Alicia McCarthy’s Mural on the Proper Hotel Is Her Biggest Yet

The Mission School artist had to dangle eight stories above Market and Seventh streets to get it done.

On many days in November, artist Alicia McCarthy went on a lift that took her upward of eight stories high. She’d stay there for hours at a time — dangling in the air over the intersection of Market and Seventh streets as she and a phalanx of artists completed the giant painting that now fronts an outside wall of the Proper Hotel.

In the work — McCarthy’s biggest to date — waves of stripes intersect with other stripes, creating a kaleidoscope of undulating lines. On the first day she did the painting, McCarthy felt her own legs undulating like never before. 

“It was an amazing and at times frightening experience,” McCarthy tells SF Weekly. “I appreciated being pushed out of my comfort zone. I’m not someone who’s afraid of heights, but I’ve never worked even close to that size. And it’s a whole other thing to go up on this machinery that I’ve never trained on. We were harnessed in and everything, but the first time I went up my legs were definitely chattering. And in my mind I was like, ‘Can I actually fucking do this?’ ”

She could. The mural happened after the Luggage Store Gallery, which McCarthy has worked with for years, partnered with the hotel to remake the wall. McCarthy is a big art-world name. Now based in Oakland, she’s closely associated with the “Mission School” group (whose members included Barry McGee) that found inspiration in the Mission District in the early 1990s.

Earlier this year, McCarthy and another Mission School product, Ruby Neri, had a dual exhibit at BAMPFA. Last year, SFMOMA gave McCarthy one of its SECA Art Awards, saying her work contains “an undeniable energy.” It’s true. Her work on Market Street is like a whirling mix of rainbow colors — but with more color permutations. The wall, which measures 112 feet across and 85 feet high, now has more than 100 hues. Bands of color are Alicia McCarthy’s most recognizable motif.

For her Market Street work, McCarthy is quick to cite the other artists who collaborated with her: Kieran Swan, Caleb Hughes, Oliver Hawk Holden, Josh Edwards — and Darryl Smith. Smith is the co-director of the Luggage Store Gallery, which not only arranged for the wall but also for funding, including that from the Someland Foundation (headed by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and his wife, Sara) and from San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. In fact, Smith tells SF Weekly that McCarthy’s work is the first of a three-part series that will soon lead to a new mural in the area by Chad Hasegawa. Smith also says the funding allowed McCarthy to use high-quality paint that will last for many years.

As McCarthy and the other artists worked on the mural in November, pedestrians walking along Market would stop in their tracks. Even while it was in progress, the work was highly photographed for Instagram and other social media. Now that the work is complete, McCarthy has an even deeper appreciation for the work’s location on the edge of the Tenderloin, which has been gentrifying — but is still a neighborhood in transition. McCarthy is still coming to terms with the work’s size.

“I used to live in the Tenderloin. I truly love that area. So I’m happy it’s there, as opposed to a fancy part of town,” McCarthy says. “I like the idea of accessibility of public work, that’s outside of institutions. But I have trepidation about the idea that I have so such space in the city. I’m still contending with that. I used to frequent that part of San Francisco a lot. I’m trying to put it out of my head that [the mural] exists. But I’ve been trying in the past few years to walk towards opportunities that I feel grateful for. And I spend so much time alone in my studio that it was really great to do something like this, with people I’m really close with.”

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