Murals Beautify a Boarded-Up San Francisco

The ‘Paint the Void’ project pays local artists to add a touch of color to the plywood sheets covering storefronts around the city.

When San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order was issued in March, Bauerware — an architectural hardware store in the Castro, that sells things like door knobs and faucets — closed. But Jon Knott, who owns Bauerware, was initially reluctant to board up his business.

“I simply did not want to do it,” Knott said. “My whole concern was that we were turning the store, our showroom — which I love, obviously — into a horrible, boarded-up thing that makes it look like the city was in a nuclear war, or something.”

But after a restaurant on the same block as Bauerware was boarded, Knott felt like he didn’t have a choice.

“I began to feel a little vulnerable,” he said. “I reached out to the building owner and asked if I could board up, and she said if you want to make that decision, make it. I waited a week, and I did.”

The boards went up about two weeks ago. But thanks to a new public art initiative, rather than the building being covered in unsightly plywood, it’s become a canvas for a local artist.

Paint the Void was launched during the pandemic as a collaboration between Building 180, an art consulting company, and Art for Civil Discourse, a local nonprofit. The group raised over $23,000, which it distributes to artists to paint over the dreary spaces created when businesses are forced to board up their buildings.

“It started looking so drab, with all of the boards,” said Inga Bard, executive director of Art for Civil Discourse. “When Meredith and Shannon (of Building 180) hit me up, I thought it was perfect.”

Knott reached out to Paint the Void to offer the newly-boarded Bauerware storefront as a canvas, and they matched him with local artist Felicia Gabaldon, who came out last week to paint a mural. Knott said he couldn’t be happier with the result.

“The art she’s making is amazing. It’s beautiful,” he said. “I feel it’s changing this whole blighted area into areas of hope.”

Gabaldon usually lives in North Oakland, but has been staying in the Castro as she works on a mural for a private client. On weekends she works at a brewery in Alameda, which is still open for curbside pickup, but her hours were cut and tips are down. The stipend from Paint the Void definitely helps, she said.

“I’m making so much less than I used to make,” Gabaldon said. “But what’s crazy is I still don’t qualify for unemployment.”

Gabaldon grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and said her hometown still influences her style, which she described as having a “mystical, mythical, floral vibe.” She moved to the Bay Area 10 years ago, and thinks occasionally about moving back. “I love it out here,” she said, but “I don’t foresee ever being able to buy a house here. It’s so expensive.”

Several blocks away, in the Mission District, artist Paz de la Calzada was painting a mural on the boarded-up building that houses Central Kitchen and Salumeria at 20th and Florida streets.

“I was fascinated by the idea of…how art can heal the world,” de la Calzada said. “Not only from a perspective of beautification, but also because you engage the community with the process of healing and transformation.”

Her work sometimes uses tinctures, or plant extracts, mixed with her paint.

“I have tinctures from different trees or plants, but I normally only collect trees and plants that have a story,” de la Calzada said. “It has to have a particular story, that I can create my own story (around).”

For her mural with Paint the Void, she chose a green paint infused with tincture from a particular redwood tree in Monterey: The tree was planted in 1976 from seeds that were taken to the moon by Astronaut Stuart Roosa on Apollo 14. The seeds stayed with Roosa as he orbited the moon in the command module, while astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell descended to the surface. After the nine-day mission, NASA germinated the seeds and gave the saplings to state forestry services across the country.

De la Calzada made the tincture a few months ago, as part of her residency at the Monterey Museum of Art.

“It’s a redwood, which I felt would be very strong and grounding, because we need a lot of grounding (right now),” she said.

De la Calzada said she’s grateful for Paint the Void — both to have a meaningful project to work on, and for the small stipend. Her other paid work has been put on hold during the pandemic, and she was laid off from a museum where she works part-time.

“The budget for supplies is $300, and the stipend is $300, for a total of $600,” Bard said. “We kind of agreed on $600 as being the lowest reasonable (price) to make a mural. In reality, we wish we could pay a lot more — but if we did, we couldn’t do as many.”

Paint the Void has already completed dozens of murals across the city, with a goal of reaching as many as 50.

And businesses have been grateful for the artists’ contributions to the city, Bard said.

“I spoke with a business owner who cried on the phone, she was so grateful — tears of joy,” Bard said. “It’s so hard for business owners. They just had to lay off all their staff, and a lot of them might fold.”

The murals also help the stores that can remain open, Bard said. When several businesses are boarded up on a block, people may assume the entire block is shut down. “But if a business is open, and their neighbor has a mural, people walk around to check out the mural — and then become aware that they’re still open.”

“We are lucky to live in a city like San Francisco,” Knott said. “This is only temporary, and with the resilient nature of this city and the people here, I’m sure we’ll weather the storm and come back stronger than ever.”

Michael Toren is an SF Weekly staff writer covering news. You can reach him at mct@sfweekly.com or follow him on Twitter @Michael_Toren.

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