Imagine a bright-blue-eyed four-month-old baby girl traveling with missionaries to the Philippines. Picture her growing up and attending an alternative school in Manila filled with many friends who encourage her to engage in the vibrant art community. In her teenage years, she returns to the United States to learn as much about muralism as possible in Chicago, later venturing to the West Coast and settling in the Bay Area. Now, this is not romanticized fiction. It is the colorful and extraordinary life of artist Johanna Poethig. With over 25 years of experience spanning public art projects, murals, installation, performance and video, Poethig remains a prominent female figure in contemporary muralism.
During her early adult years spent in Chicago, she was inspired and mentored by well-known muralist William Walker. After spending time learning about the history and significance of muralism, Poethig was determined to make a career of the discipline. She thought back to her days in Manila and yearned for familiarity; her desire to reach a larger Filipino community is actually what brought her to the Bay Area. But over the years, she faced setbacks. Among these challenges, she was forced to navigate building permits and policies, changes in building ownership, and even her murals being painted over.
Yet Poethig remained determined to create artworks in public space. “I always saw mural practice as a way to do community art or social practice. You have these huge canvases! Not only is it a way to do something for a community, but it is fun as a painter to learn about history and to put it out there for the people,” she says. Despite teachers and professors discouraging her from becoming a muralist, she was steadfast in her passion and knew that San Francisco’s strong mural movement would help solidify her goals. One of the most interesting aspects of murals is the unpredictable nature and politics that go into their conservation and preservation. New media efforts are constantly being developed to address digitization of public artworks. As Poethig explains, “There’s nothing that takes away from the material and paint, but new technologies are new technologies, and I’m grateful that there is a solution to preserving the image and the idea of the image. … If it’s a new-media projection, it’s a good thing. It’s all about occupation of public space and who is going to occupy it.“
“In my mind, being a muralist is extremely important to do. Otherwise, all of our big spaceswould be taken up by advertising, and that would be a travesty to have all of our big, best walls in the city be advertisements. The more public space where creative artistic images can be placed, where the space is not about commodity, consumerism or trying to sell you something, is a victory but it’s difficult to do.”
Art in public space is not just a physical marker. It places an individual within a specific location and provides a rich context of the environment, the people and the culture within that space. On sunny days, native San Franciscans and tourists alike flock to the vibrant murals of the Mission District, yet many historic and iconic public works—from the I-Hotel mural in North Beach to the Statue of Liberty mural on the side of the South of Market Multi-Service Center—tell the stories of San Francisco history. Poethig’s work tells these stories of San Francisco history, proving her continued importance in the Bay Area mural and visual arts movement. Her work speaks fervently about what it means to actually be present and aware of one’s community. It encapsulates a strong desire to draw, quite literally, people into public space in a way that makes them question their experiences and reflect on their own histories.
Originally published and posted to Asterisk SF Magazine, please click here to view