The scores of pedestrians and drivers who pass by Colette Crutcher’s mural every day can sense that the central figure is a woman of great substance. A goddess, perhaps. Or even God.
But the devil? Sure, she’s red. And, yes, she has snakes on her head. But those characteristics are there because the figure is Crutcher’s version of an Aztec mother goddess named Tonantsin — the figure is not, repeat not, the devil, as a drunk passer-by once thought. That drunkard was so intoxicated he took a hammer to the piece in a midnight attempt to destroy Crutcher’s creation, which occupies the fence of a house whose owners she was friends with.
“I think he was crazy,” Crutcher says of the hammer-wielding man, who bashed in the goddess’ nose. “My friend called me up one day and said, ‘Last night in the middle of the night, a guy attacked your mural and he was screaming stuff, that it was the devil, and I did everything I could to protect the mural.’ And I said, ‘If there’s a crazy person swinging a hammer, I want you to protect yourself. Screw the mural.’ ”
Tonantsin Renace, which means “Tonantsin Reborn,” is Crutcher’s second iteration of the deity on that same fence at 3495 16th St. The first one, a 1991 painting called La Madre Tonantsin, suffered damage when the wood began to rot. With help from a fundraising campaign and a small grant from Precita Eyes, Crutcher turned the work into a more elaborate art piece around 1998, with mosaic and relief sculpture — and the piece has mostly been a hit (pun intended) with the neighborhood.
Crutcher has been commissioned to do work around San Francisco. One example: The San Francisco Arts Commission had her do two mosaic street markers on Balboa Avenue in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond District. Another: Neighbors in the Inner Sunset District had Crutcher and another artist, Aileen Barr, do a tiled staircase on Moraga between 15th and 16th avenues, which draws lots of foot traffic. But it’s Tonantsin Renace that may be Crutcher’s most viewed work — and the one that was designed to stanch graffiti for the fence it occupies. Crutcher used to live near the piece.
“Friends of mine owned the house,” Crutcher tells SF Weekly, “and they had, for years, a mural that their children had done, and when they got their house painted they painted over the mural, and being as it was near a bunch of schools, they thought this big white wall would be a target for graffiti, and I said, ‘I want to paint something.’ … A lot of people will come to my studio and look at my postcards and say, ‘I didn’t know you did that. I’ve been walking past it for 20 years.’ ”
Crutcher was inspired to make La Madre Tonantsin because of her son’s birth and her interest in music. The building at 3495 16th St. was originally the location for Instituto Pro Musica de California, an organization that paid tribute to music from Spain and Latin America. Crutcher sang with its choral group, Coro Hispano de San Francisco. That’s how she became aware of Tonantsin’s existence. And that’s why Tonantsin Renace exists on a fence on the edge of the Castro, not far from the Mission. Crutcher touches up Tonantsin Renace whenever it needs help from graffiti or something a little more challenging. Even gods need help sometimes.