“Too many artists are contemptuous of the public,” said Emmy Lou Packard. “Art which loses contact weakens.”
This was the defining principle of Packard, whose work is being shown at an exhibition at the Richmond Art Center. “Artist of Conscience” (aclosing reception takes place on Sat/20) is a timely look at the work of the master linocut printmaker, Diego Rivera protégée, and mentor to Mission muralists.
Packard was a largely-unsung San Francisco artist who painted murals throughout the Bay Area, and developed a signature print-making style of modest but highly technical mid-century linoleum prints with humanist subjects, made to be widely available to the public. Packard worked in many mediums and forms, including fresco, oils, watercolor, tile mosaic, wood block, inlaid linoleum, and bas-relief in concrete.
As a venue for the exhibition, the Richmond Art Center connects to Packard’s career at Richmond’s Kaiser shipyards, a time which she called “one of the most interesting and positive in my life in the United States.” At the shipyards, the artist worked as a draftswoman, designing transport vessels in WWII and illustrating the shipyard worker newsletter Fore ‘n’ Aft. Her illustrations for the publication promoted racial desegregation, women’s participation, and safety and dignity in the workplace.
“You could say that Packard’s art in and of itself is not explicitly political, but the fact that she made it certainly is,” says Rick Tejada-Flores, a co-curator of the current exhibition alongside visual artist Robbin Légère Henderson.
Packard’s work promoted 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 the effort to save the Rincon Annex Post Office from Richard Nixon’s chopping block, co-founded the Artist’s Equity artist’s union, organized the annual San Francisco Arts Festival, restored the WPA murals at Coit Tower, and spearheaded a campaign that saved the Mendocino Headlands from commercial development.
In 1940, Packard served as Rivera’s principal assistant in the installation of the “Pan American Unity” mural, the largest of Rivera’s “portable” murals at 75 feet high and 22 feet wide, comprised of 10 cement panels, framed by steel. The fresco was painted by Rivera, Packard, and other assistants on Treasure Island over a four-month period and was part of “Art in Action,” a Golden Gate International Exposition program that allowed attendees to observe artists in process.
The panel, originally installed in the Diego Rivera Theater at San Francisco City College, is currently part of the large SFMOMA retrospective of Rivera’s work. The show, on display through next summer, features as its lead curator James Oles, who also knew Packard personally.
Through their shared work Packard became a close personal friend to both Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and captured their relationship in some of the most well-known photographs of the artists.
Born in Southern California, Packard spent time as a child in Mexico, where her father worked as a consultant on agricultural projects. It was 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 San Francisco’s Graphic Artists Workshop. The Graphic Arts Workshop was formed following the closure of the California Labor School, which “promised to analyze social, economic and political questions in light of the present world struggle against fascism,” and once had an art department as large as the San Francisco Art Institute before it was effectively shuttered by McCarthyism. At GAM, she worked on a mural series depicting a visual history of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Pacific Islanders.
Packard left for Mendocino in the late 1950s and returned To San Francisco at the end of the 1960s, settling in the Mission District. Soon after her return, according to Tejada-Flores, word got around the neighborhood about a woman who had worked under Rivera. Packard’s last artistic contribution became the support and mentorship of a generation of Mission artists who would go on to found the community mural movement. She helped to provide a direct link between the artistic lineage of Rivera and contemporary Mission District muralists, resulting in the murals found on 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 stored at the Precita Eyes Muralists Association.
Several of the many murals in whose design Packard took part can still be viewed around the Bay Area. A mosaic piece she constructed from found objects with the help of 650 schoolchildren in 1956 is located in the courtyard of Hillcrest Elementary School in San Francisco.
Two of her murals are at the UC Berkeley campus, including a cut concrete bas-relief depicting the California landscape that adorns the facade of Chávez Student Center at Lower Sproul Hall, and another on the exterior of the student union.
Packard oversaw the creation of “Homage to Siqueiros,” a mural inside the Bank of America building at 23rd Street and Mission that was painted by Michael Rios, Jesús “Chuy” Campusano, and Luis Cortázar. Painted “for the people in the Mission who stand on the long lines in the bank on Friday afternoon,” it depicts a narrative history of the Mission District.
But as occurred throughout her lifetime, Packard has largely continued to be ignored by the art world establishment. When organizing “Artist of Conscience,” its curators found that most major museums and historical societies in the Bay Area were not interested in hosting a retrospective of her work (despite at least one institution, the Oakland Museum, already being in possession of more than 40 of her pieces.)
Perhaps this is a testament to the populist nature of her art—Packard intentionally worked in mediums that do not lend themselves to commodification. She often refused to number her prints, re-printing in different colors, sometimes for decades after the original was created.
