Conserving The Market Street Railway Mural

Review

Conserving The Market Street Railway Mural

By Shahrzade Ehya October 16, 2017

In the thirteen years since San Francisco artist Mona Caron completed The Market Street Railway Mural (2003–04) on an exterior wall of the Groceteria at 300 Church Street, the 38-foot-long mural has suffered just about every form of damage possible. Pollution from the street, seismic activity, the building’s decaying substrate, and extreme shifts in temperature have all contributed to thick cracks and buckles in the mural’s surface, and the overall fading of its color. An ironic state of affairs for a beloved mural whose very subject is San Francisco’s history and a vision for its future.

Mona Caron. The Market Street Railway Mural, 2003–4; acrylic on wood and stucco; 456 x 144 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Enter a team of professional conservators—Kiernan Graves, Samantha Emmanuel, and Helene Nuland—who have been working meticulously since September to clean the pictorial layer, inject adhesives behind the paint, and relax the mural’s damaged surfaces.1 While the conservators work, passersby stop to ask about their activity and discuss the mural. Many share that The Market Street Railway Mural is their favorite mural. When asked why, one neighbor observed, “It’s just very San Francisco, with all its specific details.”

Indeed, Caron’s mural is rich with specific “very San Francisco” details. In eight panels, the mural depicts a bird’s-eye view of Market Street—San Francisco’s main artery—from the 1920s through to the future, and portrays it as a stage for civic engagement and expression: the protests, celebrations, and everyday interactions among citizens are rendered as the integral identity of this central street. Caron studied archival photographs to achieve her work. Referencing actual depictions of protest signs from the 1934 “Bloody Thursday” riot and the 2003 march against the war in Iraq, costumes worn by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at a Pride parade in the 1980s, and tags on boarded-up storefronts after the dot-com bust of 2001, details and documents of the past abound.

Samantha Emmanuel and Kiernan Graves. Graphic recording of condition of The Market Street Railway Mural (2003–4), 2017. Courtesy of Samantha Emmanuel and Kiernan Graves. 

When it came to imagining San Francisco’s future, Caron offered a harmonious and communal picture. This future fantasy of Market Street is spacious, flecked with trees and other spots of green, and one where San Francisco’s waterways—long submerged beneath the city—have resurfaced. The sidewalks have expanded and, along with the rooftops, have become a space where people convene. Some of Caron’s imaginings have actually come to fruition. As Caron herself recently noted in a public talk, however, her mural did not envision today’s gentrified San Francisco, or that many of the people for whom the mural’s future was imagined have since been forced to move away.

Mona Caron. The Market Street Railway Mural, 2003–4 (detail of cracked surface, 2017); acrylic on exterior building wall; 456 x 144 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Shahrzade Ehya.

Perhaps particularly within this context of San Francisco’s shifting population, The Market Street Railway Mural remains an important visual prompt for spontaneous conversation in the neighborhood. The conservators’ presence onsite is bringing extra attention to the mural, advancing the very kind of civic engagement and connection it represents. Many who linger at the site compare the mural’s utopian vision of the future to our present reality, engaging in spirited discussions about the changes they have experienced in San Francisco over the years, and occasionally expressing hope for its future.

Not everyone who approaches immediately understands what the conservators are up to, and many fear that the mural is being removed, or ask if the conservators are refreshing the mural’s faded paint. Repainting the mural, however, is decidedly not what the conservators are doing. Although Caron will touch up isolated areas, as Graves explains it, going back to “make something new again” goes against conservation professionals’ code of ethics.2 Instead, conservation’s aim is to stabilize what is there now, in order to “preserve our cultural heritage” for the future.

Mona Caron. The Market Street Railway Mural, 2003–4 (two details of conservators Kiernan Graves [left] and Helene Nuland [right] at work, 2017); acrylic on exterior building wall; 456 x 144 int. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Shahrzade Ehya.

The motivation, in short, is to contribute to an artwork’s longevity. In the case of The Market Street Railway Mural, the conservators’ work will arguably extend not only the mural’s life, but also that of the neighborhood, allowing passersby to continue to engage one another in front of this artwork, evaluate their collective place in the rapidly changing urban center, and reflect on a vision of their shared history and future—faded paint, warts, and all.

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To join Mona Caron and Kiernan Graves in conversation about The Market Street Railway Mural and the conservation effort, visit the free public talk hosted by Shaping San Francisco on Wednesday, November 29, 2017, 7:30-9:30 p.m., at 518 Valencia Street, San Francisco.

Notes

  1. Financial support for the conservation effort was raised from a combination of a grant, the building owners, and crowdfunding—just one manifestation of The Market Street Railway Mural’s treasured status among its neighbors and San Francisco residents. More information on funding for the conservation can be found here: http://www.artsandmedia.net/cause/save-conserve-a-unique-mural-showcasing-san-francisco-history-painted-by-mona-caron/.
  2.  To understand more about conservation professionals’ code of ethics, visit the following page on the website of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: http://www.conservation-us.org/our-organizations/association-(aic)/governance/code-of-ethics-and-guidelines-for-practice#.Wc7Tk2JSy2y.

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