There they are — odd, stone-like hairless masks in piles at the BART Plaza on 24th Street.
How did they get there? And, at the Muni bus stop on Folsom and 24th, the free box outside Praxis on Treat Avenue, on a bench on Florida and 23rd, on Balmy Alley and so on. If you have walked around the Mission at all, you’ve seen them and probably wondered the same thing.
It turns out that it is fine to pick one up and take it home, says Bruce Hallman, an artist who has lived in the Mission since 2004 and began the urban art project “to create an object of focus for peaceful thoughts and spirituality.”
In a sense it is a project that began many years ago when Hallman, now 57, was a child growing up near a reservation in the Pacific Northwest. More recent inspiration came from his friend’s experience of going to a place once a week where someone had placed a statue of a bird. “She would give the bird a pet, as kind of a good luck gesture and the emotional power of it being there and giving the focus of her mind, actually made her life better,” he says.
It is this power that Hallman would like his masks to hold for those of us who run across the spirit guardians that he also refers to as totems, garden gnomes, talismans. They are part of street art — Keith Haring’s chalk art project in New York has also been an influence — and like the sometimes short life of street art, Hallman is fine with the finite life of his masks.
In the Pacific Northwest, he says, native Americans carved totem poles and threw big parties to dedicate them.
Then, “they would let them erode and rot to the point where it turns back to dirt, it’s not preserved. Within a hundred years it would be dirt again and there’s no qualms about that. It was a moment of dedication and then it was a moment of erosion.”
Pick one of Hallman’s totems up, turn it over and you will notice that it is signed as Bini and its story continues.
Bini was an indigenous Athabaskan prophet of the 19th Century who lived among the Tsimshian North Americans of the Pacific Northwest.
Hallman says Bini “saw a combination of Christianity and traditional shamanism and embraced that.”
The totem itself represents “the convergence of European and Native American world views of spirituality.”
Hallman was inspired by Bini because “he was big enough to see that there was a value in integrating native spiritualism with Christian spiritualism in the whole healing and awareness.”
Religion is a personal choice, but Hallman attempts to create faces mysterious enough to intrigue and once picked up, he hopes they inspire mystical positive thoughts.
Art has long drawn Hallman.
As a teenager he decided to become a woodcarver and for 10 years he worked “as hard as I could woodcarving, making and selling coast traditional arts. Which is a handicap, being a white guy,” he says. In the end, he got fast enough to make a woodcarving every two days that he could sell for a couple hundred dollars.
“I lived cheaply and happily but I was ridiculously poor,” he said and decided to return to school where he studied engineering. He now works as a computer programmer, but the draw of the Pacific Northwest natives and art never really left him and when he happened to read something about making theater props he figured out how to mold masks easily.
The faces come together from a plaster mixed with water and loaded into silicon molds. Once dried, Hallman paints them to give them an ancient stone look and uses a knife to carve each face. The constant rule in creating the talisman: they need to have a benevolent look.
Hallman said he has hundreds of molds and keeps adding four or five unique spirit guardians each time he makes a batch of faces. He stores them in milk crates before loading them up on his bicycle to place around the neighborhood.
I discover that it is at 24th Street where I first saw them that Hallman feels least comfortable having left them. “There’s something about the ones by the BART Station…the fact that they are behind bars, that is disturbing. I don’t like that.”
“But you put them there,” I say.
“Yes, I didn’t anticipate it,” he says of his reaction to their setting. “I’m glad to see people liberating them.”