Or maybe the reason for her relative obscurity is simply the continuing conservatism of the art world. After all, when an opportunity to host Kahlo’s first West Coast exhibition was turned down by SFMOMA, Tejada-Flores says it was Packard who worked with René Yañez and the Galería de la Raza collective to put together a show.
Ultimately, there is a certain joy in the perennial re-discovery of unknown artists like Packard. And there couldn’t be a more perfect venue for her work than the Richmond Art Center: a hidden treasure in the Bay Area, teeming with activity, free, and open to the people.
“EMMY LOU PACKARD: ARTIST OF CONSCIENCE” CLOSING RECEPTIONSat/20, noon-2pm, free. Featuring the Great Tortilla Conspiracy. Richmond Art Center. More info here.
Natalia Robyns-Kresich: Natalia Kresich was born and raised in San Francisco. She has been writing about local issues for 48 Hills for several years.
“Ultimately, there is a certain joy in the perennial re-discovery of unknown artists like Packard. And there couldn’t be a more perfect venue for her work than the Richmond Art Center: a hidden treasure in the Bay Area, teeming with activity, free, and open to the people.” – Natalia Kresich, 48 Hills
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Exhibition at Richmond Art Center: January 18 – March 18, 2023 Open Studios: Feb 25-26, Mar 4-5, Mar 11-12, 2023 Satellite Exhibitions: Throughout January, February, March and April Artistic Achievement Awardee Talk: Saturday, January 21, 12:30pm-1:30pm Reception: Saturday, January 21, 2pm-4pm Closing Party: Saturday, March 18, 2pm-4pm
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Emmy Lou Packard may not be a name that you recognize immediately, but a visit to the Richmond Art Center’s new exhibit on the artist will quickly correct that.
The exhibit Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience (through August 20 and free to the public) showcases and recognizes the life and timeless works of the Bay Area artist, activist, and visionary in the first show since her death in 1998.
While Packard was never a household name during her lifetime, she managed to dance continuously just beyond fame’s reach. Packard is most often recognized for her proximity to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo—they were her mentors, supporters, and close friends. Packard, who showed an early passion for painting, was introduced to Diego Rivera as a child while living in Mexico with her family temporarily. Upon looking over some of her work, Rivera offered to do weekly portfolio reviews with her.
This chance introduction was the start of a great creative mentorship between Rivera and Packard and shaped much of Packard’s future career in the arts. She went on to study art at UC Berkeley and San Francisco Art Institute before reuniting with Rivera both as his studio assistant back in Mexico (during which she lived with Rivera and Kahlo and documented moments of their lives through photography) and as his chief assistant for the Pan American Unity mural he painted for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940.
As chief assistant for the project, Packard thoroughly documented the process of creating the mural. Pan American Unity permanently resides at CCSF, but it is currently on display at the SFMOMA; Packard’s notes proved to be critical in understanding the mural, how it was made, and how to safely move it.
The exhibit at the Richmond Art Center, however, makes it obvious that there is much more to Packard’s work than her time as an assistant to Diego Rivera. The gallery consists of prints, paintings, sketches, and photographs made by Packard, switching between several common themes such as nature, childhood, work, and political activism, particularly against war and racism.
During World War ll, Packard created cartoons and drawings encouraging the end of segregation and supporting voting rights for the Fore ‘n’ Aft newspaper at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, CA. Her political feelings continued to make appearances in her work and are particularly notable for their timelessness and current relevance.
A satirical print titled “Someone has to Suffer, Madame,” depicts a pig in a business suit with contracts bulging out of his pockets, comforting a mother while explaining “In the event of war, you lose sons. In the event of peace, I lose money.” Another print, created during the McCarthy era, shows two men in suits grabbing hold of George Washington, the caption below reading “We’ve discovered that this guy was an insurgent leader, Boss—What’ll we do now?”
It left me thinking of the irony in that, despite activism and government criticism being a fundamental reason for our nation’s existence, those who voice their dissent are continually considered a threat by our government.
Packard later became a mentor and activist in the Mission mural community, and also led the movement to save the Mendocino headlands—a place that appeared in many of her prints—from development.
In a nod to their collaborative creative relationship, Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience was timed to perfectly align with SFMOMA’s exhibit on Diego Rivera. And if you happen to visit the Pan American Unity mural, keep an eye open for a blonde Emmy Lou Packard painting in a red sweater. Her name still may not be as recognizable as those of her colleagues, but the power of her art and life’s work is undeniable.
Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience will be on display at the Richmond Art Center until August 20. A closing reception will be held from 12-2 on August 20, with tortilla printing by The Great Tortilla Conspiracy.
