Every day, the Highway 101 off-ramp that leads to Octavia and Market streets carries thousands of cars past Peter Collins and Gary William Graham’s giant artwork, which is a version of a mural they did at the same location two decades ago. The current iteration — spread across two parts of a building’s outside wall — features skylines of clouds and a smattering of flying green butterflies.
There’s nothing artistically radical about Great Sky Mural With Butterflies, but its impact is quite impressive. Around 100,000 drivers see it every day, Collins says, and its fans include people stuck in traffic on their way to the hospital and tattooed skateboarders who see it from the skate park below. Collins and Graham’s contact information is on the mural, so they get fans’ calls, texts, and emails at all hours of the day and night.
“I get texts all the time from people sitting in traffic who go, ‘Oh, man — your mural is so beautiful. It’s really what I needed to see,’ ” Collins tells SF Weekly.
In fact, the mural’s location influenced Collins and Graham, who knew that most of the people who’d see their work would be on the freeway.
“Traffic is really heavy there and gets backed up,” Collins says, “and we thought a lot about bringing relief to all the people who get stuck in traffic — and it’s such a gray and grim area there. We wanted to give people a feeling of escapism.”
Collins and Graham’s admirers came out in droves last year when the new storage company that operates the mural’s building painted over the previous artwork, which had been up since 2011 and was an iteration of one that Collins and Graham originally put up around 1999. The previous murals also featured skylines of beatific clouds. But last year, the clouds disappeared, replaced by boring gray paint.
“They painted it out without talking to us or any input from the community,” Collins says. “One woman (who complained) would go to UCSF for treatment, and the mural was always this healing influence on her for chronic treatment.”
After the uproar, the company, Extra Space Storage, invited Collins and Graham to redo the mural, which they finished earlier this year. The green butterflies are both a nod to the company’s green motif and to the rare species of butterfly — the Green Hairstreak — that is native to San Francisco. The clouds on the mural’s far left side are darker than the ones on the right, Collins says, since “we wanted to have it get a little bit dark and stormy on the western edge, to add a little tension, to make people think a bit. It puts people in a thoughtful place. It’s not all sunshine and blue skies.”
The uproar and the love that people expressed for the mural restored Collins’ belief in San Francisco as a city of caring people. Gentrification and a changing culture had dampened that spirit over the years, says Collins, who moved to Fairfield in Solano County because he could afford a home there. Graham, who has done public murals since the 1970s, is a native San Franciscan who now lives in Grass Valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
“In the end, it all worked out,” Collins says. “Everybody really loves it, and we were able to make the company and the community happy. … It renews my faith in the process of community and culture and society. I lived in San Francisco in the ’70s, and San Francisco has changed a lot. It’s not as much fun as it used to be. There are a lot of things I don’t like anymore. I was frustrated with it. And this process — the way the mural was reborn — renewed my faith in the people of San Francisco but also the corporation, Extra Space Storage.
“After they made their mistake, they really did step up and do the right thing,” he adds. “The community made their voice heard. It was a pleasant surprise.”