and “17 Reasons Why” billboard. 

The walls of dense Balmy Alley include a kid-centric mural about protecting the environment, featuring a dying tree; a charmingly cartoony one about gentrification, with topsy-turvy Victorian houses stacked high; another, inspired by Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” addressing pollution and water waste.

Latin American themes abound: a Venezuelan artist’s depiction of the “disappeared” of his homeland; a tribute to a man assassinated in El Salvador; another with images of colorful Guatemalan embroidery. A huge, blue-toned mural on York Street, addressing the commodification of water, evokes a Mexican folktale; a pre-Columbian goddess is at its center.

Cervantes is all about demystifying the process of mural-making. Initially a painter (with an MFA from what is now the San Francisco Art Institute), she was drawn to murals because mural-making is accessible to all the people in the community, trained artists or not, and they reflect their stories. When you’re painting a mural, she observes, “People come by and they want to know what it means, and you have to be able to talk and communicate and do your best work…. The impact is a lot more than what we ever imagined.… It’s transformative. It’s a community-building tool.” Forty years after founding Precita Eyes, she sees that whoever the participants are, there is always common ground, always shared values that are reflected in the choice of themes: family, health, education, environmental disaster, police brutality, homelessness and more: “All those things come out almost all the time in various forms, depending on the neighborhood,” she says. “This is an outlet for people to express their concerns. And some are just beautiful colors and shapes and things. Everything has a place and a meaning.”

San Francisco State theater arts professor Carlos Baron put it this way, in his poem “The Mural,” written to celebrate Precita Eyes’ anniversary (on “These images on the wall have come to live among us, to hang out in this neighborhood, to take risks with us, to grow old and wrinkled, to die among us!”

Precita Eyes

2981 24th St., San Francisco 285-2287

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