A black nurse saved lives. Today she may save art.
By Carol Pogash
In June, Laura Voisin George, a graduate student, was writing a scholarly article about a series of Works Progress Administration frescoes at the University of California, San Francisco.
The 10 panels of “History of Medicine in California,” completed in 1938 by Bernard Zakheim, a Polish-born muralist, show such scenes as Native Americans offering herbs to doctors and a trapper inoculating someone with the smallpox vaccine.
Voisin George recognized a central figure in one of the vivid social realist tableaus. Biddy Mason, a Black nurse, is depicted alongside a white doctor as they treat a malaria patient. Mason, a woman who was born into slavery in 1818, went on to become a midwife, a nurse, a philanthropist and a founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
Voisin George, who studies history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, learned that the frescoes were about to be destroyed while she was researching. The Jewish News of Northern California reported the news. Her reaction, she said, was: “What? How could this be?”
The university had announced plans to demolish the building to make way for a state-of-the-art research center. It had informed Zakheim’s son Nathan that if his family didn’t retrieve the frescoes, which weigh as much as 2,500 pounds, they would be destroyed.
Until Voisin George identified Mason, neither the artist’s family nor university officials knew about her presence in the frescoes. As news outlets have reported this discovery, Mason has become a star of the murals and their potential savior. An assertion by the federal government that it owns the frescoes has further complicated matters.
Adam Gottstein, the artist’s grandson, said that the university’s placing responsibility on the family to save the artwork “boiled my blood.” It showed a “complete lack of respect and concern for historical art.” Mason’s presence, he said, “adds considerable pressure to UCSF to do the right thing.”
The frescoes were part of the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which hired unemployed artists. Since their creation, the Zakheim murals have been praised, criticized and painted over because a professor said they distracted medical students attending lectures in the auditorium where they are on display. Because of concerns about earthquakes, that auditorium is no longer used.
In 2015, Polina Ilieva, UCSF’s archivist, wrote that the murals “remain the jewel of the university’s art collection.”
Bernard Zakheim was “one of the most prominent artists in Northern California with a national reputation,” said Robert Cherny, a history professor retired from San Francisco State and an expert on New Deal art. “These murals are his largest work,” he said. Zakheim, who also created other Depression-era murals for the project, died in 1985.
Nathan Zakheim, the artist’s son, an art conservator who in 1976 restored the murals, said he was shocked when he and other heirs received a letter from UCSF’s lawyers, dated June 4, giving them 90 days to produce a plan to remove the murals. If they failed to respond, the letter said, the university would “presume” it had their consent “to proceed with destruction.”
Nathan Zakheim told the university he could move the murals for less than $1 million. There was one hitch: The family lacked the funds.
But the university said it would not spend public money on the move because money was tight during the pandemic. It described the murals as “fragile,” even though an analysis by Page & Turnbull, a historic preservation architecture firm the university hired, said they were “structurally sound.”
Then, June 18, the university received a letter from the General Services Administration stating that “ownership of the murals resides with GSA, on behalf of the United States.” The federal agency wanted the murals to be preserved.
“We were surprised when the GSA said, ‘We assert an ownership interest,’” said Brian Newman, UCSF’s vice chancellor for real estate. The university said it rejects the GSA’s ownership claim.
Putting further pressure on the university, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed piece July 10 that was based in part on Voisin George’s research. Its headline read: “A monument to California’s Black history — and a great work of art — may soon be destroyed.”
Cheryl and Robynn Cox, sisters who are descendants of Biddy Mason, grew up knowing that their famous ancestor was painted on the frescoes, as had their mother and grandparents. She also was the subject of a 2015 young adult book illustrated with the mural.
Both women assumed the murals would always be available to the public, until they read the reports about plans to destroy them.
“It’s interesting, if you look through the lens of race and gender, this extraordinary Black woman and former slave is bringing attention to the destruction of these murals, but no one personally reached out to us,” said Robynn Cox, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern California.
The Cox sisters said they recently met over Zoom with UCSF officials, including a meeting Monday attended by the chancellor, Sam Hawgood.
Last week, the school announced it was seeking bids to remove the 10 frescoes and place them in storage, at a price not to exceed $1.8 million. “We are hoping we can come up with a viable plan for the murals to preserve them,” Newman, the vice chancellor, said.
The federal government response, in an email from Pamela Pennington, a GSA press secretary, said: “Until a new location for the murals is determined, their removal, preservation and storage by UCSF is supported by GSA.”
But the descendants of the artist and the famous nurse want the art to be seen.
Gottstein said, “If they are in storage and never see the light of day, then we will have lost, after all.”