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A year ago, the world stopped. At least, it felt that way last March to residents of San Francisco, who saw their brimming city hollow out and fill with plywood sheets and proverbial tumbleweeds as some of the country’s strictest shelter-in-place measures went into effect. Lockdown wasn’t just an internal anxiety, it became an aesthetic, a visual language of uncertainty and loss as businesses boarded up or remained closed and shadowed. Also, it was ugly.
The closure of performance and artistic venues and service-based industries decimated financial security for many of the Bay Area’s local working artists who already hustle to make ends meet. So a local group of women got together to gather resources and create opportunities; rather than wallow in the void, they were going to paint it.
Paint the Void emerged in April 2020 after local artists and professionals Meredith Winner, Shannon Riley, Inga Bard, Veronica Pheils and Lisa Vortman linked up to discuss: “What can we do?”
Winner and Riley are the founders of Building 180, a “women-run art agency that produces and builds large-scale public art,” and Bard had previously founded Art for Civil Discourse, a nonprofit that facilitates community art projects with sociopolitical messaging. So, they were equipped to not only deal with logistics, but also how to secure funding in the most chaotic of circumstances.
Buried in the bleakness was the chance to cultivate something of beauty, and to date, they’ve commissioned 130 beautiful things around San Francisco and Oakland.
“We were scavenging the web, looking for grant opportunities, pulling together newsletters, trying to provide a list of all of our artists [on] how to survive, how to sign up for unemployment,” Riley says. “A friend had reached out to Meredith and shared this article about the Mission District turning into this apocalypse with boards everywhere. We work with tons of street artists and muralists, so what if we turn the city into a gallery and start painting?”
So Riley and Winner mobilized, combining their experience producing murals and negotiating logistics like insurance and contracts with a project that might have never come to fruition even the year before. Bard came on to lead fundraising efforts, and the founders work pro-bono with a team of videographers, designers and other artists handling logistics.
“This is something that Shannon and I had been really wanting to do for a long time and didn’t know how we could actually make an impact in San Francisco. We were able to kind of put everything that we knew to the test and really go for it,” Winner says. “Connecting with the business owners and the artists was the first step. We already had a big network of artists that we worked with. And now we have a much bigger artist [network to access], which is really amazing.”
While it was initially started to keep creative people working and combat an increasingly morose city landscape, the intersection of a pandemic and a social justice movement stemming from the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was unignorable.
Paint the Void was founded and is run by women who identify as white, but works with a diverse range of muralists, and the founders acknowledge their responsibility to uplift the BIPOC communities who have been devastated by the pandemic and its ripple effects.
In order to join the project, artists and businesses submit proposals to either paint or be painted, and Paint the Void tries to pair them within the same neighborhood. Subject matter is determined solely by the artists and the businesses.
The forms now contain demographic questions to prioritize queer BIPOC artists, but Winner admits it took an outside call-out to see, albeit unintentionally, how their collaborators weren’t as diverse as they should and could be.
“We really pivoted after that, where we started prioritizing BIPOC artists,” says Veronica Pheils, a Paint the Void co-founder and project manager. “We changed our demographics; the first half was, honestly, a lot of white men, and the second half was mostly BIPOC artists and women. So we really took that as a learning lesson to look within and make a change.”
It also opened the door to artists who’d never worked on a wall before, but had something to say that wouldn’t fit in a gallery.
Artist Bianca Rivera had never painted a mural before she submitted an application to Paint the Void last summer at a friend and fellow artist’s recommendation. A Black Puerto Rican woman from New York City, Rivera moved to the Bay Area almost four years ago, working in tech while pursuing her art and cultivating a community. Her craft and style stem from a lifelong love of cartoons with a street and Pop Art slant, often with a whimsical or Surrealist feel that address the issues big and small that we navigate daily.
“By the time the pandemic hit, I was definitely transitioning hard from analog drawing to digital illustration,” Rivera says. “And I focus my artwork on the Black Lives Matter movement, using my illustrations as a way to inform and inspire and educate and, yeah, inspire action. It was a really beautiful experience to just be in just the, like, center of San Francisco working on this and having people stop by with their kids and point up and hear them give explanations to what’s going on.”
Her Union Square mural, 21 by 11 feet, depicts a dozen somber cherubs floating amidst clouds, with the message “Keep the Fight Alive, Solidarity Is Not a Trend, Remember Their Names.” The cherubs themselves are named for local victims of police brutality such as Sean Monterrosa, Erik Salgado, Kayla Moore and Mario Woods.
“I really wanted it to be centered on Black and brown people and keep it within the discussion of what was happening last summer, a big message that the work doesn’t stop,” says Rivera, who worked on her mural from late summer into fall. “It definitely helped give me confidence in myself as an illustrator and as an artist, that my voice matters. And so does yours.”
As the pandemic appears to wane, and San Francisco transitions into the orange tier, it’s unclear what exactly will happen to these artworks. Some murals have been preserved by business owners and their partnered artists, but it’s a challenge to coordinate a volunteer pickup for each one, especially as business owners are eager to get back to work. And even with promising inoculation statistics, the pandemic and its safety measures won’t “end” for a while yet.
Back in November, Mayor London Breed announced the pilot program for the San Francisco Creative Corps, providing grants from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development to employ dozens of working artists as Community Health Ambassadors, and to commission 30 new murals with public health messaging in collaboration with Paint the Void and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
For Shawna Chan, an Oakland-based digital artist and founder of the feminist art brand Bloody Girl Gang, she’s painted two murals at the same location due to the ebb and flow of reopening, one before the launch of the SFCC and now one with them. Her first day painting the Kearny Street location of Good Vibrations was the same day as George Floyd’s murder; it was unsettling, but proved to her that she was doing the right thing.
“I work with emotions,” Chan says, “what’s going on with myself, with the Bay Area, and hate crimes; I mostly paint or illustrate and design based on what I’m experiencing. Bloody Girl Gang came about from being marginalized as a woman of color, and as an artist in a city dominated by tech. A mural is putting a message out for the community.”
Her more recent mural depicts a foursome of diverse, stylized bodies wearing masks while embracing each other, all of them seated behind a giant mask. The mask reads, in a double entendre, “use protection.”
Good Vibrations had asked for Chan to reprise her earlier piece, and while she was happy to oblige, she hopes her next mural can be in Chinatown or in a space more immediate to the Bay Area’s Asian communities, who have suffered assaults, some deadly, and other racist offenses in recent months.
“My mind right now is ‘Stop Asian Hate.’ We’ve been told to be quiet and not be as vocal as we should be,” Chan says. “With street art, a majority in this city is dominated by white males, and that is a burn to marginalized communities. There are artists that are struggling that need your support. It’s another way to put out, unapologetically, what I want to say.”
Murals for the SFCC were in production until April, and the Paint the Void team are working on plans to one day host a gallery show for the salvaged murals and turn the gallery of images into a coffee table book. Paint the Void co-founder and director of media Lisa Vortman, who has photographed every single one, often feels verklempt.
“It’s been a saving grace for so many of us who have a sense of purpose and also a sense of connection and community,” she says. “I just continue to learn through the benefits of this project.”
* Learn more about the Paint the Void project at https://paintthevoid.org/.