By Amy O’Hair
As recently revealed in the Ingleside Light, three of City College of San Francisco’s iconic public artworks are slated for relocation into the new Gateway building complex currently under construction at Ocean Avenue and Frida Kahlo Way. The collection of public art belonging to City College is significant and extensive, and the selection of these three works, spanning 65 years, forms a suitably impressive welcome to any student or visitor, and a visual statement about the importance and history of the college.
Let’s take a closer look at the works and the artists.
Bighorn Mountain Ram
In 1940, in the Art In Action ‘pit’ at the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), Dudley Carter skillfully carved the form of a springing ram into a massive redwood trunk using just a woodsman’s axe.
Nearby, up on scaffolding above the ‘pit’, famed muralist Diego Rivera was also at work, painting the panels of Pan-American Unity, which would also later end up on the college’s campus. Rivera was so impressed by Carter that he made the process of the Ram’s creation and its sculptor the centerpiece of the mural. One Dudley Carter was not enough for Rivera; to show what he so admired, he painted three Carters.
One of the three figures of Carter is standing next to Timothy Pflueger, architect of the first three buildings on the City College Ocean Campus, and the genius behind the idea to have artists working in the Fine Arts Pavilion at the Fair. The War having begun in Europe meant Old World artworks could not travel for display in the Fair.
Yet there was also something important about the act of severing of dependence on European traditions at that point in the history of art in the US. Diego Rivera’s mural itself focused on the Americas, and the emergence of a wholly Pan-American tradition, looking to indigenous forms and ideas, developing on its own course, unshackled from ties to Europe.
Rivera, observing Carter during the time they worked side-by-side, said of him:
“Here in the Fine Arts Building there is a man carving wood. This man was an engineer, an educated and sophisticated man. He lived with the Indians and then he became an artist, and his art for [sic] was like Indian art—only not the same, but a great deal of Indian feeling had passed into him and it came out in his art.
“Now, what he carves is not Indian any more, but his own expression….That is right, that is the way art should be. First the assimilation and then the expression. Only why do the artists of this continent think that they should always assimilate the art of Europe? They should go to the other Americans for their enrichment, because if they copy Europe it will always be something they cannot feel because after all they are not Europeans.”
Dudley Carter began his life in the woods in British Columbia, working in his father’s logging camp as early as age six. During his childhood, he learned to use the tools of the woodsman, the axe and the adze. Later his family moved to Alert Bay, where a Kwakiutl settlement kept their original native traditions, and young Dudley observed indigenous carvers at work on totems.
But he did not emerge as an artist himself until, at age 39, he entered a soap-carving contest sponsored by the Seattle Times. It speaks to his readiness to become an artist that just two years later, he sold his first wood-carved artwork to the Seattle Art Museum. During his sixty-year career, he created a great number of massive wood sculptures, most of which are located in Washington State.
Carter carved the monumental ‘Ram’ in just thirty days, from a single redwood log. He employed three general principles in his work. One, he followed the indigenous tradition of minimizing the amount of wood removed from the log, seen in the ‘Ram’ as the head is the full diameter of the original trunk, and the drawn-in front and back legs are also limited by that circumference. Two, he incorporated interlocked figures drawn from legends and histories. Thirdly, large spaces occurring in figure are filled with smaller figures, rather than being defined by large cuts.
For the ‘Ram’ Carter seems to have stepped away from the last two of his working principles; it is a lone animal, without accompanying smaller creatures. And on the third rule, by suspending that call to minimize large cuts, I would say that the ‘Ram’ gains some of its visual power from the deeply in-cut belly, sloping up toward the enormous head bracketed by the bold curling horns, enhancing the sense of rear legs coiled to spring. (See a range of Dudley Carter’s other works here.)
All Sorts of Indignities
Immediately after the GGIE, Carter donated the ‘Ram’ to the college, because it was—apparently coincidentally—the mascot animal and the name for the football team. Over the decades, it was located in various places outdoors. It became covered in many coats of paint, the object of enthusiastic students boosting their team, as well as the victim of pranksters from opposing colleges before matches. One of the worst insults to its body came in 1960:
“Sam the Ram was made the goat again early today. The staunch old 14-foot totem pole insigne of City College has been subjected to all sorts of indignities since he first took up his guard post opposite Smith Hall on the campus here. He’s been set afire, painted, gouged, humiliated and insulted, but the worst of all was done in the rainy darkness before today’s dawn. Sam was tarred and feathered. Ingleside Station Patrolman John J. Firpo discovered the crude but effective job at 1:55 a. m. He had no idea who did it, but noted in passing that City College meets San Mateo Junior College in football here tomorrow afternoon. Freshman men were assigned the gooey cleanup job.”
By 1983, the layers of paint had thickened to a quarter-inch, and the college was determined to restore the piece. Dudley Carter himself arrived to apply his famous axe to the job of returning the ‘Ram’ to its former naked redwood glory. Although over ninety years old at the time, Carter said:
“I felt a responsibility to come back and store the ‘Ram’ because Diego [Rivera] placed a lot of importance on it in his mural.”
