David Schweisguth was walking his three-year-old beagle Huxley in Franklin Square Park one afternoon in 2006 when the dog sniffed around a large concrete slab serving as a makeshift potting table. Schweisguth looked under the plastic sheet covering the table top.
“You could see it was a mosaic,” Schweisguth said at a reception that drew about two dozen community members on Saturday to honor the mural’s recent installation in the park’s playground at 16th and Bryant Street. “But it looked like it was just a throw away piece.”
When Huxley found the mosaic in the northwest corner of the park, moisture had collected in its porous concrete backing so that parts of it were rotted. Still, the mosaic looked as if it was worth saving. Waves of blue and aqua tile flow around one black and one white figure. The figures hold hands and are framed by an infinity sign.
With the help of local mural expert Lillian Sizemore, who wrote A Guide to Mosaic Sites: San Francisco, Schweisguth discovered that the artist Anthony Stellon, who died in 2005, created the piece in 1968. San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto commissioned Stellon to build it for the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in Bayview-Hunters Point. The piece, titled “Brotherhood of Man”, was removed from the building in 1998 to make way for a new swimming pool.
Schwiesguth’s discovery came at the right time.
A neighborhood group called Friends of Franklin Square had just formed and were raising funds to restore the 30-year-old, decaying park. When Schwiesguth and Sizemore brought the mosaic to the group’s attention, they decided to unite behind the cause and ask the city to restore it, said Antje Kann, a Friends of Franklin Square member who spearheaded the park’s redesign.
“But we didn’t think they would ever find the money,” Kann said with a laugh.
It took more than five years for the San Francisco Arts Commission, which fundraised for the effort, to prove them wrong.
The challenge with restoring the piece was that the mosaic needed to be removed from its concrete backing and mounted on a waterproof material, said Susan Pontious, the commission’s Public Art Program Director. The project cost $115,000 and was primarily funded by private donors who gave to ArtCare, a partnership between the arts commission and the San Francisco Art Dealers Association.
The Board of Supervisors also donated money to the project from the city’s general fund and the arts commission reallocated some of its public funds to the project. Pontious could not recall the specific allotments.
“This was quite a feat for us,” Pontious said smiling. “For this project we were putting our hands behind the sofa and looking for loose change — but we found it.”
A few feet away, the late artist’s wife Mia and their son Marc, stood looking at the piece. The pair drove down from Sonoma County for the ceremony. Stellon passed away at 64. “Too young,” Marc Stellon said.
His father would never tell him what his artworks meant, Stellon said.
“I would ask him, and he would say ‘It’s what it means to you,’” Stellon said. “‘How does it make you feel?’”
Mia Stellon remembered her husband working on the piece.
“We always sat on the couch,” she said with a pause. “He always had a pencil in his hand and he always drew.”
Mia Stellon looked at the mural through large, thick sunglasses contemplating the meaning of it. The piece represents the unity of humankind, she said.
“He was sad that people had to kill each other,” Mia Stellon said. “He didn’t believe in war.”
Stellon would be very happy to see the restored piece though, Mia Stellon said looking around at children playing, “he knew it was a lovely picture.”
Standing nearby, Schweisguth pulled back Huxley, who is nine now, and his other dog Wallace as they tried to sniff children’s feet.
“It’s really been gratifying,” Schweisguth said recalling how the mosaic’s restoration unfolded. “It’s been so long, but it actually happened.”