Pandemic-era street art shines in 'The City Canvas,' a new exhibit at Pier 70
Originally painted to bring something gorgeous to the boarded-up windows of Hayes Valley's Chez Maman, artist Nora Bruhn's "Keep Blooming" is among the 49 murals on display at 'The City Canvas.' (Lisa Vortman)

Pandemic-era street art shines in 'The City Canvas,' a new exhibit at Pier 70

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We all remember the early days of the pandemic, back in March of 2020 when the weird term "shelter-in-place" became our way of daily life. Suddenly the busy streets of San Francisco and Oakland and beyond were empty, eerily apocalyptic, as restaurants and shops closed and plywood boards covered windows, which once held alluring views of dinners being served and cool local merch to buy, in order to prevent break-ins and looting.

But slowly something beautiful started happening in SF and in cities like it with creative communities that you just can't keep down. Artists took to the streets to transform those sad plywood facades into canvases for paint. Murals sprang up with a rainbow of colors and messages of hope. Rather than mimicking life, which was happening mostly behind closed doors then, this art aimed to create life in the place of desolation, to return the spirit back to the city.

Nearly two years later, businesses have reopened and the plywood is gone; we can see inside the windows once more. But we can also still see some of these murals, which are starring in a new exhibition. Beginning Saturday, January 22nd, 49 of them will be on display inside Pier 70's newly restored Building 12, at The City Canvas: A Paint the Void Retrospective.


Used as a site for building ships during the two world wars and later as a venue for live shows and events, the rehabilitated industrial building feels like a just-right space to display the large, sometimes massive, murals that are spread throughout. Four of the works hang from the building's exposed rafters; the remaining murals have been reassembled to mirror their original storefront placements.

Messy Beck's "Breathe," painted on the boarded-up storefront of Polk Street's Cheese Plus.(Lisa Vortman)

Each artwork is its own unique look back at life during the deepest parts of the pandemic, some honoring medical field workers, others as voting calls to action, and many that are simply creative expressions intended to offer a bright spot in bleak times.

A member of that last camp is artist Nora Bruhn's "Keep Blooming," a pastel-hued flower mural that covered the boards over Hayes Valley restaurant Chez Maman. Bruhn says she hesitated at first to invest too much time into something she knew would be temporary, but then had a shift in perspective.

"Life is temporary, and if I am not giving it my all, then what am I doing?" Bruhn recalls, saying that she decided to "really going to go for it and give people something gorgeous. I never would have known that this mural would open me up to community in new and meaningful ways, or that I would be riding a wave of floral commissions two years later."

“This exhibition is a celebration of the many artists who became essential workers on the front line of the pandemic,” said Shannon Riley, cofounder and executive director of Paint the Void, the nonprofit that sprang up during Covid-19 to sponsor and facilitate the creation of public art. “Even during the best of times, art in everyday urban spaces uplifts us and enhances our daily lives. During a crisis, it's all the more important to celebrate our shared creativity, humanity, and resilience," she said.

Riley, whose company Building 180 produces large-scale public installations and also acts as management and promotion for local artists, along with her partner Meredith Winner, saw an opportunity to support artists who were not working thanks to the Covid standstill. The women teamed up with the nonprofit Art for Civil Discourse (which is funded by Intersection for the Arts) to launch Paint the Void. The initiative was originally funded with donations from family and friends and through a Facebook fundraiser. Eventually they received city funding and grants.

Beginning with the goal of just 10 murals, the project was an instant success. Soon the team had facilitated the production of 150 murals across San Francisco, as well as some in Oakland and Berkeley. The result: revitalization of temporarily dead neighborhoods.

"It created a community during a time of need," said Riley, pointing out that once heavily trafficked areas had become totally devoid of energy; the boards on windows and doors sending the ominous message to stay away. "We saw an uptick of people walking in these areas when the murals were up," she remembers.

Artist Messy Beck, whose mural "Breathe" for Russian Hill's Cheese Plus shop is on display, was also inspired by the sense of community she found through the Paint the Void Project, which she said proved "that the creative soul of San Francisco is still intact." She was struck especially by the number of people who approached her, eager to share their own stories and talk about how the art made them feel. "If there’s one takeaway from this project, I hope people are reminded that spaces for communal art are valuable and worthy investments," she says, "and that we don’t lose sight of this as rents skyrocket and the city transitions back into a profit machine."

In partnership with the Port of San Francisco, Brookfield Properties' Pier 70 development seems an appropriate venue for The City Canvas. The multi-building waterfront site aims to transform a forgotten swath of Dogpatch to become, by 2030, a true creative hub with an arts center, maker spaces, and events, as well as neighborhood eateries and public parks.

"There is such an incredible power to realizing that all these murals were up all over the city in different neighborhoods and now are all together in one space," said Pier 70's senior creative director Marcy Coburn. "You can really feel all the energy that went into it."

Many of the art pieces will be for sale, including two collaborations ("Birth and Death" and "Sacrament of Science") between Brandon Joseph Baker and Lady Henze that were originally installed at Zeitgeist in the Mission. A portion of the proceeds for these two works will benefit Hospitality House.

// The City Canvas: A Paint the Void Retrospective is open January 22-23 and 27-30. Reserve your free timed entry ($10 donation suggested) at pier70sf.com.

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