Some artists want their works to appear behind the velvet ropes of a museum where guards keep an eye on visitors’ every move. Mildred Howard wants her work to be in places where everybody can see it. Her largest public art piece, Frame (2015), a 22-by-20-foot rococo bronze structure, is situated in San Francisco’s Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. The empty rectangle draws the eye to Refrain (2015), a cluster of vertical steel rods created by Walter Hood that stand as if in conversation with Howard’s work. Breathtaking views of Hunters Point, other parts of the city, Treasure Island, the East Bay, and even the South Bay lie both within and beyond Frame, depending on one’s vantage point. The piece highlights the shipyard’s central role in “migrations from the southern part of the United States,” Howard wrote in a catalog for the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. “People came out to the West Coast to find employment.… A lot of them worked in that shipyard. I wanted to frame those who walk through the frame. You are the art. You are part of what makes this place what it is.”
During an interview for the Berkeley Art Center, Howard said, “I’m always trying to bring in the African American experience because I don’t think it gets done enough.” And while Howard does not set out to produce socially or politically themed work, she has come to realize that those meanings will likely be found by spectators and by her, too, once a piece is assembled.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Creating public art is not an easy choice for anyone, but it makes sense for Howard, even though she took an indirect path to the field. She was born in San Francisco in 1945, the 10th child of Black parents, Mable and Rolly Howard, who had migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area from Galveston, Texas. Her mother sold antiques, and her father was a longshoreman. Growing up in Berkeley, she was surrounded by antiques and learned to evaluate the quality of their materials—knowledge that she applies when making mixed-media assemblages and sculptural installations. Howard explains, “I’ve always been trying to figure out how I can take something that’s ordinary and make it into something extraordinary.”
Howard lives in West Oakland in a building that was previously a factory where awnings were made and sold. Her loft space is filled with her own art—a prototype for Frame hangs on a living room wall—and works by her husband, John Moore; her grandchildren; and artist friends as well as objects and antiques from Africa and the Americas, and it could be one of those dazzling interiors displayed in Architectural Digest. Yet Howard lives on San Pablo Avenue in a district that a former white mayor once referred to as “Botswana.” It’s not lost on Howard that the powerful influence of her parents serves as a bulwark to counter such a hateful remark. Their roles as community leaders and union activists and their involvement in political causes not only shaped her worldview but also taught her patience and persistence.
To secure a public art commission, one must navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth. For starters, such projects can be sponsored by city, county, or state organizations; at the federal level, by the National Endowment for the Arts or the U.S. General Services Administration’s Art in Architecture Program, which requires that one half of 1 percent of the budget for any federal-building construction or remodel be designated for a public art commission; or by similar programs for privately owned buildings. To have their work considered, an artist must respond to a call for proposals, draw up a project plan, and then submit it to an appointed panel of judges.
The competition can be fierce. Berkeley’s Civic Arts Program has commissioned about 100 public artworks since its inception in 1967, selecting one or two per year from a field of 20 to 50 applicants; Oakland’s Percent for Art program has commissioned about 100 artworks since its creation in 1989 and receives between 25 and 150 applications per commission, of which there are one to five each year.
Once chosen, the artist enters into negotiations with urban planners and other government officials about the materials and assembly methods to be used, in order to meet safety and other construction requirements. The winning artist also participates in meetings with residents of the sited community to explain how the work will represent something meaningful to the place and its inhabitants.
It wasn’t until Howard was about 40 that, as a graduate art student with young children, she first responded to a call for public art proposals. “I started seeing all these white men get a lot of public art projects, and I thought, I want to do this,” she recalls.
Ironically, the site for the work was Marin County’s Mill Valley, one of the wealthiest and whitest enclaves in the Bay Area. Her winning proposal, a temporary installation with performances called The Gospel and the Storefront Church (1984), was set in the town’s then–post office, which also functioned as a community center. There were performances by, among others, the Marin City Choir, singing gospel music, and Bishop Norman Williams, who at the time was with the Saint John Coltrane Church, named for the late tenor saxophonist. The work served as a jumping-off point for the larger projects Howard does today, although 16 years passed before she was commissioned to create a permanent public work.