In a couple of months, its original redwood surface was fully revealed, and it had a new place to live, inside Conlan Hall, safe from midnight painting raids. Which is where it resided for the next forty years, until it was recently put in storage in anticipation of the demolition of Conlan and the construction of the new Gateway building.
Here is a rendering of the planned new location inside the Student Success Center, as shown on the Ingleside Light:
Where Stands a Wingéd Sentry
For forty years, a large bronze sculpture of welded plates entitled ‘Sentinels’ stood in the plaza next to Smith Hall, but now awaits a new home outside the Gateway building, presently under construction.
In 1973, just ten years into a career that spanned nearly as many decades as Carter’s, a young metal sculptor named Aristides Demetrios created the nine-and-a-half-foot tall work for City College. He was present for its installation.
On permanent loan from the San Francisco Arts Commission, it was among the ‘second wave’ of artworks slated for the college, part a new relationship with the Commission that had begun the previous year. Demetrios said of the work at the time:
“It represented an ocean of tradition and protection in a pleasing series of shapes.”
Its strong vertical shapes and powerful, uplifting concave surfaces evoke figures standing guard. The word ‘sentinel’ means one who keeps guard, watches over—coming from the same root as the word ‘sentiment,’ to feel.
Demetrios, the son of a classical sculptor, graduated from Harvard and attended his father’s school, the George Demetrios School of Art. He also attended UCS School of Architecture, and served on the San Francisco Arts Commission. Aris Demetrios passed away less than two years ago. Read a more complete biography here.
His public work in metal is typically exuberant and joyful—often monumental in size, but never oppressive in feeling. His work often manages to be substantial and permeable at the same time. In his pieces, light glances off a wide variety of metal surfaces. View a gallery of his public artwork here. Sculptural work by him can be seen in many locations in California, as well as in private houses and collections. One piece, ‘Forms Sung in a Kelp Forest’ (1984), is located at Monterey Bay Aquarium:
In 2010, the SF Arts Commission acknowledged that ‘Sentinels’ was in need of a conservation assessment, as the piece had corrosion in the seams due to trapped water. A few years later it was removed for restoration, and then returned to its former place in August 2017. The restoration included placing it on a new base to prevent corrosion and installing a new plaque that met ADA requirements.
‘Sentinels’ is slated to be located outdoors in front of the Student Success Center, in the planted areas near the corner of Ocean Avenue and Frida Kahlo Way—according to the architects’ rendering, which strangely doesn’t depict the actual Demetrios sculpture, but a similar placeholder (center left in image below).
This Olmec head is an accurate replica of an ancient pre-Columbian work from Veracruz, Mexico. It was created in 2004 by Mexican sculptor Ignacio Perez Solano. An imposing nine feet tall, weighing 14 tons, it is proposed to be relocated from the Frida Kahlo Garden outside the Diego Rivera Theatre to the courtyard of the new Gateway building.
Given to the college in 2004 by the mayor of Veracruz, Miguel Aleman Velazco, it is one of only five heads in the US. It is made of volcanic tuff, sourced from the same location as the original heads by the Olmecs, which date to over 3,000 years ago.
The Olmecs thrived from about 1500 to 400 BCE, at the most southerly point on the Gulf of Mexico, in San Lorenzo. Many archeologists consider it to the first great civilization of Mesoamerica, a ‘mother’ to subsequent cultures such as the Mayans—although some think it was but one of many well-developed early civilizations. The massive Olmec head sculptures are striking, but their ultimate meaning remains mysterious; they may represent kings or leaders.
Some original Olmec heads:
The impetus for the head coming to City College was from Harry Parker, retired director of SF Fine Arts Museums. A real Olmec head from Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa came to the De Young Museum for a visit, and the director at the Xalapa museum offered a replica for the city as well. City College was chosen as the best site for it.
When Governor Aleman came here to dedicate it in 2004, he expressed confidence in placing it here. He said, “You lose your heart in San Francisco, but never the head.”
As Mary Strope noted in the Guardsman, “The school has a history of stewardship of Latin American art,” including the massive Aztec calendar on the Mission Campus building on Valencia.
Or Ball-Player Hero?
There is some thought that Olmec heads may depicts rulers or kings—‘El Rey.’ But an alternate theory has been considered. Notice the replica head is wearing a helmet of sorts.
The Olmecs are thought to be the first to play the Mesoamerican rubber-ball game that was played for centuries by pre-Columbian peoples. In bogs near the Olmec land, rubber balls have been found preserved, dating from this very early period, and rubber trees grow there. We don’t know what the Olmec people called themselves; the name is from a later Aztec word. “The Nahuatl (Aztec) name for these people, Olmecatl, or Olmec in the modern corruption, means ‘rubber people’ or ‘people of the rubber country.’” (Britannica.com)
Perhaps the heads represent heroic ball players wearing protective headgear, making it the first example of sports star worship in the New World.
Or it may have been a way of lionizing admired rulers by showing them as ball-playing heroes. It was, after all, a very rough game, a place to demonstrate courage and determination.
