Work starts to conserve, restore Washington High School artworks

by Natasha Lee

Tourists flock to San Francisco for its art and cultural wealth. Museums like the M.H. de Young Memorial, Palace of the Legion of Honor and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) are always listed as essential destinations in tour guides. What is not listed, however, is George Washington High School (GWHS).

Located in the Outer Richmond District on 32nd Avenue and Anza Street, GWHS houses artistic masterpieces created by President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA), an agency of the New Deal during the Depression.

Upon entering the school's lobby, visitors are greeted with an explosion of color. The WPA mural "Life of Washington" takes up 1,300 square feet of wall space and encompasses the whole lobby. Three other WPA murals line the library's walls, and a stone cast bas-relief spans the entire south side of the athletics field.

These unique pieces of art, however, are deteriorating. Seventy years of general use, water leakage and smoke damage from the 1989 earthquake are staining and chipping the paint.

Since the 1980s, GWHS has made several attempts to restore the art, but none have come to fruition.

Now, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC), SFMOMA and GWHS are collaborating to protect the art. Funding for the assessment stage is now being provided by SFMOMA, but funding for restoration remains unclear.

"It's painstaking and careful work, so it's a time-consuming and expensive endeavor," said Allison Cummings, senior registrar of the Civic Art Collection at the SF Arts Commission.

Funds will go towards restoring Sargent Johnson's bas-relief and the murals of Victor Arnautoff, Ralph Stackpole, Lucien Labaudt and Gordon Langdon.

The murals are painted in the fresco style, an ancient and extremely difficult medium which uses oxides to make earth colors. Because tones have to be applied to a wet surface, artists need to follow right behind the plasterers when painting.

Arnautoff's fresco, the "Life of Washington," maps the history of the United States, including scenes from the Boston Tea Party, Revolutionary War, slave trade and the slaughter of Native Americans. "Life of Washington," however, is controversial. Some students in the late 1960s, offended by the portrayal of the slave trade and an image of a dead Native American, demanded the mural be whitewashed.

The school disagreed, saying the mural only tried to portray the horrors of the time. Eventually, both parties reached a compromise that would allow artist Dewey Crumpler to paint murals representing African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians on the first floor.

Less controversial are the frescos located in the school's library, all of which were painted in 1936. Labaudt, who is known for his work inside Coit Tower and the Beach Chalet, painted "Advancement of Learning through the Printing Press."

Another painting, "Contemporary Education," was painted by Stackpole, who also created works inside the Coit Tower and the Federal Building in Washington, D.C.

"Modern and Ancient Science" was painted by Langdon.

The south wall of GWHS' athletic field is adorned by the bas-relief "Athletics." Created by Johnson, a local African American artist, "Athletics" is 185-feet wide and six-feet tall and depicts men and women participating in Olympic sports. Created in 1942, the artwork is made of cast stone and limestone.

Restoring these artworks presents unique educational opportunities.

On Jan. 18, students gave a presentation at SFMOMA on the murals' histories.

"I was very impressed with the reports that the high school students presented on the murals themselves and the facts that they found," said Luis Cancel, director of cultural affairs at the Art Commission.

George Washington High School Principal Ericka Louvrin states that students will also receive docent training through GWHS' vocational program, "The Academy of Hospitality and Tourism." They will be sharing GWHS' art history with students, alumni and the general public.

And, like the WPA, this project has the potential for employing Bay Area object and mural conservators. However, the biggest challenge to restoring the artwork at Washington will be fundraising.

Cummings states that conservation could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

According to Cancel, the SFAC is custodian to 3,000 public artworks. The government can only provide $15,000 a year for San Francisco's $90 million public art collection.

Cancel says that there are many reasons why investing in the arts is important. For example, there are economic benefits since San Francisco's art makes the City a major tourist destination.

Most importantly, however, he says preserving the cultural patrimony of a city and encouraging residents to value this patrimony defines San Francisco as a city.

"These are very important values for civilization," Cancel said.