Five painters are climbing nine levels of scaffolding to repair the weathered “MaestraPeace” mural that adorns the Women’s Building. Their brushstrokes are guided by bonds of art and friendship that they forged during its creation nearly 20 years ago.
Time and temperamental San Francisco weather have taken a toll on the massive work of the seven original artists who painted the 18th Street structure housing services for women. It was a labor of love that a portion of that team now aims to restore to its former glory.
The artists are at work Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, scraping and spackling, patching and painting the landmark to meet a target date for its completion of Oct. 15. Once repaired, the mural will be covered in a B-72 acryloid coating, designed to preserve the colors for more than 100 years, according to the artists.
Almost as intensive as the original work, the restoration required combing the building from the ground floor, up nine levels of scaffolding to the fourth story of the building. They had to log the damage, detailing every crack, chip and bubble to be fixed.
Next came resurfacing of parts of the building. Now, finally, comes the repainting of the artwork, a delicate process that involves adapting colors to tones that are muted by exposure to the sun.
Out of the seven original artists, five have returned to salvage their work: Edythe Boone, Miranda Bergman, Meera Desai, Juana Alicia and Susan Kelk Cervantes. (Two of the original group — Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez — were unable to reunite with the restoration team.) Joining the painters are ten volunteers.
Like doctors working on a fragile patient, they take a triage approach, focusing on the major problems, said Desai.
“The hardest part is there are some major cracks and bubbles that are deeper than the paint,” she said. “We can only do the work that absolutely needs to get done.”
In 1993, the Women’s Building recruited a diverse band of female artists to transform the building. The artists submitted slides of their work for consideration. Those who were selected labored for many months, becoming friends and, in one instance, even standing godmother to a fellow artist’s child. They still meet for regular brunches.
“Ever since we created the original painting, we’ve been a sort of family. We’re all involved in each other’s lives and families,” said Desai.
The artists all still live throughout the Bay Area. Susan Kelk Cervantes, 68, who relocated from Dallas, has lived in the Mission for 52 years. She raised her three sons here. Miranda Bergman, 65, grew up in the Mission and went to Balboa High School.
Desai, 45, was born and raised in San Francisco, but now lives in Oakland with her family. Alicia, 59, hails from Detroit but now lives in Berkeley by way of the Mission. Boone, a Brooklyn native, now lives in Berkeley.
“We all worked really hard and got paid $2 an hour or something at the end of it all,” said Desai.
“There was a lot of love put in it,” said Boone.
Deciding what images would go on the wall wasn’t easy. It took a neighborhood survey followed by consultation of the seven artists – each with her own ideas – before consensus was reached.
What emerged — a massive tableau of feminine icons from myth and history — burst on the Mission streetscape like “a standing ovation for women’s liberation,” in the words of Miranda Bergman.
“I think Miranda put it perfectly,” said Alicia.
When the mural was unveiled in 1994, the Women’s Building held a street celebration with music and dancing. Since the mural’s completion, the artists have returned twice — once in 2000 to add a few new touches, and again in 2010 to continue the mural inside the building. Their current restoration work is nearly as detailed and labor intensive as any of the work they’ve done previously.
“The Women’s Building is a unique place for all women and girls to come to and find the services that they need,” said painter Kelk Cervantes. “I think there are very few places in the world that women can call their own, outside of their home,” she added, her clothes spattered with her palette of colors.
For Juana Alicia, working on the mural again is a sort of homecoming.
“I’m in economic exile from the Mission. I can’t afford to live in the neighborhood I paint in,” she said while applying delicate brush strokes to touch up the Guatemalan head-wrap of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the human rights activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner who is pictured on the mural’s east side.
As she labeled plastic tubs of paint, Mission resident Carla Wojczuk, 30, an assistant to Kelk Cervantes, spoke of the care the team took in hand-sponging the facade in preparation for the touch-up work.
“It felt like we were bathing our ancestors,” said Wojczuk.
The restoration project has given Desai a chance to return to art.
“I’m getting back to my passions,” said the mother of two, who had put her painting on hold for about a decade while she started her family.
“We’re in love with this wall. It’s like our baby,” said Boone. “It’s one of the first murals that I’d done.”
Now this restoration may be Boone’s last chance to scale these walls. “What’s so exciting about it is I don’t think I’ll ever go this high again on scaffolding because I’m 74-years-old,” she said. Still, when a friend cautioned her of dangers of working on high, she said she scoffed and asked, “Would you say that to a man?”
Climbing the scaffolding “feels so powerful,” Boone said, adding that, for her, it’s less wearying than climbing the BART stairs.
Alongside giant figures of women dancing, singing, healing and breast-feeding, the painting includes the names of more than 600 women written in calligraphy, woven throughout the painting.
Women’s Building Development Director Tatjana Loh said the center provides an array of social services including a food pantry, job search help, English as a Second Language classes and free tax preparation services. To her, the mural’s iconography delivers an “audacious message” of women holding their place in society.
The lone male figure in the mural was modeled after Edythe Boone’s adopted son, Delexis Woods, who also is Bergman’s godson. Though he’s now in his twenties, the mural depicts him as a young boy wearing 49ers’ socks, singing and playing the tambourine. Surrounding him is a purely feminist world.
“It’s a legacy for all the young girls and women,” explained Bergman, who paints in a red baseball cap reading “Got Art?”
“We put love and power into every brushstroke when we made it,” she said, “and we’re doing this time too.”
[Ed note: Artist Juana Alicia is scheduled to take part in a lecture titled, “Preserving San Francisco’s Murals: Lessons From SoCal,” hosted by San Francisco Architectural Heritage on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Women’s Building at 3543 18th St.]