February 2013 Coit Tower News


KQED has unveiled an exciting new multi-media project to promote education and awareness about the Coit Tower murals and other New-Deal era artworks and projects across San Francisco.  Called “Let’s Get Lost,” the KQED Project features 60 free original video and audio tours containing new information, archival clips, and interviews with historians about the Coit Tower murals and other New Deal art around San Francisco.  Click on the following link to download the app to your phone or ipad:  http://www.kqed.org/w/letsgetlost/index.html

The KQED project was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and produced in partnership with California’s Living New Deal Project and the California Historical Society.

The KQED Coit Tower murals tour puts the painting of the first New Deal-funded murals by 25 working artists in the context of the dynamic and tumultuous time in 1934 when they were created.  The Coit Tower tour features 19 short video and audio clips covering a range of interesting topics such as Women at Work, Hidden Meanings in Murals, and The Monkey Block.  Featured commentators in the Coit Tower tour clips include Dr. Gray Brechin with the Living New Deal Project, San Francisco State Professor Emeritus Robert Cherny, art historian Anthony Lee, and Ruth Gottstein, daughter of Coit Tower artist Bernard Zakheim and publisher of the book “Coit Tower:  Its History and Art.”   

The Attack on Coit Tower video focuses on the reactionary efforts to censor some of the Coit Tower murals, and shows a rare close-up photograph of the mural painted by Clifford Wight that included a hammer and sickle and became the focus of right-wing attacks.  It was eventually was covered-up by workers from the city Park Commission. 

You can view the Attack on Coit Tower video and the entire “Let’s Get Lost” series on YouTube by clicking here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPFKmbpeUR4&list=PL1LaW-AR98H_RUeD7awSu7zB41SiOPmI


While the 25 original Coit Tower mural artists are no longer with us, the vivid description of the scene inside Coit Tower in early 1934 when the murals were created lives on in a number of fascinating oral history transcripts that can be found in the Research Collection of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Otis Oldfield was a prolific painter recruited to lead the small cadre of artists who created the beautiful oil paintings that cover the walls of the central lobby area inside Coit Tower.  While the four Coit Tower oil paintings located in the lobby are likely the most viewed of all of Coit Tower artworks because of their placement near the popular elevator entrance, these artworks have tended to receive the least attention because they are neither frescoes nor as overtly “political” as many of the other murals. 

In this excerpt from an interview with Otis Oldfield at his San Francisco home on May 21, 1965 by Lewis Ferbrache (available on-line here:  http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-otis-oldfield-13601), Oldfield recounted how the Coit Tower oil paintings came together:

MR. OLDFIELD: The thing was, yes, it came up that the Coit Tower came into view.
MR. FERBRACHÉ: That was about January 1934.
MR. OLDFIELD: I don’t remember exactly when I went there, it must have been ’34 because I went to Logan that year to teach in the summer class.
MR. FERBRACHÉ: Logan College [Utah Agricultural College]?
MR. OLDFIELD: Yes, it was. The head artist there [Calvin Fletcher], who wrote me a letter, said he would like to have me come back with him. He had been out here and he looked around and he knew people, but anyhow it was that year. Now there was a meeting at which this Stafford Duncan and Dr. Heil were –
MR. FERBRACHÉ: Charles Stafford Duncan?
MR. OLDFIELD: Charles Stafford Duncan and Dr. Heil were the important ones in this meeting. Now there’s everybody there: Stackpole and all the whole crowd were doing frescoes with Arnautoff and they were set. They had the bottom walls in there, so I –
MR. OLDFIELD: Yes, so I was in the entrance room and outside there was a little waiting room. Upstairs there were others. Rinaldo Cuneo was out there and William Gaw was out there and Moya del Pino was out there, and a few others, and that’s all I had on my mind. And I was called in, I went in there and Dr. Heil asked me if I had anything on my mind. I said, “Yes, I have. How about all these guys are fresco painters. How about we oil painters? What are we going to do?” He said, “You’ve got a good idea there [oil murals].” So they told me, “You take the lobby. Have you got your men?” I said, “Yes, they’re out there.” So I went out there and they were sitting and talking. I said, “Come on in here and don’t say anything but yes.”
MR. FERBRACHÉ: A couple of assistants that you had?
MR. OLDFIELD: No, no, there was Moya del Pino, Rinaldo Cuneo and Gaw. So they went in there and said, “Yes.” And when I got out of there I said, “We got the lobby.” So it happened that Cuneo did two, del Pino did one, I did one, because it happened that Gaw had some work, so that he couldn’t do it at that time. See, he was unable to carry it out, so Cuneo did two murals. And then I finished all the lunettes up there around, over the elevator doors, you know. They’re circular, above the doors, and the doors are cut square and there’s these circles up there, I did seagulls and stuff like that. And we painted it up to suit ourselves.

Unfortunately, the City of San Francisco continues to fail to properly protect and respect Otis Oldfield’s Coit Tower oil painting, allowing the informational plaque that should identify the artist and artwork to go missing and failing to install adequate protective barriers to prevent all of the Coit Tower oil paintings from being leaned on and scratched by visitors waiting for the elevator or accidentally banged by backpacks.  Promises have been made to fix these problems, but nothing has yet been done.

Otis Oldfield’s daughter Jayne Oldfield Blatchly, who along with her sister was painted as a young girl in her father’s Coit Tower mural, described her memory of the scene inside and outside Coit Tower when the murals were created during a time of labor strikes and Great Depression:   

“My father’s mural, for instance, if studied knowingly, reveals to an historian the small boats waiting to be unloaded while the time driven lumber schooners motor away empty because they have dumped their cargo of valuable timber on the edge of the wharf to rot.  Each mural and fresco will be found to contain this sort of historic lesson. 

From the waterfront, where striking stevedores were living in packing boxes at a starvation level, men would venture to our front porch on Telegraph Hill begging for anything to eat.  I remember my mother giving such a man one banana – though she did not have enough for her family – out of extreme pity.  I saw tears fill her eyes as she watched him devour the fruit, skin and all in one or two bites.  During the hours of Bloody Thursday, we could hear the shots and men screaming as the strikers were attacked by the National Guard.  Thank goodness I have not witnessed such hard times since.

By contrast, the environment in and about the Tower was an entirely different matter.  The spirit of camaraderie and respect prevailed.  Being among creative people with a sense of mutual purpose and concern in making good use of their talent was one of the most uplifting experiences of my young life.  Being able to play in the midst of busy professionals, who laughed as they worked long hours, is the best of my memories.”

– from Jayne Oldfield Blatchly remarks at 75th Anniversary Lillie Coit Tower Memorial Celebration, June 1, 2008

As the 80th anniversary of Coit Tower approaches this fall, we must continue to work to respect and protect the generous gift from Lillie Coit and 25 dedicated artists “who laughed as they worked long hours” to create something special and lasting for us all.


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