SF Chronicle: Muralist’s daughter tells story of art in Coit Tower

San Francisco Chronicle

Recalling the creation of Coit Tower’s murals

Erin Allday — Monday, March 5, 2012

In the corner of a 100-square-foot mural painted on a wall of Coit Tower, Ruth Gottstein is forever memorialized.

Just 12 years old in the painting, she has a short, pageboy haircut, and soft, thoughtful eyes. She’s clutching a notebook, and wearing a blue skirt and a sailor-style blouse.

“I never wore a blouse like that,” said Gottstein, now 89. “I don’t know what my father was thinking.”

Gottstein’s father, Bernard Zakheim, was one of 26 artists who painted the 27 Great Depression-era murals inside Coit Tower. Zakheim’s mural, called “Library,” features men and women reading books and newspapers, many of them blasting headlines about union strife and public discord from the times.

On Sunday, Gottstein spoke before a crowd of 75 people about her memories of watching her father and the other artists at work in 1934, when the murals were painted with money from the federal Public Works of Art Project. Zakheim earned $619 for his mural, which took almost four months to paint.

Gottstein recalled the smell of wet plaster – the murals were mostly done in a fresco style, on plaster made fresh every day – and watching the man in charge of the colors crush pigments by hand.

Many of the murals were politically controversial. In Zakheim’s painting, a man reaches for a copy of Marx’s “Das Kapital.” Zakheim was asked repeatedly to remove the title, but he refused and the mural remains as he painted it.

Still, Gottstein recalled that the artists worked “harmoniously,” and even as a girl she recognized the positive energy in the tower rooms.

“It’s really a very small space,” Gottstein said. “When you think of the scaffolding and the artists and their assistants working in there all at once, it was amazing.”

Gottstein was speaking as part of the second annual San Francisco History Expo, held all weekend at the Old Mint. She discussed each of the tower’s murals, and the meaning and history behind both the artists and the paintings.

She also talked about her frustration at seeing the murals in various states of disrepair now – the paint and plaster chipped away in places, some murals water-damaged and faded. Several are located along the tower’s curving inner staircase, which has long been closed to the public. Those murals can only be seen twice a week on a special tour.

A committee created to help restore the murals has collected enough signatures to put a measure on the June 5 ballot. The measure would “prioritize” money collected from visitors to Coit Tower to go toward maintaining the tower and protecting the murals. Neither the Arts Commission nor the Recreation and Park Department support the measure, which both agencies say is overly restrictive.

“Many people don’t know what they’re looking at when they see the murals,” said Jon Golinger, who heads the Protect Coit Tower committee. “The way the city’s treated Coit Tower to date, it’s almost an afterthought, even though it’s so prominent.”

Read the full story:  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/04/BA9N1NG106.DTL

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