Women and the Art of Treasure Island

“I am quite open and unashamed in my liking for expositions—“
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, opening broadcast for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, February 18, 1939

Postcard, Treasure Island, 1939, Golden Gate International Exposition at Night

Postcard, Treasure Island, 1939
Golden Gate International Exposition at Night

Thanks to FDR, at least six of the American expositions of the 1930s received generous federal funding. The Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), 1939-1940, was originally to be a celebration of the recently completed Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges. As plans progressed, the idea grew to encompass the countries and cultures of the Pacific—with San Francisco as the gateway.

The WPA and PWA paid to build the site in San Francisco Bay that became Treasure Island, as well as its three permanent Art Moderne airport buildings. The island was publicized as the site for a world’s fair (temporary) and an airport (permanent). But GGIE president Leland Cutler wrote that President Roosevelt “was intensely interested in both airport and a national defense site on San Francisco Bay.” In spite of public outcry, it was really no surprise when the Navy seized Treasure Island in 1942 for the war effort.

Treasure Island Map. The map appeared in the guidebook to the fair 1939

Treasure Island Map
The map of the fairgrounds was the work of a woman artist, Ruth Taylor White.
Photo Credit: Wikicommons

Thankfully, the WPA funded art as well as artillery, and the federal government funded many art programs, particularly in the Federal Building and in the Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts. The GGIE was also progressive in its employment of women artists. Of the thirteen local artists commissioned to convey the fair’s theme in the “Court of Pacifica,” more than half were women: Adaline Kent, Helen Phillips, Ruth Cravath, and Cecilia Graham each created three of the twenty “Pacific Unity” sculptures, and the Bruton sisters—Helen, Esther and Margaret—created the huge “Peacemakers” relief mural.

Lulu Hawkins Braghetta designed the GGIE’s giant relief “Path of Darkness” in the Temple Compound, and Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli painted the four “First Garden” murals in the South Towers. Six sculptures can be seen today at the entrance to the Treasure Island Museum in Building One, including two of Helen Phillips’s “Pacific Unity” sculptures.

Art in Action

Art in Action
Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940
Photo Credit: Herbert "Bud" Stewart, collection of Treasure Island Museum

As vice-chair of the Art Committee in 1940, architect Timothy Pflueger was in charge of all of the activities and exhibits that filled the massive Hall of Fine and Decorative Arts. His big success in 1940 was “Art in Action,” a “theater of the arts” where visitors could observe and interact with artists at work. With Helen Bruton as manager, the program included at least 50 local artists—painters, lithographers, sculptors, and weavers among them.

Most celebrated among these artists was Diego Rivera, who arrived from Mexico to paint his third and largest San Francisco fresco, “Pan American Unity.” Riviera’s colorful 22 x 75-foot mural required an army of assistants, including painters, plasterers, pigment grinders, and a cook. Largely overlooked are Rivera’s painting assistants, several of whom were women. Ely de Vescovi, Thelma Johnson Streat, and Mine Okubo were artists in their own right. Rivera’s chief assistant was Emmy Lou Packard, who met Rivera on a family trip to Mexico and developed a lifelong association with him.

Court of Pacifica

Court of Pacifica
Many sculptures here were created by the GGIE’s women artists

World War II interrupted plans to install “Pan American Unity” at a new library planned for City College. The mural spent decades in storage. It was finally installed at the college’s Little Theater, a space much too small for it. A new performing arts center planned for the campus will provide a more suitable venue. In the meantime, the mural will move to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective in 2020.

Treasure Island no longer belongs to the Navy. The city is developing it into “San Francisco’s Newest Neighborhood.”

View a 1939 newsreel about the “Pageant of the Pacific”.

The Golden Gate International Exposition celebrates its 80th anniversary in February of 2019. Please visit https://www.treasureislandmuseum.org/ for information about upcoming events.

The Peacemakers, Court of Pacifica

The Peacemakers, Court of Pacifica
GGIE relief mural by sisters Helen, Margaret, and Esther Bruton, is 144 feet long by 57 feet in height.
Photo courtesy: Treasure Island Museum

“Flutist,” by Helen Phillips

“Flutist,” by Helen Phillips
One of six restored GGIE statues that have been relocated to Building One on Treasure Island.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Art and Architecture SF

Lulu Hawkins Braghetta at work at the Court of Pacifica

Lulu Hawkins Braghetta at work on her Cambodian-inspired bas-relief, "Path of Darkness.”
GGIE, Court of Pacifica
Photo Credit: Treasure Island Museum

