“Too many artists are disdainful to the public,” said Emmy Lou Packard. “Art that loses touch weakens.”
This was the guiding principle of Packard, whose work is featured in an exhibition at the Richmond Art Center. Artist of Conscience (a closing reception will be held Sat/20) is a contemporary look at the work of the linocut master, Diego Rivera’s protege and mentor to the mission’s muralists.
Packard was a largely unknown San Francisco artist who painted murals throughout the Bay Area and developed a distinctive print style of humble but highly technical mid-century linocuts of humanistic subject matter released to the public. Packard worked in many mediums and forms, including fresco, oil, watercolor, tile mosaic, woodblock, inlaid linoleum, and bas-relief in concrete.
As an exhibition venue, the Richmond Art Center ties into Packard’s career at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, a period she described as “one of the most interesting and positive of my life in the United States.” The artist worked as a draftswoman in the shipyards, designed transport ships during World War II and illustrated the shipyard workers’ magazine Fore ‘n’ Aft. Her illustrations for the publication promoted desegregation, women’s empowerment, and workplace safety and dignity.
“One could say that Packard’s art is not explicitly political in and of itself, but the fact that she created it certainly is,” says Rick Tejada-Flores, co-curator of the current exhibition alongside visual artist Robbin Legere Henderson.
Packard’s work fostered a strong internationalist humanism. Children of all races are repeated subjects in her prints, urging the viewer against war and environmental destruction.
During her career, Packard also illustrated textbooks for San Francisco public schools, led efforts to save the Rincon Annex Post Office from Richard Nixon’s chopping block, co-founded Artist’s Equity artists’ union, organized the annual San Francisco Arts Festival, and reinstated the WPA created murals in Coit Tower and led a campaign to save the Mendocino Headlands from commercial development.
“Emmy Lou Packard is an absolute San Francisco artist,” says Tejada-Flores, a filmmaker who worked at Packard’s Mendocino Gallery in the early 1960s.
In 1940, Packard served as Rivera’s principal assistant in installing the mural “Pan American Unity,” the largest of Rivera’s “portable” murals, measuring 75 feet high and 22 feet wide, composed of 10 cement panels framed by steel. The fresco was painted over a four-month period on Treasure Island by Rivera, Packard and other assistants and was part of “Art in Action,” a Golden Gate International Exposition program that allowed attendees to watch artists at work .
The plaque, originally installed at the Diego Rivera Theater at San Francisco City College, is currently part of the major SFMOMA retrospective of Rivera’s work. The show, which runs through next summer, will serve as executive curator with James Oles, who also knew Packard personally.
Through their work together, Packard became a close personal friend of Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and captured their relationship in some of the artists’ best-known photographs.
Born in Southern California, Packard spent some time as a child in Mexico, where her father worked as a consultant on agricultural projects. There she came into contact with Rivera. Packard was a graduate of UC Berkeley, the San Francisco Art Institute, and a member (along with muralist Victor Arnautoff) of the Graphic Artists Workshop in San Francisco. Founded after the closure of the California Labor School, which “promised to analyze social, economic, and political issues in light of the current worldwide struggle against fascism,” the Graphic Arts Workshop once had an arts department as large as the San Francisco Art Institute before being effectively shut down by McCarthyism. At GAM she worked on a mural series depicting a visual history of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Pacific Islanders.
Packard went to Mendocino in the late 1950s and returned to San Francisco in the late 1960s to settle in the Mission District. Soon after her return, Tejada-Flores says, word got around in the neighborhood of a woman who had worked under Rivera. Packard’s final artistic contribution was the support and mentoring of a generation of missionary artists who would later go on to form the community mural movement. She helped establish a direct link between Rivera’s artistic lineage and contemporary muralists in the Mission District, leading to the murals found in the Women’s Building and Balmy Alley, among others.
She died in the Mission District in 1998. At the time of her death, her block prints were held at the Precita Eyes Muralists Association.
Some of the many murals that Packard helped design can still be seen in the Bay Area. In the courtyard of Hillcrest Elementary School in San Francisco is a piece of a mosaic that she constructed from found objects in 1956 with the help of 650 schoolchildren.
Two of her murals are on the UC Berkeley campus, including a cut concrete bas-relief depicting the California landscape adorning the facade of the Chávez Student Center in Lower Sproul Hall, and another on the exterior of the student union.
Packard oversaw the creation of “Homage to Siqueiros,” a mural in the Bank of America building at 23rd Street and Mission, painted by Michael Rios, Jesús “Chuy” Campusano, and Luis Cortázar. Painted “for the people of the mission who stand in the long lines at the bank on Friday afternoons,” it depicts a narrative story of the mission district.
But, as she had throughout her life, Packard was largely ignored by the art world establishment. In organizing Artist of Conscience, the curators found that most major Bay Area museums and historical societies were not interested in hosting a retrospective of their work (although at least one institution, the Oakland Museum, already has one of more than 40 of their pieces.)
Perhaps this is a testament to the populist nature of her art – Packard deliberately worked in media unsuitable for commercialization. She often refused to number her prints and reprinted them in other colors, sometimes decades after the original had been created.
Or perhaps the reason for their relative obscurity is simply the ongoing conservatism of the art world. When the opportunity to host Kahlo’s first West Coast show was turned down by SFMOMA, says Tejada-Flores, it was Packard who ultimately worked with René Yañez and the Galería de la Raza collective to put together an exhibition.
Ultimately, there is a certain joy in the constant rediscovery of unknown artists like Packard. And there couldn’t be a more perfect place for her work than the Richmond Art Center: a hidden treasure in the Bay Area, bustling with activity, free and open to the people.
EMMY LOU PACKARD: ARTIST OF CONSCIENCE FINAL RECEPTION Sat/8 p.m., 12 p.m.-2 p.m., free of charge. Featuring The Great Tortilla Conspiracy. Richmond Art Center. More info here.