Hidden Garden Steps: A Work of Community, Art, and Community Art in Progress

When artist/art and mural instructor Angie Crabtree and a few of her Woodside International School students and alums began their Hidden Garden Steps mural here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District  late last week, there was more than art in action. Their work provided the latest physical confirmation that the volunteer-driven effort to create a set of ceramic tiled steps with complementary gardens and at least one wall mural, strengthen the existing sense of community, and create long-term sustainable collaborations in a city known for its sense of vibrantly diverse and collaborative neighborhoods was bearing fruit.

And spending time this afternoon with Crabtree and Itzel, one of the student-muralists, reminded me once again why the entire effort to transform that set of steps on 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets was honored with a “Best Community Art—2011” Award in SF Weekly’s 2011 edition of its annual Best of San Francisco issue. Hidden Garden Steps really is, as writer Joe Eskenazi wrote, a project that is “poignant in its sweetness,” and that sweetness was on display while Crabtree, Itzel, and a Woodside alum worked side by side today to continue bringing their colorfully playful mural to life.

Crabtree was first drawn to the project by the sight of its stunningly beautiful predecessor on Moraga between 15th and 16th avenues, just two blocks away from the Hidden Garden Steps: “I was in awe…I wanted to be part of this project,” she recalled.

Itzel—a Woodside high school student who lives in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, is about to begin her junior year at Woodside, and dreams of somebody becoming an obstetrician—initially heard about the project while completing her second year as a Woodside student in Crabtree’s mural class before beginning her summer break.

“I love painting. We did a mural at school last year,” she said during our conversation this afternoon. The chance to work on the Hidden Garden Steps mural was tremendously appealing to her, she added: “When you do creative things, you can express yourself through art…you can draw whatever you want. It reduces your stress. It takes all your problems away.”

And while Crabtree herself is already a working artist whose involvement extends to working through the nonprofit Root Division group dedicated to improving appreciation and access to the visual arts by connecting personal inspiration and community participation, she is also finding unexpectedly exciting opportunities in the Hidden Garden Steps mural.

“This is unusual for me in the Sunset District,” she noted. “The [Woodside] students do murals [including a set of five currently in progress on the Woodside buildings themselves to highlight scenes from various San Francisco neighborhoods], but they have never done a community mural.”

Support for her work has been strong at Woodside, she added. School headmaster John Edwards not only has supported the school’s involvement in the mural project since its inception, but also arranged for funding for the class, the materials needed to complete the mural, and the permit fees required to gain approval for the project through the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Transformation of the site along with marketing and fundraising efforts to complete the project, are continuing in collaboration with project partners from the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program, who have been providing tools and support for monthly onsite clean-up sessions, and the San Francisco Parks Trust, along with an ever-growing of group of financial supporters and volunteers. The Woodside effort will continue on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 1 – 3 pm through the end of July 2011.

For information about supporting or becoming involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project, please visit our website at http://hiddengardensteps.org or write to us at hiddengardensteps@gmail.com,

N.B.: This is the sixth in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Photographs of mural design provided by Gilbert Johnson.

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