The Slow, Beautiful Road to Community on the Streets
Mona Caron is a visual troubadour of street life in San Francisco. Her murals have become increasingly famous in their gorgeous detail, portraying San Francisco’s romantic past juxtaposed to inspired visions of its future. Equally powerful is the way each mural itself comes to anchor new public space, an open-air gallery where people meet and discuss, sharing ideas often growing from the rich street life she portrays in her murals.
I spoke with Mona on the top of her scaffolding cladding the current project at Jones and Golden Gate in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Like her previous murals, this one too is “about the life in the streets, and the architecture around the streets and how that’s changed with the population.” Her earliest work is the 300-foot long Duboce Bikeway mural, which depicts the path a bicyclist must follow from the foot of Market, through the “wiggle” (the much-loved path that cyclists follow from mid-Market to the Haight) and out to the beach. In its phantasmagorical vision of the city, echoes of past and an imaginary future overlap in the scuttling of bugs, on the back of a giant snake, and in a long-forgotten creek that underlies the gradually rising bike route.
Around the corner on Church and 15th is the Market Street Railway Mural, a stunning wall that also moves through time, from the 1920s ‘Roar of the Four’ on Market Street through the 1930s, ‘40s and post-war automobilization of the city’s central artery. Over all the span of the mural encompasses the history of street life in San Francisco. As it moves from left to right, we encounter important repurposings of the boulevard for Gay Freedom Day marches, Critical Mass, and anti-war marches, before finally showing a utopian future in which solar trolleys share the space with bikes and boat-filled canals, even—at the suggestion of neighbors—an elephant and an ostrich!
In some cases I put people that I meet into the mural as a gesture to the way that I met them, so it’s a permanent souvenir or memento to how we met. Sometimes it’s something they really care about or an idea they have… When passersby realized that I was painting the future section of the Market Street Railway Mural, they started brainstorming about future transport options, saying “Put in an Elephant! Put in an Ostrich!” It was fun to banter with people and incorporate their brainspurts,” a regular phenomenon on all Caron mural projects.
There are two major tropes going on in my work. The birds-eye view of the street and the other one—and it seems extremely different—portrayals of giant plants which are actually tiny in nature. They do the same thing, perhaps in a slightly less literal way. The botanical elements are about public space too, in the sense that they represent common weeds or native wildflowers and things that occur in urban settings. Many of those plants were based on things that I ripped out of the cracks in the sidewalk right in front of the murals I was working on. It was a way of magnifying bits of nature, things that are there, that are available to all, but are rarely seen—partly because they’re too small, but mostly because we’re too busy going about our lives to take the time to observe and look and appreciate ubiquitous things that have no monetary value.
The point about slowing down exactly overlaps with the more literal representations of public space that I do. In both cases I am trying to inspire the people directly in front of the mural to actually do what I hope that society would do my in my ideal world, slowing down and taking things in that are around them, taking each other in, having a more convivial relationship to public space. I want a world more conducive to people engaging with each other freely and spontaneously, commenting on what’s around them, discussing what to do. I realize I’m completely anachronistic in that regard. These days it’s all about speed, everything needs to be done very very quickly, which we’re forced to do to make a living. We don’t have the luxury to lollygag around the streets and look at every butterfly. It’s just not realistic. TOO BAD! One of the things that I try to model with the work I do is to bestow WAY more time and love and energy to things than is the norm these days.
I always try to maintain the idea of a future that is built on what we have. Use what we’ve got, and work with it, repurpose it, tweak it so as to make it better, more conducive to sustainability and sociability… I want to show a DIY betterment of the neighborhood in the future without gentrification and without a totalitarian intervention from above. So that’s why it’s important to maintain existing structures, and build upon them or modify them. Use what’s there. Visually I try to keep the same community that exists in a place I depict in a mural, meaning the population has not changed, just the infrastructure has changed and the way people relate, but it’s the same population…
Of course, working in the Tenderloin is to come face to face with the failures of our society to treat everyone with dignity and respect. As a muralist in the street, Caron and her colleague LisaRuth Elliott and the other volunteers who turn up to help, are continually in conversation with the neighborhood.
I realized after I started this how rarely I came to the Tenderloin, partly because of the discomfort that comes with the street scene here… but we need to scramble that! Yeah there are homeless people here, etc etc., but there are more children in the Tenderloin than any other neighborhood in San Francisco! … The success of this project depends on people helping to scramble the social scene here by coming to visit… If you’re curious get your ass down here to see it!