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Alleycats Mural Celebrates Firefighters' Move to New Quarters

San Francisco art school, Academy of Art University–through its students, faculty, and alumni–has been busy helping the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) celebrate its 150th anniversary, most recently with an eye-catching mural based on the history of Firehouse #1, newly located to 935 Folsom Street in the city.

Current and former Academy students, along with their instructors, have a long history of supporting SFFD, including working on the department’s annual holiday toy drive. Last year, that support included School of Graphic Design students’ creation of a visual identity system for the department’s 150th anniversary. And as spring 2017 semester kicks off, students from the Schools of Fine Art and Illustration are putting the finishing touches on the mural at the new location of SFFD’s Firehouse #1.

Firefighters housed at Firehouse #1 serve the Tenderloin neighborhood, says Fine Art instructor and project coordinator Carol Nunnelly, and they’re fully equipped for almost any crisis with an engine company, rescue squad and ladder truck.

“Who doesn’t feel safer knowing that first responders are on the job 24/7?” she asks. “If someone falls in the bay, gets stuck on a cliff overlooking the ocean, or is need of emergency medical treatment, the firefighters are there. These are people trained to calmly reassure under pressure, even while the rest of us mortals are freaking out!”

It’s the kind of high praise Nunnelly offers freely for the public servants she and her mural crew have gotten to know so much better while painting the mural.

The idea for the mural surfaced when Firehouse #1 was relocated to make way for new development, moving to Howard and Folsom, where the view of the side of the building amounted to—as Nunnelly puts it—“a drab view of nothing inspiring.”

Mike Petricca, the Academy’s vice president of Campus Safety and Lab Resources, decided to get involved. Petricca contacted Daniel Gracia, vice president of Local 798 and a firefighter at Firehouse #1, with an ambitious proposal: Create a mural representing a timeline of the three buildings formerly occupied by Firehouse #1.

Fine Art Executive Director Craig Nelson approved the project, and a committee of firefighters was formed to organize it. Their goals: Develop designs, oversee the painting, attract visual interest by highlighting the history of Firehouse #1. The work was all the more timely, according to Nunnelly, given the SFFD’s 150th anniversary in 2016.

Student contributors included alumni Christopher Austin (BFA Illustration, 2016) and current Fine Art BFA students Aiwen Chen and Na Rae Lee. Of particular interest in making the collaboration a success were the special skills each student brought to the project, says Nunnelly. She cites include scale drawing by Austin, blocking colors by Lee, and the painting expertise of Chen.

“Additionally, to make the team complete, we were aided by the expert help of Fine Art faculty member Tomutsu Takashima,” Nunnelly remarks. “His direction in creating lifelike portraits of actual firefighters from Firehouse #1 was invaluable.”

Other volunteers included Melinda Mettler, associate vice president and online student coordinator; Illustration and Fine Art instructors Camille LaPointe Lyon and Melinda Mezzetti; Fine Art alumni Therese Morgan and Derick Moore; and Fine Art student Alumis Cougan.

Nunnelly points out that no mural project is complete without some choice stories about what happened in “the making of.” Here are a few of her favorites:

  • A cat in a tree (she says it’s an inside joke among firefighters): The cat in the mural was modeled on a firefighter’s one-eyed family cat, Winkey.
  • A famous fire in the Tenderloin, depicted in the panel that shows a well-known restaurant: Starting as a grease fire, the incident closed Original Joe’s, a neighborhood landmark.
  • Real-world models: The firefighters were happy to pose for the figurative portions of the mural. Authentic gear and equipment is depicted, making the mural more realistics, as well as allowing students to learn more about researching and planning an effective mural.
  • Sharing and caring: Firefighters generously share home-cooked lunches and coffee with the artists, as they collaborated during the painting process. “Firefighters are great cooks!” says Nunnelly.
  • A grateful benefactor: Local contractor Mike Butler, whose life was saved by a firefighter, donated scaffolding for the project.
  • Endless ingenuity: The new firehouse accommodates a large table in its kitchen—and the table is clearly too big to have been moved in through any of the doors. Explanation? The new firehouse was built around it.
  • Holiday cheer: The mural crew was excited to contribute to the firefighters’ annual holiday party; the crew arrived with face paint and painted children’s faces.

“With all the quality help, collaboration and inspired creativity between the firefighters and artists, this project surpassed all our goals,” Nunnelly says. “As one of the firefighters told us, ‘We knew it would be beautiful, but we’re really pleased. It turned out even better than anyone imagined.’

“Everyone learned from each other,” Nunnelly concludes. “What more can you ask of a ‘real-world’ project?”

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