When Thomasina DeMaio paints, she sweats and she curses, but she also dances, and sings and smiles. She paints despite a swollen dislocated thumb, and even after paint thinner seeps into the uncovered cut. But most importantly, she paints fast.
This is why it came as a surprise when it seemed as though DeMaio’s most recent work, a mural inside Mission Creek Café on Valencia Street, was taking a long time to complete. For six weeks, arms remained without hands, heads were without faces, and a large section in the center of the approximately 50-foot mural disappeared entirely.
The Mission Creek mural is an extension of a series DeMaio began five years ago at three places near the corner of 21st and Valencia streets – Decamere Supermarket, Valencia Whole Foods and Sidewalk Juice. Each display a DeMaio mural on their façades and Valencia Whole Foods also has a mural on the interior of the store.
“The murals are mainly allegories,” DeMaio said. To illustrate them she uses people who walk by her as she works. “I do a quick sketch and I put them in. It’s really mostly local people.”
DeMaio, 63, feels very strongly about the integrity of her artistic process and the content of each of her works, and seeks to retain creative control of the murals she paints—including those commissioned by local businesses.
Yousef Nazzal, owner of Valencia Whole Foods said of DeMaio, “It is hard to convince an artist. She wants to do certain colors. She speaks her mind.”
That, it turns out, explains the reason for the lack of progress on the Mission Creek piece.
DeMaio, who moved to the Bay Area to attend the San Francisco Art Institute where she received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in painting, said that as she progressed on the piece, the owner become increasingly controlling over the types of people he wanted in the café scenes, forcing her to paint out portions of the mural. After a week and a half of work, she was fed up and walked out, DeMaio said.
On Tuesday, the woman at the counter, who declined to identify herself, said that the artist comes in when she wants, and whether or not the mural is finished is “up to her.”
DeMaio said that according to the terms of her verbal contract, Mission Creek must paint over the unfinished mural since she was never paid for the work. The white space currently in the center of mural shows Mission Creek has begun efforts to paint over the piece.
The woman at the Mission Creek counter said the artist had already been paid, but DeMaio said that was only for materials.
Nazzal at Valencia Whole Foods was aware that there had been a disagreement about the mural, explaining that the desire of both parties to speak their minds was likely to blame.
A muralist here for decades, DeMaio can’t remember where all of her murals are. She knows there is one at Pause Bar on Market Street (two actually), one at Marines’ Memorial Theater and perhaps another at 18th and Hartford streets. Her favorite mural, which is actually a large canvas painting on display at Pause Bar, is of a room full of tango dancers with a mushroom cloud in the distance. Titled “Last Tango,” it was painted in 1981 after she attended a speech on the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
Few of her pieces have overt political messages but much of her art is driven by charitable purposes, she said. In 1990, DeMaio offered to do a series of ceramic sculptures and large-scale portraits for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to help the group raise money. She subsequently became a nun herself, Sister Donatella Donaska. She failed to last.
“I got thrown out, I was excommunicated, but I am still a saint,” she insists, adding that she has taken some revenge by destroying the portraits of those who have fallen into her disfavor.