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The celebrated poet and novelist Maya Angelou is slated to return to her one-time home of San Francisco as a new monument — part of the city’s plan to close the gender gap between public art representing historical men and women.
Angelou may not be traditionally associated with the Northern California city, but the late writer and civil rights activist had strong ties to the metropolis. She attended Washington High School, worshipped at Glide Church, and became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar conductor.
In 2018, San Francisco’s board of supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance demanding the city’s representation of historical women in public art reach at least 30 percent. The rule, which took more than a year to pass through the city’s legislative body, follows similar attempts by cities across the United States to rectify the gender gap in public art. However, the situation in the Northern California city is particularly dire — only two of the city’s 87 public statues represent real women, or roughly 2 percent. (By comparison, New York City’s statuary is 3 percent female, but a $10 million initiative is looking to tip the balance with more monuments to women.) And only one female statue in San Francisco is outdoors. That’s a sculpture of Florence Nightingale near Laguna Honda Hospital. The other, a bust of Senator Dianne Feinstein, sits in City Hall by her former mayor’s office in Room 200.
After the city’s Arts Commission released a call for applications in November, they received more than 100 submissions. From those, a selection panel shortlisted 13 artists and ultimately chose three finalists whose proposals went on display at the Main Branch Library. The winner will be announced on August 9 with an official choice exactly one month later. The statue is slated for installation by December 31, 2020. (As Heather Knight observed for the San Francisco Chronicle, the whole process will have taken three-and-a-half years, nearly as long as the four years it took to build the Golden Gate Bridge.)
The statue has an estimated cost of about $400,000; the city is footing most of the bill alongside some private donations. By comparison, similar public art efforts in New York carry a million-plus price tag.
The three proposals come from Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Jules Arthur, and Lava Thomas.
Hinkle is a 32-year-old assistant professor of painting at UC Berkeley. Her proposed “The 3 Mayas” statue is seven feet tall and three-sided. The statue includes three versions of the I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings author from different stages in her life: a little girl carrying a book, a teenager in her streetcar uniform, and a middle-aged woman holding a copy of her aforementioned book. The figures will be lovingly depicted in a colorful mosaic.
Recalling a speech given by the author’s son, Guy Johnson, Hinkle told the San Francisco Chronicle, “He said that his mother would not stand for any injustice being carried out in her presence — she would never turn her back to injustice.” She continued, “You will never see the back of this monument. You will always have a version of Maya looking at you.”
Arthur actually lives in New York City. The 48-year-old artist proposed “The Gift of Literature,” a large granite wall with a quote from Angelou about the importance of reading.
“Maya Angelou was an exceptional human being — a vessel of goodness that we can all learn from,” he told Chronicle. “To create a work of art to commemorate that and honor her was just the stuff that I want my art to be about.”
The bronze statue features Angelou as a young girl standing with one leg atop a birdcage and a stack of books. One arm and one leg are outstretched as if the young author is about to take flight while her nose is buried in a book held by the other hand. On the other side of the granite is an older Angelou, typing and gazing at her younger self in reflection.
“I want my monument to … convey Dr. Angelou’s towering achievements her intelligence, her wisdom, and to emphasize her insistence on our shared humanity,” said Thomas, whose work would depict Angelou’s face on a large bronze book, “especially in this climate of increased racial hostility and polarization.”
Her artwork would also include a quote by the author: “If one has courage, nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”
The Arts Commission is planning on releasing more plans for the future of San Francisco’s female public art after taking more time to reflect on public input.