S.F. muralist to paint a Jewish day school in Moscow

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It's Moscow meets the San Francisco Mission District.

Mission artist Susan Cervantes, who is responsible for 20 years' worth of murals in San Francisco's most colorful neighborhood, will travel to the city known for endless shades of gray to paint a mural on a Jewish school.

About 20 Russian artists invited Cervantes, 53, to lead their project because she is one of only three muralists in the United States to run a successful community mural center. She founded the nonprofit Precita Eyes Mural Arts in 1977 to support collaboration among local artists and to improve the appearance of the graffiti-scrawled Mission.

The Jewish school won't be Cervantes' first Russian mural. In 1990 she helped paint a former KGB building in St. Petersburg, but this project will be a first for Moscow, the artist said.

Muscovites "love larger-than-life subjects. Everything there is huge," she said. "I've never seen such massive [public] sculpture in all my life."

With her mural, which has not yet been designed, the artist hopes to start a new tradition in the Russian capital.

"It's something that reaches out to everyone. It's not exclusive; it's inclusive," Cervantes said.

"I'm going there to teach this process" of collaborating on a mural, she said, "so that everyone involved can continue to use and apply the information I'm sharing."

The Moscow Jewish school community is enthusiastic about covering its twin-towered, five-story classroom building with colorful images. The idea came originally from the Russian artists, many of whom were Jewish and had ties to the school.

There is even less money to support artists in Russia than in the United States. The Moscow artists are one of the few groups or individual artists supported by the government.

"They've gone through the system and are considered masters. They may be fourth-generation artists and maybe a grandfather was a city architect," Cervantes said.

The group had heard of Cervantes' work in St. Petersburg and sought a letter of support from an artists' union and the Russian ministry of culture to invite her to supervise their project.

Cervantes isn't worried about encountering a language barrier in Moscow. Artists always find a way to communicate, she said. In fact, communication is her primary job. Most of the artists there also speak some English, and will help to translate her instructions.

"After doing 100 of these projects, I've come to the conclusion that even art needs some direction," she said. "It starts to focus on what's really important and valuable to that community."

Members of the entire school community — parents, neighbors, students and teachers — will help with the mural, from conceiving a theme to painting it.

Cervantes expects no trouble from authorities about the possibility of painting Jewish images into the mural. They have been more tolerant of religious practice since perestroika and glasnost, she said.

But while there are virtually no limits to artistic freedom, the muralists are cramped by a minuscule operating budget. Cervantes will bring many of the project materials with her, but she has only enough acrylic paint to cover half of one of the school's 70-by-40-foot towers. And there is no money for scaffolding, which she said could cost up to $20,000 there.

Hardship is nothing new for a seasoned artist. Cervantes learned in St. Petersburg that her work would not be hassle-free. She borrowed lunch trays from a nearby cafeteria to use as paint palettes and scavenged water buckets to rinse paint-slopped brushes.

Fortunately, the scaffolding was already set up at the mural site when she arrived. St. Petersburg's seasonal 24 hours of sun allowed her team to work around the clock to finish the 70-foot "Water is Life" mural in 10 days. Completing a mural — depending on the size and the number of hands painting — can take from one day to six months.

The St. Petersburg mural, with its depiction of pollution, primeval fish, a communist shark and Rusalka the Russian water goddess, is a political statement about the area's poor water quality.

Cervantes has up to four weeks from her June 15 arrival to finish the Jewish school mural. Her artistically oriented husband and children will come along to help.

"It's going to be a lot of hard work, but it's going to be worth it," the muralist said. "People are going to be real proud of it."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.