Coit Tower Artists Essay

"Artists are like the great political leaders.  They tend to reject their own class, they attend to the imperative of the now, the problem at hand, and the establishment abhors them, designating their behavior treason."
From “The Novel", by James Michener

Who Were The 25 Artists Who Painted The Coit Tower Murals?

by Ruth Gottstein

They were artists…first and foremost. Not politicians, not intellectuals, not economists. They came from vastly different backgrounds. 

Against the backdrop of the Great Depression in 1934, with a general strike actually taking place in San Francisco at that time, the artists were able to view San Francisco and California through a prism of burgeoning optimism.

They painted in fresco--an ancient technique which required a day's worth of plaster and was applied each morning. The same specially ground earth pigments were used by all, creating a harmonic sense of continuity--although each artist's work was unique.

The artists’ work vividly reflected the contrast of the rich and poor, the incredible advances taking place in the fields of electricity, shipping, agriculture, meat packing, education, banking, surveying, iron workers alongside cowboys. Via their murals, this eclectic group of artists was able to capture the rich tapestry of an emerging California in the 1930s. This was their San Francisco and their California--their hopes for a positive future for many generations to come.

Crowded together into that tiny, circular space within the Tower were scaffolds and the physical presence of each of their assistants.  In spite of these handicaps, their task was completed in a short time--a matter of weeks. 

I actually saw these artists at work because I often visited my father, Bernard Zakheim, while he worked on his mural, "The Library". He portrayed me in the lower left corner in a blue and white sailor blouse, at age 12.

I vividly recall the smell of the wet plaster, and the harmonic energy of the activities. Jon Langdon, the son of the artist Gordon Langdon, also recalls that the barn depicted in his father's mural, “California Agricultural Industry” was located on the family property, 7000 acres owned by his grandfather near Pt. Reyes Station.

The Coit Tower murals are an incredible gift to the people of San Francisco and its international visitors. At virtually no cost to the City, the Tower was built with a bequest from Lilly Hitchcock Coit and placed on land already owned by the City and historically managed by the Department of Recreation and Parks. The murals were totally free—funded by the Federal Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). 

Beyond this, the gift of murals in Coit Tower conveys to the multitude of visitors from all over the world a unique understanding of what San Francisco was about, and in many ways, still is. 

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Ruth Gottstein is the daughter of Coit Tower artist Bernard Zakheim. Her sister Masha Zakheim is the author of “Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art” : published by Volcano Press (www.volcanopress.com)

 

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