But what’s clear from the Richmond exhibit – open at the Richmond Arts Center until August 20 – is that Packard produced a wealth of work apart from her role as Rivera’s assistant. The show of linoleum prints, photographs of murals she did on her own and some paintings, illustrate a reach far beyond her association with Rivera.
But, unlike the Mexican muralist, Packard shied away from press and self-promotion.
It’s work defined by a simplicity that captures the quotidian. In one linoleum print a man stands in an overgrown artichoke field. His hat covers his eyes as he picks the prickly bud from its stem. The field closes in on him. All sense of time is lost.
“She had a personality, but it wasn’t about her,” said Packard’s former student and documentary filmmaker Rick Tejada-Flores in comparing her to the larger than life figure of Rivera. For Packard, he said, “It was about her work and what she wanted her work to do.”
Tejada-Flores co-curated the exhibit with artist and author Robbin Légère Henderson, who grew up with one of Emmy Lou Packard’s prints in her home.
Although Packard, who died in 1998 at age 83, had displayed her work in galleries, she was more concerned with making her art accessible to a wider audience, Tejada-Flores said.
“There’s a guy in Davis who knew Emmy Lou quite well toward the end of her life. And she was not making art. She was in a nursing home. … So he said, ‘Well, Emmy Lou, let’s do a show of your work.’ And she said, ‘You can do it after I die,’” Tejada-Flores recalled.
While Packard has largely been forgotten except for the time she spent with Rivera, she has always had a strong following among artists in the Mission and in 1973 advised the trio of young artists who painted a mural at the Bank of America at 23rd and Mission streets.
“She’s an unsung heroine in the arts,” said Mission District muralist Juana Alicia Araiza. “I knew her until the end of her life … she gave me one of her prints as a wedding present.”
Others credit Packard with promoting Mission District artists. “I feel like Emmy Lou Packard was one of the first to fight for the Latino District and brought awareness to the art in the Latino District,” said Mission-raised artist and activist Lucia Gonzalez Ippolito.
An Artist of Social Consciousness meets Diego Rivera
Packard was born on April 15, 1914 in El Centro, in California’s Imperial Valley. Her lineage can be traced back to County Carlow, Ireland – where her great-grandfather was a bearer of dispatches in the Irish Rebellion. From childhood, Packard was surrounded by family conversations on communism and socialism.
“I had not read Marxism (not until I was 25). But my father’s explanation that ‘capitalism fosters war, socialism suffers as a result of war’ kind of stuck with me as a guiding principle,” Packard explained in her oral history interview with Louise Gilbert.
In the 1920s, Packard and her family traveled to Mexico City; in November 1928, Packard’s mother introduced Rivera to her young daughter, kickstarting Packard’s career under one of the great Mexican muralists. Every other week, Rivera would meet with Packard to give her art critiques.
“I was surprised at the great character, the sensitivity of tones and the objective and subjective truth of the paintings of Mexican life that this North American child had done,” Rivera once said of Packard. “She was a blonde, melancholy little girl. With the face of a French gothic angel plucked from the reliefs of Chartres. … Embarrassed and shy, bright and a little savage, she had all the character of the country in which she was born.”
Packard eventually moved back to the United States and went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley. She reunited with Rivera in 1940 when the great Mexican muralist asked Packard to be his chief assistant on the Pan American Unity mural, which is currently on display at the SF MoMa. It is a sprawling vision of cultural unity in North America in which Packard appears on the left side standing just above Charlie Chaplin.
Once the mural was finished, Packard returned to Mexico to live with Rivera and Kahlo, where she deepened her friendship with the two artists. In 1941, Kahlo and Rivera would help Packard open her first one-woman show.
Rivera once said that “[a]ll art is propaganda” and art was his weapon. For Packard, art served a similar function, but her images weren’t as overtly political as Rivera’s. “She was able to say complex things with simple, solid images,” Mission District artist Miranda Bergman said.
When Packard moved to San Francisco in 1941, World War II was at the forefront of the world’s mind and guided much of Packard’s artistic and political work during this time. She painted for an exhibit that highlighted the extra burden women faced during the war, created art on the history of union movements for the California Labor School and joined the staff of the Kaiser shipyard paper Fore ‘n Aft.
“My first trip out to the Richmond shipyards was in the early evening, and I still remember the excitement of the big yards working at night.” Packard recalled in her oral history interview.
There she found all classes of Americans that she later described in the oral history as Americans “united and enthusiastically engaged in a struggle to end fascism in Europe.” Packard created hundreds of drawings and cartoons of the people in the shipyards for Fore ‘n Aft, some of which are installed in the Richmond show.