“The Spanish who observed the game reported horrendous injuries to those who played it—deep bruising requiring lancing, broken bones, and even death when a player was hit in the head or by an unprotected bit by the heavy ball.”
For more about Olmec art aside from the monumental head sculptures, this illustrated essay from the Metropolitan Museum is a good start.
A Last Word
There are three other artworks that City College currently has in storage that I believe deserve consideration as many new buildings go up on the Ocean Campus. The important African American artist Sargent Johnson created three bas-reliefs for the original gymnasiums, designed by Timothy Pflueger for the campus in 1940. These works were removed and preserved in 2008, when the old gyms came down before construction of the Wellness Center on Ocean Avenue—a credit to the foresight and extraordinary efforts of Will Maynez, steward of the Rivera mural. Read my post about these works here.
Johnson’s bas-reliefs sculptures, with their bold, playful forms, are worth restoring and relocating, perhaps somewhere in the many new buildings slated for construction in the coming years on City College Ocean Campus.
Photos of the Sargent Johnson works: Will Maynez
Summary of Works
For Further Exploration:
- Take a tour of the public art at City College of San Francisco.
- Read and view more about the Diego Rivera Mural. “Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and the South of on this Continent” (Pan-American Unity). Mural by Diego Rivera. Explore in depth:
- My own quick summary of the public art at City College of San Francisco—although currently the Rivera mural is at SFMOMA; and the Goddess of the Forest is not on view; and the Whales have gone into storage.
- Learn about the Golden Gate International Exposition “Art in Action” program.
- Rare video from the GGIE “Art in Action” program, artists at work.
- More about City College artworks, on Living New Deal.
- Dudley Carter: In 1982 filmmaker Abby Sher made a documentary about Dudley Carter. In 2016 it won an award at the CATE Film Festival in Santa Monica. Watch a trailer.
- More about Olmec culture: On Wikipedia. On National Geographic.
- What is volcanic tuff and why does it have little holes?
- Cravath, Dorothy, 1901-1974; Rivera, Diego, 1886-1957. 1940. Diego Rivera: the story of his mural at the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition. Pamphlet. (Includes interview conducted by Dorothy Puccinelli.) https://archive.org/details/csfcic_000020/page/n1/mode/2up Accessed 4 Oct 2023. ↑
- Boldenweek, Bill, “Taking the Ax to Wooden Ram, a Sculptor Restores his Work,” SF Examiner, 2 Mar 1983; Zane, Maitland, “Old Sculpture to get Facelift from Creator,” SF Examiner, 21 Nov 1986; and Schiewind, Arno P, Roger Baird, and Dale P Kronkright, “Recusing Dudley Carter’s Goddess of the Forest,” Postprints of the Wooden Artifacts Group, 1996. Wooden Artifacts Group, American Institute for Conservation, Washington DC. https://www.wag-aic.org/1996/WAG_96_schniewind.pdf Accessed 01 Oct 2023. ↑
- Schiewind, Arno P, Roger Baird, and Dale P Kronkright, “Recusing Dudley Carter’s Goddess of the Forest,” Postprints of the Wooden Artifacts Group, 1996. Wooden Artifacts Group, American Institute for Conservation, Washington DC. https://www.wag-aic.org/1996/WAG_96_schniewind.pdf Accessed 01 Oct 2023. ↑
- San Francisco News-Call-Bulletin, 6 Oct 1960; this reference comes by way of the SF Historical Photographs Collects at the SF History Center, for this photo, SFPL AAD-7788. ↑
- “Dudley Carter’s ‘The Beast’ get a Festive CCSF Unveiling,” CCSF Guardsman, 20 Nov 1986. ↑
- “’Ocean of Tradition’ in Bronze,” CCSF Guardsman, 24 May 1973. https://archive.org/details/guardsman19721973city/page/n55/mode/2up Accessed 4 Oct 2023. ↑
- Aristides Demetrios (article), Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristides_Demetrios ↑
- John, Quip, “’Sentinels’ Sculpture Returns Home,” CCSF Guardsman, 20 Aug 2017. https://theguardsman.com/sentinels/ ↑
- There is also one in Chicago: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec_Head,_Number_8. And one in Salt Lake City: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec_Head_Replica . ↑
- Noble, John, “Mother Culture, or Only a Sister?” New York Times 15 Mar 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/15/science/mother-culture-or-only-a-sister.html ↑
- Strope, Mary, “Olmec head made out of volcanic rock turns 10,” CCSF Guardsman, 29 Oct 2014. https://theguardsman.com/olmec-head/ ;Also: inaki, “City College SF is steward of Latino public art treasures,” El Tecolote, 24 Mar 2011. https://eltecolote.org/content/en/city-college-sf-is-steward-of-latino-public-art-treasures/ ↑
- Petrus, Monica, “The Brutal and Bloody History of the Mesoamerican Ball Game, Where Sometimes Loss Was Death,” Atlas Obscura, 9 Jan 2014. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/meso-american-baseball Accessed 5 Oct 2023. ↑