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Mural Honors Maudelle Shirek

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday June 26, 2007

From Maudelle Shirek’s roots in the soil of Jefferson, Ark., to the former vice mayor’s seat on the city hall dais, the legacy of the 96-year-old “conscience of the council” and radical civil rights and human rights activist will live in a mural commissioned by the city and created by local artists Daniel Galvez and Mildred Howard. 

The unveiling will be Wednesday at 1 p.m. outside the council chambers, where the mural will be installed. A reception and program honoring Shirek will follow in the council chambers, located in the building that bears her name: the Maudelle Shirek Building, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

While the mural depicts Shirek’s many facial expressions—contemplative, in the council chambers, determined, while making an anti-war speech in San Francisco, humble, while cooking for seniors, grinning as she poses with Ron Dellums, former congressman and Berkeley city councilmember, now Mayor of Oakland—the art work is not simply portraiture.  

“I was trying to create the essence of all the activities she was involved in,” said Galvez, on Friday in his East Oakland studio, as he put final touches on the creation. Galvez pointed to scenes he had painted showing Shirek’s work creating the New Light Senior Center, her activism getting justice for people living with AIDS and her work at the Cooperative Center Federal Credit Union, where she was the first African American employee.  

“The mural is about who we are. This is Berkeley. It’s not just Maudelle,” said Mike Berkowitz, former aide and longtime friend to Shirek. “It’s what we all stand for. That’s why people love Maudelle. She stands for something—that’s us.” 

The 6-by-11-and-a-half-foot mural has the look of a collage, and is in part a study in the recent history of Bay Area ties through Shirek to a world outside Berkeley. One sees Shirek breaking bread with Fidel Castro and former Mayor Gus Newport and conversing with Rep. Barbara Lee, former South African political prisoner and President Nelson Mandela, activist singer Harry Belafonte and the late civil rights champion Fr. Bill O’Donnell. 

The mural also includes at least three politicos with whom Shirek, a councilmember from 1984 to 2004, often did battle during her tenure on the council—former mayors Shirley Dean and Loni Hancock, and current Mayor Tom Bates. 

Unique to the design of the mural, “the architecture of City Hall [where the mural is to be installed] is integrated into it,” Galvez said. 

Galvez, who will be present at the unveiling, studied painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts and San Francisco State University. His large-scale murals spanning several decades can be found on the exterior and interior spaces throughout the U.S. One of his best-known works is the 63-foot Homage to Malcolm X (1997) at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, where Malcolm was killed. 

Howard, who did much of the artistry on the backdrop of the mural, is out of the country and will not be at the Wednesday event. She received numerous awards including the Anonymous Was a Woman Fellowship; an NEA grant in sculpture; the Eureka Fellowship; a Rockefeller Artists Fellowship to Bellagio, Italy; and a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Traveling Fellowship to Oaxaca, Mexico. Her work is included in the collections of the Oakland Museum, the San Jose Museum of Art and more. 

While Berkowitz said he is pleased that the mural highlights much of Shirek’s life, he said the only regret he has is that the work does not include more of Shirek’s many supporters who pounded the pavement in her two decades of campaigning for office. A committee of friends advised the artist on whom to include in the mural, Berkowitz said.