But much of the Richmond show focuses on the linoleum prints that Packard began making in the 1950s. She liked the medium because ordinary people could afford the cheap prints.
“When I think of Emmy Lou, right away, an image comes to mind of a merry-go-round,” Bergman said, referring to one of Packard’s prints of children on a merry-go-round. “The print has been in my home ever since I was born. It imagined a future of racial unity and showed children of all colors playing on the merry-go-round. She was visionary in terms of imagining a future of peace and unity.”
Packard’s work circulated far beyond the Bay, with pieces reprinted in other countries like the Soviet Union. “Her art represented her heart, her beliefs,” Bergman said.
But not everyone was on board with Packard’s left-leaning beliefs.
“One morning, at 11, there was a knock on my door, and when I opened the door two men in gray suits were there,” Packard recalled in her oral history interview. The two men were from the FBI and asserted that they had “absolute proof” that Packard was a communist, to which Packard responded that the two men had “no such proof.”
“Have you ever read Karl Marx?” the two men in suits asked Packard.
“Of course. I took economic history at UC [Berkeley]. Marx is part of economic history,” Packard said.
“Did you UNDERSTAND it?”
“Of course. Haven’t you ever read it?”
“WE’LL ask the questions!”
Packard and Nature
Another portion of the Richmond show’s prints come from those she made after moving to Mendocino in 1959. The prints focus on the sprawling sea life and water towers of the area.
Packard’s strong interest in Mendocino’s nature also made her an advocate in opposing construction that would disrupt the area’s coastal bluffs. Her organizing efforts were successful and led to the creation of the Mendocino Headlands State Park, where there is a plaque that honors her efforts to save the coastal bluffs.
“People didn’t appreciate [the bluffs] until it was in danger of being lost,” Tejada-Flores explained.
Finding Packard in the Mission
After spending 14 years in Mendocino, Packard returned to San Francisco in 1973 and began to help with the Bank of America mural.
“She didn’t pick up a brush, but she would come over and correct our brushstrokes,” Rios recalled. “We were very fortunate to have her as a technical advisor. She also took us over to City College to show us her role in working on the Pan-American Unity Mural.”
Elaine Chu, co-founder of Twin Walls Murals Company, discovered Packard’s blocks for print-making one day at Precita Eyes Murals on 24th Street. Chu was working under Precita’s founder Susan Cervantes at the time, who explained to Chu the strong relationship she had with Packard.
“She really supported community murals because she saw the beauty of the community in the Mission,” Chu explained. “There is a very rich history that Emmy helped foster.”
Bergman echoed Chu’s sentiment.
“I think about her as an elder artist too because she kept going until she couldn’t,” Bergman said. “I’d do anything to make people familiar with her work because it’s resonant with today…the struggles for peace as a human right.”
CAROLYN STEIN: Intern reporter. Carolyn grew up in Los Angeles. She previously served as a desk editor for her college newspaper The Stanford Daily. When she’s not reporting, you can find her going on an unnecessarily long walk.
Top image: Emmy Lou Packard poses for a photo with Frida Kahlo. The two artists had a strong relationship. Photo Courtesy of Rick Tejada-Flores.
Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience is a stunning, if overdue, retrospective exhibition of an artist largely ignored in her lifetime by critics — even though she worked directly with Diego Rivera, mentoring and inspiring a generation of Bay Area muralists in her late years. She died in 1998 at age 83.
A southern California native whose father worked as an agronomist for a time in Mexico, Packard began studying with Rivera at age 12. She later lived with Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico after her husband’s tragic death and became the muralist’s principal assistant on the Pan American Unitymural for the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. On loan from City College of San Francisco, the mural is currently on display at SFMOMA, with Packard among those depicted in it.
The visually striking, morale-boosting exhibit at the Richmond Art Center couldn’t be timelier, not only with a newly opened Rivera retrospective at SFMOMA but for the powerful way in which it reasserts progressive values. Working at Kaiser Shipyard’s newspaper, Fore ‘n’ Aft in Richmond during World War II, Packard created illustrations calling for racial unity and for workers to exercise their right and responsibility to vote. Other, larger black-and-white linocut prints portray a resolute Fredrick Douglass and a satirically reimagined George Washington held by two G-men for his embrace of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The latter print is captioned: “We’ve discovered that this guy was an insurgent leader, Boss – What’ll we do now?!” These images show Packard pushing back against racial tensions at wartime defense plants and the repression of civil liberties.
