San Francisco artist and activist Megan Wilson’s work beautifies urban walls and spaces here and afar, while her text-driven murals offer solutions for conditions upsetting our neighborhoods and the globe.
“Putting work out there in these times is all we can do,” says Wilson. “It’s one of the few responses as artists we can have. I do feel like that’s my role—to reflect and respond to what I feel.”
Her most current multidisciplinary project, Manifest Differently, is a culmination of her work in San Francisco and Bay Area arts. Unveiled in Clarion Alley in the Mission in September with a celebration of spoken word, music and food, Manifest Differently opened with a daylong demonstration of resilience and resistance — a model for the future of the arts in perilous times.
Currently on view in the alley and different locations citywide, Manifest Differently will be active through April 2024, including an opening reception on Oct. 26 for “Thinking and Feeling With the Marshall Islands,” an installation by Anita Chang at Artists’ Television Access in the Mission.
Wilson, from the initial tech boom in the 1990s through its bust in 2000, has made social and political statements by painting flowers. Merging bold petals with empowering slogans like “Tax the Rich,” “Stop the Corptocracy” and “Housing is a Human Right,” the florals have covered streets and facades from Civic Center to Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
“I use the flowers as a point of entry. People love the flowers and are attracted to the imagery,” says Wilson of the bright daisies and poppies scrolling and spilling around original fonts and block letters.
Beginning around 2000 when change was afoot to our built environment, Wilson crafted simple hand-painted signs with the word “Home” that were propped in San Francisco storefronts and residences under threat of eviction. Since then, she has worked on projects and murals opposing gentrification, war and worldwide polarization, both solo and collaboratively, most frequently with artists from the Clarion Alley Mural Project.
Committed to art for political and social change since its inception in 1992, CAMP has evolved from a block of murals between Mission and Valencia streets in the Mission into a citywide project embracing installations and performances by artists across a spectrum of disciplines. Seamlessly merging the personal with the political, Wilson is co-director of the project with her partner, Christopher Statton. The couple sometimes collaborate, as they did with Clarion Alley’s 2014 project, “The Wall of Shame and Solutions.”
“It was calling out our city leaders and the legislation they’d passed, stripping away our communities and what had been beautiful about San Francisco,” says Wilson of the time when gentrification had taken a toll on immigrant families and low-income artists. What became known as the gentrification crisis led to unprecedented displacements, particularly for people for color, from San Francisco.
Wilson knew well the role art could play in resistance, having taken on displacement with her “Home” campaign during the first dot-com boom. She’s been a tenants’ right advocate since the 1990s when she lived in a rent-controlled apartment on Nob Hill and was doing graduate work at the San Francisco Art Institute.
“It was the beginning of the Ellis Act evictions,” she says of the statute that allows landlords to act as if they are “going out of the rental business,” but there are often loopholes in the process.
“It was sort of working in opposition to the tech money that was coming in,” she says.
Thirty years later, the Mission District has seen a disproportionate amount of development and displacement compared to other parts of the city, and Clarion Alley, situated at its center, remains a hub for artists and activists.
“It’s very life affirming working with CAMP,” says Wilson. “It kept us going during the pandemic.”
Just prior to the shutdown, Wilson collaborated with Burmese-American poet and educator Maw Shein Win on Wall + Response, a project addressing social and racial injustice featuring 16 poets commenting on four murals in the alley: “Justice for Luís D. Góngora Pat” by Marina Perez-Wong and Elaine Chu; “What We Want!” by Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party and CUBA D8, Mace; “Affordable Housing/Vivienda Asequible” by the SF Print Collective working with the Western Regional Advocacy Project; and “The Arab Liberation Mural” by Art Forces, Arab Resource Organizing Center and Arab Youth Organizing.
While streamed readings were popular at the start of the pandemic, filling an artistic gap, the outdoor space at Clarion turned out to be readymade for mural walks and tours.
Meanwhile, Wall + Response was slated to move indoors to the San Francisco Public Library until a public official took exception to the mural depicting Arab liberation. CAMP was asked for the work to be altered or removed from the installation.
“All of the artists were in solidarity against censorship and the exhibit at the library was tabled,” says Wilson.
Dismayed that the city of San Francisco would co-sign censorship, Wilson nevertheless has continued to create work against oppression. As with all of her work, there are notes of the personal intermingled with the political. Wilson describes her own family as “settler colonizers” in the Americas, dating back to 1643.
With relatives closely tied to the founding of the Mormon church, she says, “They migrated by wagon train and settled and destroyed the land to make Ogden,” though her father’s family ultimately took flight from the church. Her mother was biracial, with roots in the Native Nations of Canada.
Raised in Montana, Wilson studied printmaking at the University of Oregon (where she organized women against the Gulf War), then journeyed through Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. After working in Boston for the suicide-prevention organization Samaritans, she applied to the Art Institute, where her combination of experience with Central America, political organizing and printmaking made her a natural fit within the activist art community here. She fell in with fellow artists Amy Berk and Carolyn Castaño, and continued to strengthen her ties to political public art.
Wilson’s current project with CAMP, Manifest Differently, is a co-curation with San Francisco poet laureate emerita Kim Shuck and collaboration with 38 artists and poets delving into the impact of imperialistic expansion commonly referred to as Manifest Destiny.
In CAMP’s words, Manifest Differently seeks to interrogate “the legacies of inherited and perpetuated violence, trauma, and addiction, and the outgrowth of resistance and resilience— giving fire to movements for social/cultural change.”
“There seems to be such polarization socially and politically right now, but it feels like our arts community is inspired,” she says. “We’re doing really well, even without the structures we used to have. We don’t have the weekly arts publications, the art schools, the Geary Street galleries, those spaces where we could all go.”
She adds, “The censorship thing with the library is not over—it’s a public space. In the face of pushback, I just keep moving forward.”
Manifest Differently presents an opening reception for Anita Chang’s installation “Thinking and Feeling With the Marshall Islands” at 6 p.m. Oct. 26 at Artists’ Television Access, 992 Valencia St., San Francisco. Admission is free. For details, visit https://www.manifestdifferently.org/events.
For more information about Manifest Differently programs, go to manifestdifferently.org.