Susan Kelk Cervantes of Precita Eyes Muralists: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist
"I interact with dozens of people every day, and the most interesting are the ones who are committed to collaboration with community. Many of them are young artists who find engaging community in an inclusive art process is meaningful and transformative."
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Kelk Cervantes.
Susan Kelk Cervantes is an artist, educator, veteran of the San Francisco community mural art movement, and the founding director of Precita Eyes Muralists in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Iwas born and raised in Dallas, Texas in a post war-built home. I was the oldest of three daughters. My parents both worked to make ends meet. I grew up around the family florist and nursery, and learned how to appreciate flowers and plants. I enjoyed being on my grandparent’s farm in East Texas with animals, and a pond where I could fish…I took art classes in high school, and graduated at 16 and moved to California to go to art school.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When in high school my art teacher encouraged me to participate in the Dallas Museum high school art painting class. The museum teacher invited me and a couple of other students to visit his studio and take figure drawing classes. This environment opened my eyes to new possibilities. I was taking high school summer classes to get all of my academic requirements to graduate early. Because of that I was able to take more art classes in my senior year. As a senior I exhibited my work at the museum, and they rewarded me with a scholarship to go to any art school I wanted to. My school art teacher said not to go to any school in Texas because they did not have good art programs. So, I researched in the museum library, and found the California School of Fine Arts (now SF Art Institute) in San Francisco. It was the only one in the country to offer a degree in four years. My parents were supportive of my art, and let me go to San Francisco to attend the art school, with the scholarships I attained from the art school I received my BFA65 and MFA68.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I was a dedicated oil painter for over 12 years, exhibiting in galleries, and I was invited to exhibit in museums. I met my life partner Luis Cervantes at the Art Institute. In 1969 we had our fist son. We were evicted from our home of nine years and homeless. No rent control at that time. A friend of a friend saw we were desperate and said we could rent this old storefront on Precita Park for nearly the same rent we had paid before. This was the beginning of a new life for us, and our involvement with the Precita Valley community that led to the founding of Precita Eyes Muralists.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just finished restoring the AIDS mural Hope for the World Cure at 16th and Market in the Castro district of San Francisco. It was created 25 years ago. Due to recent vandalism and deterioration; people in the community raised their voices and resources to restore this iconic mural. It is the only AIDS mural in the Castro designed and painted by 17 artists who were affected by AIDS.
The other project we are working on currently is the SF City Clinic mural on 7th Street. This 11-year health service provider is blossoming with love for its community. A community designed mural led by Elaine Chu and Safi Kolozsvari is being worked on, and I am planning a tree stump mosaic for the senior housing on Harrison and 24th St. I also continue my current individual painting series Home Sweet Home.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I interact with dozens of people every day, and the most interesting are the ones who are committed to collaboration with community. Many of them are young artists who find engaging community in an inclusive art process is meaningful and transformative.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
I draw insertion from the people in the communities I serve. For example, the recent Butterflies Forever mosaic mural in Precita Park children’s playground. The Precita Park Neighbors wanted to support a new public art project in Precita Park. There is a butterfly garden in the park that they sponsored years ago, so together we thought to involve the community in the designing and planning of a butterfly mosaic along the retaining wall of the children’s playground. We did workshops with the families that use the park, and discussed the habitat and plants that various butterflies thrive on in our neighborhood. The design reflected the children and families’ drawings and ideas for the mosaic. We had several community days where the families and children could come to the park and hand set the tiles to create the mosaic mural they had envisioned.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Over the years you do not realize the impact of your actions until later when people who had been part of a project share that they had been transformed by their participation. Such as an email from a homeless man 20 years later to say how I had impacted his life because I included him in the process by allowing him to paint on the mural we were working on at a homeless hotel. Trusting in humanity and seeing himself in others. Or a young confused kid comes to our studio to get involved in a youth mural project, and because of the encouragement we provided — that he could do it, putting a paint brush in his hand, he then decided he wanted to be an artist. It uplifted his life, he went on to art school, he graduated and went back to his community as a leader and shared his knowledge and skills with others.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each. I can’t think of any 5 things that someone could tell me that would have changed my life.
1. Be a good listener.
2. Be patient.
3. Art is life
4. Be inclusive.
5. Be kind to everyone.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
You never know what your idea can trigger. To baring human consciousness to all people, through art, dance, music, growing food, building community, making things that support life. This is not new, but we need more focus, attention and resources put on these efforts.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
Ai Wei Wei, Chinese Artist. He does some of the most conscious and awe-inspiring monumental work on this planet despite all of the adversity he has had to suffer to speak his truth.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!