By Christine Joy Ferrer
Blanca Gotchez Melara remembers it well. The potent fragrance of basil, black melons and geraniums adorning Nativity dioramas in her hometown of Santa Ana, El Salvador.
The Nacimientos or Nativities were never just Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus but a more elaborate arrangement of clay, wax, wood, metal, fabric, and beads depicting the Christ birth. The main focus was the replication of a whole town with three-dimensional illustrations from one’s daily life in a variety of scales, symbolizing one’s connection to one’s environment relative to the Nativity. The dioramas could include, among the biblical scenes, figurines of women making tortillas, farmers milking cows, vegetable merchants, even waterfalls.
One day, the fresh scent of basil leaves in her garden made Blanca relive those memories. So, with the help of her son Oscar Melara and Kate Connell, cofounders of the Moving Art House, Blanca set about building a Nacimiento at their house in the Portola, integrating her own life story. She began shaping her life story—her work as a teacher and the move from her village to California—with clay figures, along with scenes of the three kings and their steeds. She even crocheted a diaper for the Baby Jesus.
Blanca’s project started in 1996 but even after she passed away, Connell and Melara kept the tradition alive by inviting friends to come over and create their self-portraits and other scenes in clay every year until 2006. They created simulations of a skyline at sunset with pink and yellow lights and cotton balls for clouds and angels. Angels hung above Blanca’s memorial. Blue lights and tons of fabric set the backdrop with a few animals and many candles. To date, Melara and Connell have collected over 300 of these creations in clay in boxes stacked to the ceiling in their closet.
This is how Connell and Melara’s living art union and cultural community work began.
The Moving Art House
It’s a mobile cultural space featuring dynamic programming that represents Southeast San Francisco and its multicultural working-class neighborhoods. Launched in July 2015, it’s a space where the community can see each other’s cultural and creative works and connect with one another. The original exhibition ran from December 4, 2015 to March 31, 2016 at the Portola Public Library as a public art project by Connell and Melara (Book and Wheel Works) in collaboration with Richard Talavera and the Mexican Bus. Photographer Sibila Savage documents the Moving Art House and fills its exhibition panels with her images.
“Our neighborhood is just so rich and really undocumented,” says Connell. “Our goal is to establish a cultural identity and a neighborhood visual vocabulary that appeals to everybody. We welcomed as many people that were willing to be involved in vetting [Moving Art House]. But it’s not about isolating and or making our neighborhood ‘precious.’ We want to foster conversations about commonalities in this historically working-class part of the city and build our resilience. There are many different parts of our common culture that we need to identify, protect, strengthen and then see ourselves, so we can be in dialogue with it.”
The Portola Public Library is at the heart of the neighborhood’s cultural life. Throughout the year, Book and Wheel gave out booklets at the library acknowledging different aspects of the Portola and its history. One graphic novel told the story of two women growing up in the neighborhood 50 years apart: Bonnie, in the 1940s, and Shirley who is now in her 20s. Shirley’s parents were both from China, but met in Hawaii. Her family owned a liquor store in the Richmond district where, sadly, her father was shot.
Melara and Connell, both from San Francisco, have lived and thrived in the Portola district for about 20 years and have been creatively investing their hearts and souls in this community. They are, in a sense, real life superheroes serving their city. It may not be Central City, Star City or Gotham… but southeast San Francisco is their Metropolis. But unlike comic book superheroes, they give their community tools to save themselves by facilitating artistic neighborhood projects to engage and activate the community.
On the 5.5 Mile Road House tour aboard The Mexican Bus (bookandwheel.org/moving-art-house/5-5-mile-road-house/), which took place on September 19, 2015, parent advocate Mildred Coffey and Yensing Sihapanya, associate director of Portola Family Connections, and some other speakers, explained: “Southeast San Francisco is filled with innovation and creativity. An equal distribution of educational and arts activities are necessary for southeast San Francisco to reach its full potential.”
Moving Art House has brought together dozens of artists from the Bayview to the Excelsior, from Bernal Heights to Ingleside and the Portola—musicians, composers, poets, and visual and performing artists—to create new work that’s presented on The Mexican Bus, at sites in the Portola District.
“We performed for 30 minutes at the Portola Public Library… a multicultural performance reflecting the diversity of the neighborhood, by and for fellow artists, poets, photographers, and kids from the Portola,” said Saichi Kawahara, leader and founder of the Kapalakiko Hawaiian Band, about their Moving Art House project. “Through stories, mele and hula, we were able to touch and warm the hearts of the many people gathered there that evening. We even received several requests for ukulele lessons. It’s really nice to perform our schtick in fine concert halls and venues, but I prefer to perform here because this is where the most exciting musical action is located.”
For this project, collaborators from southeast neighborhoods worked together to build a united, vibrant cultural life experience for their communities. In response, hundreds of neighborhood residents and other San Franciscans took part in its growth, learned about the history of the Portola and enjoyed living culture at three Moving Art House events:
(1) Book Mo/Biblio Guagua block party with the Portola Public Library; (2) Nite Life with El Toro Night Club on San Bruno Avenue; and (3) 5.5 Mile Road House which traveled to vistas high in McLaren Park.
A Rich History Brought to Life
Each event presented historical knowledge through games and generated diverse exchanges and cultural immersions that harnessed community solidary and creativity.
