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In new film, Tenderloin finds uplift in participatory public artwork

SF Public Press
 — May 19 2011 - 6:41pm
Three years ago Lisa Demb was a heroin addict. Today she is drug-free. She attributes part of her recovery to an unlikely source: a mural at the corner of Jones Street and Golden Gate Avenue by artist Mona Caron.
Demb walked by regularly while Caron painted in 2009, and ultimately found herself incorporated in the piece. “It gave me a boost in my self esteem,” she said, “it helped me go to a program and get all the way off drugs.”
The mural and its lasting effects on Tenderloin residents such as Demb is the subject of a new documentary film, which captures the unusual sense of involvement and community empowerment that Caron brought about during her yearlong neighborhood beautification project.
The film, “A Brush With the Tenderloin,” was produced by erstwhile print journalist turned filmmaker, Paige Bierma. When a mutual friend mentioned that Caron would be painting a mural in the neighborhood, Bierma knew she had found her topic.
“As a print journalist, I often wrote stories on immigrants, the homeless, prisons and drug addiction — populations I’d been told where plentiful in the TL,” Bierma wrote in an email after the first screening of her film last Friday in a Tenderloin community organization’s offices. “I was very curious as to how the neighborhood would react to Mona’s art and her extended presence on that corner.”
In fewer than two decades living in San Francisco, Caron has left a profound mark on the streetscape. Her work includes the 340-foot-long Duboce Bikeway Mural, an ode to cycling in the city; the vegetal-themed Noe Valley Murals flanking the site of a popular farmer’s market; and the historically themed Market Street Mural (oddly situated on Church Street).
But Caron had never done a piece in the Tenderloin. She got the opportunity thanks to the North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District, a nonprofit association of property owners and community leaders. Then-executive director Elaine Zamora approached Caron about the possibility of doing a mural in the Tenderloin. “We were trying to demonstrate that this is a beautiful neighborhood,” Zamora said.
But it wasn’t easy to get the project off the ground. With funds from the San Francisco Community Challenge Grant Program and individual donations, the community benefit district raised about $70,000 for the project. Zamora also helped convince the owners of the unadorned building at Jones and Golden Gate to allow a mural. “It really was a labor of love,” Zamora said.
For her part, Caron knew the project would require a lot of local research.
“I never presume I know a place before I do some work reaching out and getting to know people,” she said. While generating ideas for the mural, Caron met with dozens of organizations and community leaders.
Their comments helped shape the design, which combines representations of surrounding streets with historical references and “utopian” imagery, as Caron put it. In one panel, a parking lot across the street is re-envisioned as a park, complete with vegetable garden, fountain and heavily used play spaces.
But the bulk of Caron’s research took place after she started painting: “Really it was when I was on the ground for many, many months that I got to know the most people that actually influenced the mural and enriched the mural.”
The mural portrays close to 300 local characters, all of whom Caron met while painting. “The details were not predetermined,” she said. “They were literally created on the spot as a result of conversations I had with people.”
Bierma filmed many of those conversations during weekly visits to the site. “It was a very interesting moment when the scaffolding came down and Mona and I were both finally at street level,” she said. “The entire dynamic of the interaction with the neighborhood changed and we really started to get to know a lot of the locals.”
Though Bierma condensed more than 60 hours of footage into a mere 20 minutes, she still conveys the intimacy with which Caron came to know neighborhood residents. In the film, the artist says she had first planned to depict Demb in her capacity as Street Sheet vendor. But when Demb revealed herself to be an artist, Caron painted her sitting at an easel, likewise surrounded by onlookers.
Demb said that portrayal helped improve her self-esteem. “They valued my art,” she said.
Bierma noticed many such moments in the process of making “A Brush With the Tenderloin.”
“I think the mural and film strive for similar goals,” she said, “to give voice and power to those who often feel invisible in our society.

To learn more about the film, visit To view the artist’s tour of the mural, visit