A mixed-media linocut collage titled Someone Has to Suffer, Madam, portrays a businessman with a pig’s head, meaty left hand outstretched, war contracts in his back pocket, and right arm encircling the shoulders of a grief-stricken woman. The political cartoon, made in the 1950s, incorporates a torn newspaper clipping headlined: “Stock Market Dive Worst in 18 Months” with a subhead, “Worries Outweigh Cease-Fire,” adjacent to another article titled “Peace News and Market.” It sharply underscores the still-present contradiction of a bullish stock market juxtaposed against the toll of human sacrifice and suffering. Rivera and Kahlo astutely dubbed their fragile-looking guest “Emmy Lucha,” Spanish for fight. (She also led the fight to save Mendocino Headlands, now a state park.)
The heart of the show lies in Packard’s large, bold, colorful, and technically masterful prints showing strawberry pickers, artichoke harvesters, crab fishermen, welders, Italian and Chinese produce market vendors – all evoking California’s people and the land. In Net Menders, for example, we see curvilinear, whiplash-like lines juxtaposed against delicate, broken-line patterning and strong hands. Swirling clouds above foreshortened row crops dwarf a Lilliputian field crew in Landscape Near Half Moon Bay, while Merry-Go-Round pictures a multi-racial group of kids, limbs flung akimbo. Together, the 78 works on view express joy, exuberance, anger and fulfillment in natural settings that frame human efforts. We also see the waste of war. Peace is a Human Right (1949) shows three children with a sunflower and dove, an iconic image during the Vietnam War that sadly speaks to the present moment.
The exhibit, three years in the making by curators Robbin Légère Henderson and Rick Tejada-Flores, is supported by an informative, beautifully illustrated brochure in which they ask: “Why has this powerful artist been so overlooked?” The answer lies partly in the political, cultural and visual art landscape in the U.S. following World War II, shifting away from the Social Realism of the New Deal toward Abstract Expressionism. After the war, most art critics tended to disparage or ignore figurative, socially expressive work by left-wing artists in the U.S. who were sympathetic to working people; these included Ben Shawn, Jacob Lawrence and Alice Neel (whose work is currently on display at the de Young Museum), as well as Rivera.
In addition to changing aesthetic preferences, women were displaced from the workplace, forced to leave the male-gendered jobs they occupied during the war, as veterans came home to reclaim their work. Women weren’t expected to compete, “even in the arts,” note the curators. “Packard’s gender, her politics, the genre she chose and the era she lived in combined to exclude her from serious consideration by guardians of public taste.”
Tejada-Flores, a documentary filmmaker exploring art and politics, met Packard as an art student in 1963 and accepted an invitation to print graphics for her at the gallery in Mendocino. He became a lifelong friend. He and Robbins, a former art museum director and curator whose own prints champion labor organizing, teamed to gather the generous assemblage of drawings, prints, photos and ephemera on loan from a long list of institutional and private collections (including their own).
Packard’s “artistic mastery and commitment to peace and justice inspired admiration and activism” in her late years, note the curators, including that of San Francisco artist Susan Cervantes, founder of Precita Eyes Muralists Association and the Latinx women of Mujeres Muralistas, who painted the gorgeous, larger-than-life murals on the Women’s Building in the mid-1990s.
Absent the critical recognition withheld in her lifetime, it’s rewarding that this show resonates loudly. Packard’s art of conscience calls to us still: to recognize the worth of laborers, realize inclusiveness, ignite solidarity, appreciate the bountiful harvests of California’s coast and fields, and celebrate the natural beauty of the land.
# # #
Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience @ Richmond Art Center through August 20, 2022. Public events include an artists’ panel, “Rebel Art: Emmy Lou Packard’s Legacy” (July 29) and a film screening of “Rivera in America” in which she is interviewed (August 11).
About the author: Diana Scott is a San Francisco-based writer whose dance, theatre, and arts reviews, and pieces on architecture and the urban environment, have appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the San Francisco Examiner (“Habitat” section), The Advocate weeklies (Connecticut), the Hartford Courant, the New Haven Register, Metropolis Magazine and the New York Times. Her Bay Guardian story, “Where have all the pay phones gone?” won a 2007 first-place award for a technology story from the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club. Inspired to report on the dual façade Women’s Building mural-in-progress in 1995, she interviewed the women creating it, Las Mujeres Muralistas, and their mentor, Emmy Lou Packard.
Top image: Emmy Lou Packard with Frida Kahlo in Mexico City photographed by Diego Rivera, 1941
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Top image: Detail from Rebeca García-González’s mural We Found Joy In Art-Making / Encontramos La Felicidad Haciendo Arte. García-González created this mural in 2021 at Richmond Art Center’s 25th street entrance with assistance from Richmond youth Leslie Poblano and Denise Campos. Photo by John Wehrle.