Artist Diego Rivera and Assistant Emmy Lou Packard

Artist Diego Rivera and Assistant Emmy Lou Packard
Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940
Photo courtesy: Diego Rivera Mural Project

“Pan American Unity”

“Pan American Unity”
Riviera’s masterpiece was completed in 1940. For a close up view and a key: https://riveramural.org/fullmural
Photo Credit:
Photo courtesy: Diego Riviera Mural Project

US Postage stamp Commemorating the GGIE

US Postage stamp
Commemorating the GGIE
Photo Credit: Wikicommons

Anne Schnoebelen serves on the board of the museum and is a historian of the GGIE and its role in San Francisco art history. She manages the Treasure Island Museum’s “Little Island, Big Ideas” monthly lecture series and lectures about the GGIE throughout the state, as well as giving tours at Coit Tower for SF City Guides. [email protected] Blog: treasureisland1939.com

Rivera Masterpiece to SFMOMA for 2020 Retrospective

Pan American Unity Mural, 1940 By Diego Rivera
“My mural will picture the fusion between the great past of the Latin American lands, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high mechanical developments of the United States.” – Diego Rivera.  Source
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) have announced plans to display Diego Rivera’s massive mural, “Pan American Unity,” at a major exhibition of the artist’s work in 2020. The mural is considered one of the most important works of public art in San Francisco.

Rivera and Pflueger, 1940
By Peter Stackpole.  Source
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

The 74-foot-wide, 22-foot-high masterpiece was commissioned under the auspices of the 1939-40 WPA and the Golden Gate International Exposition held on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, itself a creation of the New Deal’s PWA and the WPA.

Rivera was among dozens of artists participating in Art in Action, a live exhibit at which fairgoers could watch paintings, sculptures, weavings, and frescoes in the making in an airplane hangar that served as the Exposition’s Palace of Fine Arts, a gallery and studio.

Rivera at work
Diego Rivera on scaffolding
Photo Credit: Charles Hughes, WPA

The prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, an organizer of the Exposition, invited Rivera to participate. In a letter to Pfleuger, Rivera happily accepted “ . . . on the condition that I be permitted to make this my personal contribution toward the promotion of good will between our countries and because of my great affection for my friends in San Francisco who made my previous stay such a pleasant one.”

“For years I have felt that the real art of the Americas must come as a result of the fusion of the machinism and new creative power of the north with the tradition rooted in the soil of the south, the Toltecs, Tarascans, Mayas, Incas, etc., and would like to choose that as the subject of my mural,” he wrote.

At the time, Pflueger was designing the Science Building for the new San Francisco Junior College (now City College of San Francisco). Pflueger also projected a Grand Library building where Rivera’s mural would be permanently installed once the fair closed. Because the mural would need to be portable, Rivera painted the giant buon fresco on ten steel-frame panels. It weighed 20 tons.

The mural is a sweeping panorama of the Bay Area, and interweaves images of Western industrialization and indigenous cultures. Rivera and his assistants were still working on the massive mural when the fair closed in September 1940. In December more than 25,000 people crowded into the hangar to view the finished work. The panels were then packed into five crates and moved to storage.

Because of wartime austerity, the Grand Library Pflueger had designed for City College was never built. Pflueger died in 1946. In 1961, his brother, Milton, arranged to shoehorn the Pan American Unity mural into the lobby of the college’s Little Theater, where it has resided ever since in a confined space.

Detail of Unity Mural
“It is about the marriage of the artistic expression of the North and of the South on this continent.”—Rivera
Photo Credit: City College of San Francisco

Plans are underway to move the mural to the college’s new Performing Arts and Education Center, where it will be visible from the outside through the building’s glass façade.

Upon hearing of plans to move the masterpiece, SFMOMA approached the college about showcasing it as part of a 2020 Rivera retrospective. In return, SFMOMA will underwrite the costs for the moves and the conservation of this great work.

Watch the (silent) video of Rivera and other artists at work at the Golden Gate International Exhibition.


Rendering of Mural at SFMOMA
The mural will on display at a major exhibition of Rivera’s work in 2020.
Photo Credit: SFMOMA

For 22 years Will Maynez has been the steward of Diego Rivera's Pan American Unity mural at City College of San Francisco and maintains the mural’s website: riveramural.org and newsletter. Will currently serves on various committees surrounding the 2020 SFMOMA-CCSF collaboration. He has written a one-act play,“Interview with Frida Kahlo,” and “Rapsodia en Azul: An American in Mexico,” a play about a 1935 party for George Gershwin.