Book Mo/Biblio Guagua was inspired in part by Biblioburro, a mobile library on the back of a burro led by his owner, teacher Luis Soriano, to children living in the remote hills of Colombia. Participants each received their own “design your own adventure” copy of the Book Mo Book, a silkscreened book that could be personalized with text or drawings. On the Mexican Bus, you could play Portola Cootie Catcher, read handmade books about the neighborhood and build live stories. Visitors calligraphed Chinese poetry in sand. Las Hermanas Pena-Govea played and sang. Dr. Jose Cuellar blessed the day with a five directions benediction. Food from La Placita, Fancy Wheatfields Bakery and Ling Ling Restaurant filled bellies.
“It was wonderful to see young and old alike thoroughly engaged and fascinated by all the activities—calligraphy, bookmaking, printing, music, poetry, art, guagua, story-telling—something for everyone in the community,” said Elena Andrade, a participant. “[Connell and Melara] thought of everything. So much thought, heart, imagination, and collaboration.”
Nite Life celebrated Southeast San Francisco and El Toro Night Club’s 80 years of musical history. The sounds of the ukulele, guzheng, accordion, mandolin, sax, bass, and flute resonated from the stage. On board The Mexican Bus, you learned about the musical history of the Portola District—live Klezmer in the 1920s, to Maltese music in the 1930s, to recorded music by Frank Sinatra and Perry Como in the 1940s and ‘50s, to Latin Rock in the 1970s, to present day Banda music. Book and Wheel Works created a five-panel mural on canvas window shades and a game that reflected this musical history. Of course, music by Banda Universal, El Toro’s house band, and dancing filled the bill. Dr. Loco and La Familia Pena-Govea played “Adios Angelito” to honor Alex Nieto who was shot by the police in Bernal Heights in 2014.
San Francisco’s Hop-On Hop-off bus tours may have the most comprehensive coverage of popular tourist areas like the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, but they are woefully lacking when it comes to presenting San Francisco’s historical and cultural context.
5.5 Mile Road House Tour
We boarded the green Mexican bus, the “Iguana,” near McNab Lake for the 5.5 Mile Road House Tour, hitting various vistas in McLaren Park of interest to artists. McLaren Park was the site of the incredible San Francisco Artist’s Soapbox Derby in 1975. On board the bus, rounds of Porto-Loteria, a game designed by Book and Wheel Works, were led in Spanish, English and Mandarin. Porto-Loteria images depicting the Portola, its history, community heroes, flora and fauna, and cultural traditions were lined above each window of the bus.
We travelled past Alemany Island up to the La Grande Water Tower. Although I’ve lived in San Francisco most of my life—specifically Southeast San Francisco—I had never been to this place. As I meditated on the cityscape from La Grande Water Tower, I saw the Ingleside/Lakeview district where I grew up. I realized that I had only travelled between points A and B within a 5-mile radius in all those years and that opportunities like Moving Art House can expand our boundaries and bring awareness to the undocumented areas that truly breathe life and bring a rich culture into all of San Francisco. Without these communities, there would be no cultural foundation to San Francisco. Later that day, I shared my experience of working on creative projects in the Excelsior/Ingleside district and heard about other people’s projects in Visitacion Valley and Bayview Hunter’s Point.
The Moving Art House is Book and Wheel Works’ third public art project in the Portola and it grew out of the other two. The first, Portola at Play (2009), was a collaboration with filmmaker Gustavo Vazquez and musician and composer John Calloway. The second was Crossing the Street (2010), an artists’ book reference collection for the Portola Branch Library. Book and Wheel were also commissioned to do a project in Havana, Cuba, for which they designed a map showing the organic farms in the neighborhoods around Havana. It could be folded into a book, and posed questions like, “What would you preserve for the future?”
Connell and Melara’s Porto-Loteria was made for Portola at Play and eventually served as the base design for the panels created by Portolans for Alemany Island, a mural site at the gateway into the Portola district. Forty-four households, three classrooms and one firehouse were involved in painting the Alemany Island panels. People in the community personalized the murals they created, made suggestions about how the game should be played and decided on all the images, how they should represent the neighborhood.
“People were insistent, ‘No possums, only skunk,’” Connell remembered, laughing.
In an art room of her home, Connell organized a chronological masterpiece, documenting some of Book and Wheels projects over the years for me to see. My favorite piece was called Looking Up: Portola Skies, digitally printed on silk. Each page of the book depicted a San Francisco skyline layered one on top of the other. With just the right amount of sunlight, you could see through them all. Some pages had inspirational quotes in Chinese, Spanish and English.
I left the room asking myself: How do I continue to help sustain our evolving city?
“It’s not just about the Portola. It’s about communicating our shared heritage in San Francisco and protecting our place. Making our nutrients so rich, they can’t afford to take it away,” says Connell. ♦
Kate Connell (Book) and Oscar Melara (Wheel), collaborating as Book and Wheel Works, map edge neighborhoods—especially their own Portola District—document working people’s lives, make murals and produce collaborative cultural events. They create intimate libraries, often of artists, and books for public use. Their handmade games engage fellow urbanites with humor and play in order to discuss the possibilities inherent in our shared environments. Connell is a librarian who worked for many years at the Galeria de la Raza. Melara co-founded La Raza Silkscreen Center and served as a driver on public buses. They have collaborated for more than 20 years, twice receiving the Creative Work Fund and participating as invited artists in the 11th Havana Biennial. Christine Joy Ferrer is the designer and web producer for Reimagine!, contributing editor to RP&E, and founder of EO MVMNT, Media + Design, eomvmnt.org.