Artist and Illustrator Mona Caron Beautifies the Tenderloin to Bring Out The Best in the Community

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A woman with a fierce brunette mane spunkily walks over to a window-side table in the Castro's homey cafe, Tazza d'Amore. She is the Swiss-born artist and illustrator Mona Caron, who has made San Francisco her home, and she emanates the same kind of comforting warmth as the giant mug of steaming hot chocolate in front of her (complete with a fluffy pile of whipped cream).

Why the excellent spirit and good cheer? "I'm extremely lucky because I get to do my personal work as public art," Caron explains. "I want to tell stories with my artwork about the city and the ways to perceive our environment." Eagerly sipping the beverage before her, she shares with me how she aims to transform the communities she becomes a part of for the better. One of the most noticeable ways she does this is with the public murals she creates; this currently involves painting a once-bare brick building in the Tenderloin, selected for her to work on by the Tenderloin Community Benefit District.

The Tenderloin is simultaneously fraught with difficulty and teeming with passionate life. Caron chooses to focus on the latter. "Keep pushing for humanistic values in a society that stresses the good side of humanity," Caron advises me. "Of course, humans are capable of bad behavior. It's a question of which part of human nature you want to foster and build upon."

This heartfelt mindset is frequently reflected in her work, especially so with her Tenderloin mural. SF locals can see the work in progress at Jones and Golden Gate. The mural features brilliant, lively motifs of local scenes.

This outdoor venue that displays her work out in the open would presumably present issues that a traditional gallery setting would not encounter, but so far, Caron's work has been respected. People might deface her work, I observe, but Caron responds confidently, "I put forth the assumption that they won't."

"If I was reacting on the bad part of human nature I wouldn't be doing anything. But acting on the positive in human nature, I feel like it transforms the space."

With Caron's vision, this is certainly the case. Once-neglected places suddenly become points of meeting and enjoyment. The street becomes an essential junction where casual interactions take place and inform people's perceptions and subsequent treatment of each other.

"That's why I feel how we shape public spaces is crucial for how we shape humanity," Caron states. "In beautiful places people are more likely to meet each other out of a commercial context. If you do the opposite, you're going to have a lot of bars and fences and infrastructure."

Throughout the public beautification process, Caron is fervently involved. Forget working in isolated studios with a lonely palette and blank canvas. Caron engages, responding to the unique action surrounding her. "With murals, they see your whole process."

"I think the process of making a mural is like an extremely slow performance," she explains. "I trick people into thinking something is going to be on it and then surprise them. Or I start telling a story so people can predict what's going to happen next and start making suggestions."

Today, she realizes the joys of engaging in such an art form. "It was an extremely gregarious experience," she enthuses. She recognizes that "it was a far cry from being alone in (her) studio," where there was room for error, correction and perfection. Working in public, she was no longer afforded this luxury. "It was scary as hell at first," she admits. Fortunately for Caron, it seems to me that the public is supportive, patient and even excited to see what she dreams up with their relentless interest in her work.

This isn't the only help Caron beckons for. Before she begins a public mural project, Caron strives to find "the thing that makes it relevant to the community." Her current Tenderloin project is no different. "Before I come up with a design I try to learn about the place, about the location, about the history."

For Caron, this extends far beyond looking up a Wikipedia article or reading a paragraph out of a travel book. For this project, she established connections with real, flesh-and-blood people.

"I had dozens of interviews and tours with individuals and people and organizations," she says. "It was only after this that I started to design the mural."

Even more rare and amazing, she really listened, allowing her to be successful in inspiring real effects in the world. "I put the word out that if anyone there has a strong connection to the neighborhood and community and a story to tell, I'm available, and that they should call me up because I wanted to hear it."

It is a daunting task coming into a community as a San Francisco local who happens to be an outsider to the Tenderloin neighborhood and creatively representing it, but the positive response from the Tenderloin locals is encouraging. Of the experience, Caron says, "I'm surprised by how well it's been received by the people in the street. (There's) a lot of deep, deep sadness (here), but at the same time, a very warm and receptive population."

Someone left her with a more ambiguous, albeit thought-provoking, comment. "It's like sticking a diamond in a trash can," the person told her. This could be taken to mean that beauty can be found and truly appreciated anywhere.

As demonstrated by Mona Caron's artistic endeavors, sometimes planting something gorgeous in the most unexpected of places has profoundly positive effects. The most important thing to do for your community is to show it a little TLC.

As she polishes off the hot chocolate in the coffee shop of the neighborhood whose fabric she is now woven into, Caron muses, "I feel it would pay off to invest in beauty because I think you conjure up the better part of people by showing people it's cared for and cared about."

She suggests caring-a delightfully human capability with awesome potential.


Sara Hayden is the lead visual arts critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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