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City's mural may go on national tour

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Wednesday January 02, 2002

City’s mural may go on tour 

City’s image of itself may go on national tour 


The mural that some say has become an intrinsic part of Berkeley’s identity may soon be going on tour with the National Gallery of Art as part of a retrospective of one of the country’s leading African American artists. 

The city commissioned New York artist Romare Bearden to create the 10.5 by 16 foot mural in 1972. The large collage can be found in the City Council Chambers immediately behind the dais from which the mayor, vice mayor and councilmembers guide city government. 

The work was commissioned for $16,000, mostly raised by the Civic Arts Commission and is owned by the city as part of its public art collection. 

Beardens’ mural is a collage of enlarged photographs, paintings and drawings. 

“The work represents the Berkeley community,” said Civic Arts Coordinator Mary Ann Merker. “If you look closely you can see the campanile, the Bay, the bridges and images of the people and things that make Berkeley a very unique place.” 

Along with artists Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston and Norman Lewis, Bearden is considered to be among the African American vanguard of Abstract Expressionists in New York during the 1940s and 1950s.  

Bearden, who died in 1988 at the age of 77, is now considered to be among the most important American artists, according to “African American Art, 1998,” a historical art review complied by Sharon S Patton.  

The National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., is in the planning stages of a retrospective of Bearden’s work, tentatively scheduled for 2004. Though the details, are not yet confirmed, the retrospective would likely open at the National Gallery, then travel to two other cities, one of which would be San Francisco. In August, NGA Curator of Modern Prints and Drawings Ruth Fine and three other curators visited the City Council Chambers to inspect the mural.  

Merker said Monday it has not yet been confirmed that the mural will be part of the retrospective, but the curators seemed very interested. 

“They are interested because of the quality of the work and because the painting has become so intertwined with the city’s image and because it is displayed is such a public place where it is viewed by so many people,” Merker said. 

In fact, one particular image in the collage, the profile of four men of different races, was selected to be the city’s logo in 1970s. The image, meant to reflect the city’s diversity, appears on Berkeley’s police and fire vehicles, business cards, pamphlets, Web site and on nearly all of the city’s letterhead. 

According to City Center Coordinator Stephanie Lopez, the image has gained such high esteem as the city’s logo, that one of City Manager Weldon Rucker’s first official actions after being confirmed by the City Council in February, was to enhance the image so the colors are more distinctive. 

Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz said Berkeley “would be very honored if this piece is displayed in Washington DC and other cities.” 

In 1972 Bearden brought his camera to Berkeley and spent many days recording the images he thought best exemplified the city and its inhabitants. 

“He incorporated the photos into his work and he was really quite successful in capturing the essence of Berkeley,” said Civic Arts Commissioner Brenda Prager. “It’s a very important piece. It’s the second largest work that Bearden ever did.” The fact that he’s an important African American artist is also significant, she said.  

Bearden first attended New York University with the intent of becoming a doctor. He received a degree in science in 1936 but later studied at the New York Arts Student League where he found his true calling. 

In 1963 Bearden co-founded the Spiral Group, African American artists who limited the colors in their works to only black and white as a symbol of racial conflict. 

Mayor Shirley Dean said the mural is an excellent representation of the city’s diversity although she does find one thing missing. 

“My only concern is that there could be more diversity of gender among the images especially considering the gender make up of the council that sits in front of it,” she said referring to the fact that eight of city’s nine councilmembers are women.