Thursday, July 31, 2008

Process at Heart

The following is an account of my experience creating a heart sculpture for the Hearts-in-San Francisco project.

My participation began in April 2004 when I applied and was accepted to paint one of the 130 500-lb. five-foot tall heart sculptures that would be installed in San Francisco. This was an art and funding project similar to those found in other cities like the Cows of Chicago, the Moose of Toronto, and Lighthouses of Portland. The Hearts of San Francisco would be on view then auctioned live or on-line with proceeds going to the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation primarily to fund their Trauma Center. The heart seemed synonymous with San Francisco and the Tony Bennett song but the project began as the brainchild of designer Michael Osborne who uses hearts in much of his design work.

It was a monumental undertaking. The Hearts-in-SF non-profit corporation was set up. Finances and facilities for the artists were organized. A painting area was set up at the end of Pier 27. I committed five Sundays to the execution, in full view of the Bay Bridge.

It was important that I get my design right. It would be seen and photographed by thousands. A photo book was planned. With coworker Lance Jackson, photographs of our hearts would be featured in the SF Chronicle Datebook section in a column called Heart Monitor. The sculptures would be out in the rain, sun and wind. Each artist would receive a $1000 honorarium. Some hearts would have a sponsor. Someone would eventually own it, maybe even place it in his or her front yard. The pressure was on.

I wanted mine to be unique and provocative. My concept was to create a utilitarian object like a Greek vase. I liked how figures are designed into a frieze and wrapped around the three dimensional form. Greek vases tell us about Greek society circa 200 BC. I wanted the content of my design to include a contemporary Market street scene. The imagery on my heart references the Muni bus system, the Green (street-cleaning) Machine, shopping for T-shirts, street musicians, road repair and a clash of cultures. I wanted to believe that people would learn something about San Francisco circa 2004 when they dig up my heart sometime in 3004. I created a six-inch high maquette and used it as a guide. I prepped the fiberglass surface and painted it with several layers of gesso. I scaled the drawing up on a grid. I penciled and painted the figures and added some Greek design motifs. Every day as a reward, I helped myself to a delicious lunch of scallops in a light cream sauce at the Fog City Diner across the street from the pier.

At the end of the five weeks, I finished painting and sealing (in polyurethane) my heart sculpture. I actually kissed it good bye in an interview on live remote television for peppy morning reporter Liam Maychem from KRON-TV. After that it was up to the Hearts-in-SF committee to choose a location for placement. I thought the terra cotta color of the vase/heart would remind people of the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, which seemed like an ideal location, but they decided to locate it on Van Ness Ave. in front of the War Memorial Opera House. It would get a great opera intermission crowd … a money spot, perhaps. Nancy Bechtel, one of the organizers, placed a plaque on it with a sponsor's name, Dede Wilsey. She is a well-known patron of the local fine arts museums. I liked that the sponsor was an individual and not a corporation. There it stood for four months. At Theatro Zinzani on the Embarcadero, organizers threw an exciting reception for all patrons and artists to get together. Money and art are necessary partners.

Displaying public art in San Francisco has always been a controversial process. All public art must be granted and approved by the San Francisco Arts Commission, which trys to be sensitive to various political, corporate and community considerations. Somehow the Hearts-in-SF project would escape this committee, given its temporary nature.

Ultimately these hearts scattered around enriched the city. I felt proud to be part of it. The whole process for me was a rewarding one. It allowed me to work in a public sphere with creative control, albeit with some physical and material constraints. I was excited to work at a large scale. I received many responses from people, all positive but for the spit and pigeon crap I would occasionally have to clean off. I enjoyed meeting many of my fellow "heartists". On November 11, 2004, the project was complete when the last few chosen hearts were auctioned off at SBC Park. On November 7, my heart sculpture sold in an eBay on-line auction to a single bidder for $10,000. After the organization pays the bills for this enterprise, all donations are distributed to the hospital. The synergy worked. Artists, facilitators, private and corporate donors worked together for the public good. For once it worked.

No comments: