Brenda Kassiola (left) and her mom, Amy Kassiola.
Brenda Kassiola (left) and her mom, Amy Kassiola.

Artistic mother and daughter pass pandemic days creating mini-murals

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At the start of the pandemic lockdown in March 2020, Amy and Brenda Kassiola were looking for activities to keep themselves occupied at home in San Francisco.

Amy, an artist and educator known to teen and adult students at JCCs and synagogues around the Bay Area, grabbed some markers and the biggest sheet of paper she had on hand and started to draw. Her daughter Brenda added color to the drawing.

“I remember thinking, this will keep us happy for a couple of weeks and then we’ll move on,” Amy, 74, told J. in an interview. Two years later, the mother-daughter team has completed more than 50 poster-size mini-murals — many highlighting Jewish themes — and shared them with friends as cards and digital images.

The activity has proved to be soothing and sustaining for both women, especially for Brenda, 40, who suffered a traumatic brain injury four years ago in a car accident. As a child, Brenda dabbled in art but wasn’t really drawn to it. But she has thrown herself into the “Lockdown Murals” project, as the series is called. “I like to follow artistic direction from my mom,” she said. “It’s a new kind of collaboration.”

A Brooklyn native with degrees in fine arts, Amy came to San Francisco 25 years ago when her husband, Joel, took a position at San Francisco State University. She has worked for decades to promote Jewish culture and bring families together through art. She received a Jewish LearningWorks fellowship, and her multimedia works have been shown at the S.F. Jewish Community Library.

"Tikvah - Hope" mural by Amy Kassiola
“Tikvah – Hope” mural by Amy Kassiola

Each 24-by-30-inch piece begins with Amy sketching designs onto gridded paper. Brenda brings the checkerboard background to life with color. She prefers the Mr. Sketch Scented Markers, which are the “brightest and longest-lasting.” Each creation takes about a week to complete.

At first, they tried to work to New Age music, but it made them drowsy, Amy said. Once they switched to Motown, they hit their groove.

Collaborating on the murals is “calming and therapeutic, not just for Brenda, but for the two of us,” Amy explained. “It’s not rehab, per se, but a collaborative method that could be adapted within the disability community as art for recovery.”

While Amy’s artistic inspiration is often rooted in Jewish symbolism and tradition, her first mural design was not. “It was the most escapist design I could come up with: a tropical, floral dream of Hawaii,” she said.

But Jewish themes soon emerged: a Passover plate; Jewish New Year cards; and symbols reflecting Jewish values of hope and gratitude.

'Passover 2021' mural by Amy Kassiola
‘Passover 2021’ mural by Amy Kassiola

One special creation paid tribute to Irene Resnikoff, a friend of Brenda’s and the recipient of the inaugural Diller Prize for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in 2021. It is characterized by traditional symbols including the “crown of a good name” (a Talmudic reference), a loving heart, the Star of David and the Torah.

While the works are not murals in the literal sense, the women refer to their work that way because their process replicates the way many murals are brought to life, using an underlying grid to transfer the design and apply color.

Friends who have received get-well cards, birthday greetings and a mazel tov poster have had them framed. One friend converted the artwork into a quilt.

Amy said that several friends have been nudging the duo to share their work with a larger audience. She’s thinking about creating an online gallery but hasn’t done so yet. “We’re not social media people,” she said.

But as the world reopens, Amy and Brenda are starting to consider other outlets and directions for their work.

“We’re not sure of what comes next or the way forward,” Amy added. “For now, we’ve enjoyed ourselves and touched others.”

Lezak Shallat
Lezak Shallat

Lezak Shallat grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and works with words.