A Black Nurse Saved Lives. Today She May Save ArtHistorians in the News
tags: historic preservation, African American history, California, memorials, public history, WPA
In June, Laura Voisin George, a graduate student, was writing a scholarly article about a series of Works Progress Administration frescoes at the University of California, San Francisco.
The 10 panels of “History of Medicine in California,” completed in 1938 by Bernard Zakheim, a Polish-born muralist, show such scenes as Native Americans offering herbs to doctors and a trapper inoculating someone with the smallpox vaccine.
Voisin George recognized a central figure in one of the vivid social realist tableaus. Biddy Mason, a Black nurse, is depicted alongside a white doctor as they treat a malaria patient. Mason, a woman who was born into slavery in 1818, went on to become a midwife, a nurse, a philanthropist and a founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
Voisin George, who studies history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, learned that the frescoes were about to be destroyed while she was researching. The Jewish News of Northern California reported the news. Her reaction, she said, was: “What? How could this be?”
The university had announced plans to demolish the building to make way for a state-of-the-art research center. It had informed Zakheim’s son Nathan that if his family didn’t retrieve the frescoes, which weigh as much as 2,500 pounds, they would be destroyed.
Until Voisin George identified Mason, neither the artist’s family nor university officials knew about her presence in the frescoes. As news outlets have reported this discovery, Mason has become a star of the murals and their potential savior. An assertion by the federal government that it owns the frescoes has further complicated matters.
Adam Gottstein, the artist’s grandson, said that the university’s placing responsibility on the family to save the artwork “boiled my blood.” It showed a “complete lack of respect and concern for historical art.” Mason’s presence, he said, “adds considerable pressure to UCSF to do the right thing.”
The frescoes were part of the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which hired unemployed artists. Since their creation, the Zakheim murals have been praised, criticized and painted over because a professor said they distracted medical students attending lectures in the auditorium where they are on display. Because of concerns about earthquakes, that auditorium is no longer used.
In 2015, Polina Ilieva, UCSF’s archivist, wrote that the murals “remain the jewel of the university’s art collection.”