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Neglected Treasures 

A famed Mexican artist painted six murals for the 1939 World's Fair in S.F. One famously disappeared. The others have practically been ignored.

Wednesday, Jan 16 2008
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Covarrubias' lifelong fascination with anthropology was more than an avocation. For instance, his study of iconography led him to determine that the Olmecs preceded the so-called Classic Era in Mexico (200-900 A.D.), long before archaeologists arrived at the same conclusion. In turn, admirers say, Covarrubias' interest in other cultures (he wrote about African Americans, the Balinese, and pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico) play out vividly in his modernist murals, easel paintings, sketches, and illustrations.

María Elena Rico Covarrubias, who was a teenager when her uncle moved from Tizapan after the breakup of his marriage to her family's Mexico City compound, says he rarely slept and "left the light on in his apartment until daybreak, working day and night" near the end of his life. "He always smiled despite the ulcer that was killing him," she recalls. "Seeing and hearing him left me feeling calm."

Despite being a repository of stories from Cowan about her life with Covarrubias (including her bitterness over his leaving her for another woman), Williams says she had no intention of writing a biography until after she moved to the Bay Area in the mid-'80s and married for a second time (to San Francisco attorney Tom Williams), when friends prevailed upon her to do so.

By then, Covarrubias' work had begun to enjoy a resurgence of popularity, not only in Mexico and the United States, but also in Asia, where his evocative depictions of the Balinese were snatched up by collectors in Singapore and elsewhere.

Yet, in San Francisco, there remained the "appreciation gap," Williams says. And with the murals' status as curatorial orphans looming once again, she says, "that certainly hasn't changed."

The recent fuss in Mexico over the murals makes their history of neglect in San Francisco all the more extraordinary. "People here clearly haven't appreciated what they had," says art collector Bob Marcus, a retired aluminum company executive, who has admired the paintings since moving to the city in the early 1970s.

From the time they were installed at the Ferry Building in 1959 until their removal in 2001, the murals received little if any maintenance, observers say. "They were gray and dirty with years of grime, and splattered with God knows what," says San Francisco caricaturist Zach Trenholm, a huge Covarrubias fan who has the artist's self-portrait tattooed on his left arm. "It was really kind of pathetic."

Williams says she was just as appalled by the institutional apathy she encountered in the mid-'90s upon starting a campaign to rescue the paintings. Talk of renovating the Ferry Building had surfaced, and the time seemed right to push for finding the murals a new home.

Her appeals to then-Mayor Willie Brown and the Arts Commission, the agency charged with championing public art in the city, went nowhere, she says. Through her and Rivera Marín's efforts, a team of Mexican government art restorers wrote to the commission, offering to come to San Francisco at their own expense to consult on how best to restore the paintings. The letter went unanswered, Williams says.

But a bigger indignity occurred in 2001, after the work of renovating the Ferry Building had already begun, with the murals — uncovered and unprotected — still on the walls.

"To me, that was simply unconscionable," says Williams, recalling the swirling dirt and dust the day she visited. She and Rivera Marín voiced their displeasure in front of TV news cameras. The story didn't play well, especially in Mexico, where news of the artwork's treatment was perceived as a cultural affront. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors took up the matter in a special hearing. Although insisting that the murals were unharmed, red-faced officials of the Port of San Francisco, which operates the Ferry Building, scurried to have them taken down and placed in storage.

"Unfortunately, during all the years [at the Ferry Building], the [murals] were treated more as wall decoration than as art," says art appraiser George Belcher, who in 2004 appraised the five murals as worth $1 million apiece. "That was then, and that was being very conservative."

As is the situation now, officials didn't seem to know what to do with the murals once they were removed. Although they were technically part of the Arts Commission's inventory, there was no place to put them and no money to restore them. Since Covarrubias produced them on Treasure Island for the 1939 World's Fair, someone suggested sending the paintings to the island, where there was plenty of storage space at the abandoned naval air station. As a consequence, curatorial responsibility fell to the Treasure Island Development Authority.

Wrapped in plastic, the soiled and deteriorated paintings were leaned against a wall inside a building secured and maintained by the Navy, next to a hodgepodge of mothballed artifacts from the defunct Treasure Island Museum.

They might still be there collecting dust, if it weren't for attorney Philip Hudner.

In 1939, Hudner was a third-grader living on a ranch near the Central Valley town of Hollister when he visited the fair on a school trip. He was instantly smitten with the anthropological maps, he says: "There was something about those murals and the enormity of them that just captivated me. I couldn't take my eyes off them."

Like many other people, he'd seen the five surviving murals over the years at the Ferry Building, not far from his Montgomery Street law office. But it wasn't until the building reopened after renovation — minus the murals — that he learned their future was in jeopardy. Hudner was uniquely positioned to play a role in the murals' rescue: He is the head of the Field Fund, a trust established by philanthropic San Francisco couple Charles D. and Frances Field that funds a wide range of charitable endeavors.

Courtesy of the foundation, Hudner made available more than $150,000 to pay for the murals' restoration. After prodding by Williams and others, the Mexican consulate made overtures to the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom. The result: The murals were shipped to Mexico City to be cleaned and restored under the auspices of the Fine Arts Museums, and the Treasure Island Development Authority agreed to the exhibition loans.

About The Author

Ron Russell

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