During this time, in addition to pursuing her art, she worked and raised her two kids. For 11 years, Howard held various positions at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a museum of science, technology, and the arts. She took the museum’s inquiry-based approach to thinking and making and adapted it to her art. “I had no idea of the connection between art and science,” she admits. “Scientists question things, and they go on this journey of investigation and exploration. Through that journey, you learn and discover other ways of seeing and doing. I realized that artists do the same thing. Artists, like scientists, question their way of working and thinking. They are curious about the world. It is the ‘what if?’ that is interesting to me as an artist. You can go in one direction or another, and maybe even both directions simultaneously. Everything I do now, whether it’s obvious within the context of the work or not, I’m always thinking about that. I’m always trying to learn something new, even if I’ve been doing it for years.”
Howard’s first large permanent public art project, Salty Peanuts (2000), an homage to the Bay Area’s rich jazz history, can be found inside the San Francisco International Airport. Much like Howard’s career, the work evolved over time.
“I decided I had to collect saxophones, I think 130,” she says. “All kinds of saxophones. Wherever I traveled, I bought saxophones and had them shipped to my studio. At one time, my whole studio was filled with saxophones. First I had wanted to use trumpets, but trumpets are played at funerals. So I said, ‘No, I’m going to use saxophones.’ Even before that, I had wanted to use a wall of suitcases, but [the commissioners] said, ‘Oh no, it’s too much like a plane crash.’ I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was thinking more about the migration of people. Dizzy Gillespie was on the radio playing ‘Salt Peanuts.’ I had the first four bars of Gillespie’s composition cut out in powder-coat steel and the saxophones mounted to the steel on the wall.”
Another work, Moving Richmond (2014), shows the importance of collaboration in public art. The project, commissioned by the city of Richmond, involved Howard as lead artist; my husband, Ishmael Reed, as poet; and Hugh Hynes as architect. Howard’s vision: “If you take a piece of paper and fold it into various shapes, that’s how the poem was laser cut into two 12-feet-by-40-feet corten steel sculptures.” In his poem, Reed tried to capture the essence of the city as understood from numerous meetings with Richmond residents. Hynes executed the weathered-steel pieces, which echo the area’s industrial roots, and mounted them on a parking-garage exterior wall at Richmond’s mass-transit hub.
Howard attributes her use of cut-out letters to science and the history of race in the United States: “The reason why I had the poem in negative space goes back to my work at the Exploratorium. Because during the course of the day, the shadows of the words move across the floor, depending on the light and the season. And you can think about that also as a metaphor of Black folks moving from the South, hopefully to find a better way of life. Yet although somewhat better, racism still exists. It just takes on a different form and shows itself in many ways—education, employment, housing, food deserts, to name a few.”
Over her 40-year career, Howard has received commissions for a half dozen temporary installations and 16 permanent public art projects. Her honors include a pair of Rockefeller Foundation residencies and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in visual arts; her work is in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the de Young Museum, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Yet winning commissions never gets easy, particularly if the artist is a Black woman in her late 70s, no matter her reputation. The art world itself and many higher centers of learning—which often oversee public art commissions—remain hindered by racism. Still, Howard fights for grants and commissions that will allow her to work full-time as an artist: “Public art helps me make money. It pays my rent.”
Howard is excited for her next potential project, Falling Dominoes, even if one commission panel has already passed on it. Her plan consists of seven eight-foot-tall dominoes, rendered in bronze, suspended while falling from vertical to horizontal, as if in a chain reaction. For Howard, the piece would acknowledge how cultures influence one another. Undeterred by the initial rejection, she will propose it elsewhere.
In the meantime, she has three large-scale public art pieces in progress. One is a redo of her Locks and Keys for Harry Bridges, originally designed in 2001 for the half-block stretch of San Francisco’s Stevenson Street that now dead-ends at the valet parking entrance of a Four Seasons hotel. The work features large, upright bronze keys set in locks in the sidewalks on both sides of the alleyway, and it honors Bridges, the founder and for 40 years the leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in San Francisco, who opened up doors.
Another, presently untitled work is scheduled to be installed in May or June at the Southeast Community Center in the Bayview district of San Francisco. Inspired by West African currency, Howard has cast 14-, 16-, and 18-foot-tall boat shapes in bronze. In her proposal, she wrote that this “universal, iconic shape calls to mind the perpetual movement of immigrants and the hard-fought wealth—both economic and intangible—needed to build their communities, standing tall as a proud and dignified reminder that we all ultimately arrived in this country from somewhere else.”
Howard’s third project, a variation on the West African–currency design, is planned for Berkeley’s Ashby BART station. “I’m going to put it in Berkeley if I can ever get through the paperwork,” she says. “I’m thinking of naming it after my mother. She led a suit against BART, and that is the reason it is underground in Berkeley.”•