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Pandemic-Inspired Plywood Murals Exhibited in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- A unique art exhibit was held this weekend in San Francisco with works created at the beginning of the pandemic that offered hope during a time of great fear.

A long line outside San Francisco Pier 70 showed how the art displayed inside struck a nerve with just about everyone.

In March 2020, San Francisco shut down. Plywood covering storefronts gave the city the appearance of apocalypse.

"That was sad. It looked like Armageddon," recalled native San Franciscan Irma Dillard. "I was like, 'Oh my god, there's nothing here.' Everything was gone, everything was shuttered and gone."

Members of the local art community formed a project called "Paint the Void." They raised money to pay out-of-work artists to turn the depressing plywood into images that would give people some hope.

Some of those 150 commissioned murals were displayed at this exhibition called "The City Canvas: A Paint-the-Void Retrospective." Event curator Heather Whitmore Jain said it shows how crucial artists can be during trying times.

"I think that artists proved themselves to be sort of first responders to our emotional health," she said. "I mean, they just, they were out there helping us feel OK at this time."

The murals are as varied as the people who created them. Lady Henze and Brandon Baker worked on one together.

"We were painting kind of alone on the street," Henze said. "But people would pass by, walking their dogs, walking their kids and we would have some interactions, of course with masks on and that was wonderful because, after being inside for so long, sharing it felt wonderful."

Their painting features a woman offering what looks like a bouquet of flowers but look closely and you'll see the flowers are actually skulls surrounding an atomic mushroom cloud. Baker says it's symbolic of how scientific discovery can lead to unanticipated problems.

"I felt like there was a lot of similarities with the advent of nuclear technology and how things were now changing, with masks and health protocols and vaccines and all this sort of stuff that's come since. You know, the beginning of COVID-19," Baker said.

Henze added pink rays emanating from the woman, signifying hope and an optimistic future. Some works were simply beautiful, like a gigantic purple flower. Others a bit more practical -- a roll of toilet paper against a bright yellow background. Then, as the pandemic evolved, the messages became more political, reflecting images of racial unrest and election politics.

Whatever the message, the effect is the same -- to help people think rather than fear. Irma Dillard said she felt like a prisoner to the pandemic until she heard about the mural project.

"So, I started driving around, checking them out," she said. "It really helped me not to feel so claustrophobic within my own city."

"What really comes through to me is that these artists, they really wanted to give back," said curator Jain. "They really wanted to uplift their community."

Mural art is not easily stored so, if artists cannot find buyers soon, many of them will be headed to a landfill. Sunday is the final day of the exhibit -- open at Pier 70 from noon until 6 p.m. Due to COVID restrictions, tickets have all been reserved but organizers say walk-ups may get in if space becomes available.

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