March 8, 2016

Kaiser mural art: Thriving on a large scale

“The Trieste,” © Anthony Holdsworth, 2015. Digital mural at Kaiser Permanente Mission Bay Medical Offices.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

“Kaiser Permanente’s support of the arts is both visionary and practical. By generating a sense of well-being, the artwork contributes to the main purpose of Kaiser Permanente — the business of keeping people well.”

— Jane Van Cleve, American Craft, June–July 1984

This week the brand-new Kaiser Permanente Mission Bay Medical Offices opened with a splash — including a splash of color from eight huge digitally reproduced murals by Bay Area artist Anthony Holdsworth. Holdsworth was commissioned last year to paint a series of eight iconic San Francisco neighborhoods that represent the cultural and topographical diversity of the city.

The artist’s observations are displayed in adjacent text panels. “The Trieste” on the ninth floor offers this story:

The Caffe Trieste has been a center of intellectual life in North Beach since it opened in 1954. It is famously associated with the Beat poetry movement and the script for The Godfather, which was written in this cafe. I felt that no painting of the Trieste would be complete without including the founder “Papa Gianni,” Giovanni Giotta, and his friend, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who founded City Lights Books and often frequents the cafe. Both men are in their mid-nineties. Women who posed specifically for this painting are (from left to right) cafe regulars Brigid McCormick, Wanda Chan, and Rose Gomes. Also included is Ida Pantaleo Zoubi, who runs the café.

The 10-foot-tall murals are on permanent display in the reception areas of 8 floors. The original paintings are part of a solo exhibition at the SFMOMA Artists' Gallery at Fort Mason, which continues through March 27.

Detail of wood sculpture panel by Roy Setziol, Kaiser Permanente Salem Medical Office, 1982.
Detail of wood sculpture panel by Roy Setziol, Kaiser Permanente Salem Medical Office, 1982.

But “big picture” vision has always been a hallmark of Henry J. Kaiser and Kaiser Permanente, and these are not the first large visual installations at Kaiser facilities.

In 1982, the new Kaiser Permanente medical office in Salem, Ore., commissioned a “floating fascia” of 84 sculpted 6x6-foot Alaska cedar panels by noted local artist Roy Setziol. The panels graced the entrance area and captured “the significant moments of family and human interactions with medical science.”

These fascia were consistent with the practices in the Northwest service area of supporting the arts. When Bess Kaiser Hospital opened in Portland, Ore., in 1959, artworks by Northwest artists were leased from the Rental Gallery of the Portland Art Museum and hung throughout the hospital. Eventually many of the pieces were purchased, forming the core of a permanent collection and displayed in Kaiser Permanente facilities in Oregon and Washington. This was the origin of Kaiser Permanente's policy of allocating a portion of the construction budget for interior finishing to the purchase of Northwest arts and crafts.

Going even further back, in 1966 architect and designer Henrik Bull commissioned Bay Area artist Emmy Lou Packard (who worked as an illustrator in the Kaiser Richmond shipyards during World War II) to create a huge concrete and mosaic wall-mounted bas relief of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” This was the artistic centerpiece for the Mirabeau Restaurant at Henry J. Kaiser’s flagship Kaiser Center in Oakland, built in 1960. Packard’s son Don Cairns recalls that his mother’s sense of humor came into play when she used glass taxidermy eyes for the creatures — but swapped them out, so the lion had lamb’s eyes, and the lamb… you get it. The device apparently upset some patrons, and they were removed.

Mural, Willys plant, Brisbane, Australia, 1963.
Mural, Willys plant, Brisbane, Australia, 1963.

Henry J. Kaiser owned the Willys Jeep line of vehicles between 1953 and 1970, with manufacturing and assembly plants all over the world. Slides in our archives reveal a fascinating mosaic mural at the plant in Brisbane, Australia, circa 1963. It depicts the various steps in design, casting, manufacturing, and assembly for those iconic and rugged machines. The fate of this mural is unknown.

Art — it does help keep people well. Paint on, and thrive.