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Beneath midmorning flashes of lightning, Kurt M. Schwartzmann takes a seat outside the Buena Vista Cafe on Hyde Street in San Francisco and orders Eggs Benedict on Monday.
The bar and cafe, famous for its Irish coffees, has transitioned to outdoor dining with fluorescent orange water barriers demarcating the perimeter. He’s wearing one of Buena Vista’s bartending coats, but the stark white garment has been cut into a cropped jacket and smattered with colors seen all along the dining area. It’s the only indication that he’s responsible for the two dozen-odd mini murals along the entire barrier.
Both the outer and inner sides of the barriers host a colorful myriad of iconic San Francisco imagery. There are postcard staples like Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid, pelicans and cable cars. The inside looks like a forest from “The Lorax,” with vibrant palm trees in purples, greens and oranges, a sun with a face and, of course, an Irish coffee.
“It’s been a labor of love. The entire project was built around love: love for the community, love for the world, love for you and me,” Schwartzmann said. Dr. Seuss and the Muppets were his muses. “His use of colors, and the Muppets because they’re big and bold and colorful, and they have a simple message of love. My work is modeled after that.”
Schwartzmann had been a longtime patron of Buena Vista and, in recent years, gained local notoriety for his Yellow Line Art series highlighting the work of Muni drivers and operators, whom he says are chronically underappreciated.
It was a Muni driver who helped him turn his life around over a decade ago. Schwartzmann wears an eye patch; in 2006, he was told the optic nerve in his left eye was deteriorating as a result of AIDS. In 2007, when he was living unhoused, he dragged his suitcase to the bus stop. Despite knowing he didn’t have any fare, he asked for a ride. It was a cold night. The driver waived him on, asking that he keep her company. His voice still warbles when he tells the story.
It’s very likely, had they kept in touch, that she would have received one of Schwartzmann’s love cards. He’s made over 300 of them, sent out to essential workers, politicians, even the Muppets (although he says their addresses on Sesame Street are misleading).
Kevin Jones, Buena Vista’s general manager, reached out to Schwartzmann after he received one of his cards, which depict a pair of the flamboyant palm trees as well as handwritten words of encouragement, thanks and compassion. The project’s official name is “The Space Between Us Is Love,” or The Love Project for short.
“People would come and tag [the barriers]. I contacted Kurt, we connected, he came out with Deirdre,” Jones said, referring to Schwartzmann’s friend and collaborator, artist Deirdre Weinberg. “[I said], ‘You guys have carte blanche.’ We’re happy as heck; it’s just love. Kurt and Deirdre are beautiful people.”
Schwartzmann is behind the palm trees and many of the color-block landmarks on the barriers. Weinberg lent her decades of mural experience to the more complicated portraits, like a dungeness crab with a clover of Celtic knots, or a seal she happened to encounter in the ocean. Weinberg says she wanted to draw from the locale.
“I’m a longtime bay swimmer. There are a lot of seals out there right now. I hit a seal accidentally, scared the hell out of me,” Weinberg says with a laugh. The one painted on the dining area’s far right side looks much less threatening.
Weinberg has been painting murals for 25 years. She took a community college class on murals while living in Michigan, and never stopped. She’s since even “taken it internationally,” to Argentina and Nicaragua. Last year, she went to Greece. She met Schwartzmann at a printmaking class at City College of San Francisco’s Fort Mason campus, when it was still around.
“It’s a fun way to travel, because you kind of integrate yourself,” Weinberg said. “I was taught that a mural is a community process, otherwise it’s just a big painting. It’s integral to the community and the area when you involve the local people in the design and painting.”
Despite his dabbling in murals, Schwartzmann will always have a fondness for the MTA. He, among thousands of San Franciscans, has been directly affected by Muni’s cuts to more than half of its 68 bus lines since the coronavirus quarantine began.
“I take the 6 Parnassus, and it hasn’t been running for months,” he says. “Luckily, I married a man that likes to drive, but I used to take the bus every day to go out and draw the city. So since they had to close the lines it helped me slow down and look inward. How can I help the world? I want to give some love back. It’s great to be a part of history.”
And that’s really what it’s all about. Besides the murals, Schwartzmann is still sending out cards and working on a new project: Muni and landmarks.
“A year ago this week, I was drawing the Buena Vista with the cable car coming down [Hyde Street]. It’s a series I plan on doing for a couple years and then show it,” he says optimistically.
* The Buena Vista Cafe’s outdoor dining is open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday at 2765 Hyde St. (at Beach Street), San Francisco, 415-474-5044. Learn more about Kurt Schwartzmann at his Yellow Line Art website and his Instagram and about Deirdre Weinberg on her website and Instagram.