Steel scaffolding and tall concrete walls still dominate the northeast perimeter of San Francisco’s largest wastewater treatment plant, but these days the urban landscape has adopted a look that’s easier on the eyes. 

A recently installed mural that resembles an outsize comic strip hangs from the chain-link fence that runs behind a construction barrier along Evans Avenue in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, each of its 5-foot by 10-foot panels telling the fantastical story of a young boy who wants to escape the air pollution and violence of his surroundings. 

“He’s fed up with all of it so he starts running,” said artist Nancy Cato, who created the 18-panel mural as part of a joint project of the San Francisco Public Utilities and Arts commissions. 

Titled “Jamari’s Journey,” the digital illustrations introduce the boy wearing a gas mask to protect himself from the toxic air that long has affected area residents. 

When the young adventurer discovers a portal to the universe, he dives into the unknown. 

A youngster discovers a portal in space in Nancy Cato’s public art piece in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point. (Robin Scheswohl/Head Photographer for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission)

Floating through the cosmos in a spacesuit, Jamari discovers that he can breathe freely and experiences such a peacefulness that he’s reluctant to leave when his mother summons him back to Earth. 

Cato’s pictorial narrative is the third in a series of four temporary exhibits that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission conceived, and the San Francisco Arts Commission has made a reality by hiring artists from a registry it created. 

Since October 2020, each mural has appeared for a year at a time on the fencing around the Southeast Treatment Plant. 

The 18-panel “Jamari’s Journey” is displayed on fence near San Francisco’s Southeast Treatment Plant and construction barrier along Evans Avenue. (Robin Scheswohl/Head Photographer for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission) 

The aging facility is undergoing an upgrade, one of many improvements planned for the city’s sewer system. 

But the construction promises aesthetic benefits as well: San Francisco’s Art Enrichment Ordinance stipulates that 2 percent of the above-ground construction costs of city and county buildings, parks, bridges and other projects must go toward creating more art in public places. 

As such, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s systemwide renovations will generate an estimated $11.5 million over 20 years for this purpose. 

The goal for the $238,000 that’s earmarked for the murals outside the Southeast Treatment Plant is to support local artists as well as honor the history and residents of Bayview-Hunters Point. 

As it sifted through applications, the San Francisco Arts Commission looked for applicants who hadn’t created public art before, said commission Senior Program Manager Jackie von Treskow. 

Cato also was a good fit because her illustrations deliver a “graphic punch” and reflect community concerns, Treskow said.  

As Cato chatted with those who live in Bayview-Hunters Point, she says she was struck by the challenges the area poses for many of the Black people who live there ― unemployment, poverty, violence, and drug use. 

“I just kept coming across despair,” she said. 

In the comic-strip panel mural “Jamari’s Journey,” a boy wears a gas mask to protect himself from the toxic air in his neighborhood. (Robin Scheswohl/Head Photographer for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission)

Reinventing herself 

Taking on the project was quite a departure for the New Haven, Connecticut-transplant, who worked as a bicycle messenger when she first moved to San Francisco in 1989. 

Cato later held a series of jobs in retail, most recently as a grocery department supervisor at Whole Foods Market. 

But after 17 years of stocking shelves and overseeing employees on the swing shift, the 56-year-old mother of a preteen quit in April to focus solely on developing her career as an artist. 

She taught herself digital art from YouTube videos, inspired by her 11-year-old son’s fearless experimentation on computer keyboards. 

But making the leap from a small screen to the approximately 2,400-square-foot area that the wastewater treatment plant was offering as an outdoors canvas wasn’t something Cato considered a slam dunk. 

“I went to my email and I was like, ‘What?!’” she said, recalling her surprise upon receiving a congratulatory note from the San Francisco Arts Commission informing her that she’d been chosen to produce a mural. “I was shocked!”  

Cato previously had used acrylic paints to create murals, including one for a Bruce Lee exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and another for the African American Art and Culture Complex, but this would be the first she had designed on a computer — and the largest.  

The San Francisco Arts Commission’s acceptance of her proposal also marked the first time Cato had been commissioned to contribute to the city’s public art collection. 

“Jamari’s Journey” in Bayview-Hunters Point is part of a project spearheaded by the San Francisco Public Utilities and Arts commissions. (Robin Scheswohl/Head Photographer for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission) 

“I’m very much new to this realm,” she said. 

She got down to business in spring 2022, starting with rough sketches on paper and then refining the sequence of images. 

From there, Cato imported the pencil drawings to her iPad, and began working upwards of five hours a day with the illustration software Procreate.  

After finishing last fall, Cato sent her handiwork to a graphic designer who prepared the files for printing, and from there the images were transferred onto mesh vinyl banners. 

Displaying art in public spaces has multiple advantages, Cato said. 

“Besides beautifying the environment, it’s an opportunity for folks to get an understanding of who does art in their area,” Cato said. 

And that exposure to others’ imagination is enriching, she added. 

“It takes you on adventures — it makes you think about things you weren’t thinking before,” Cato said.