Milk mosaic will raise funds for local groups
by Matthew S. Bajko
Harvey Milk is about to bring some well-needed hope to the bottom lines of both the LGBT Community Center and the GLBT Historical Society. A limited edition photomosaic of the gay rights hero created by artist Robert Silvers is about to go on sale, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the nonprofit agencies.
Called "Milk," the artwork uses 2,300 black and white photos of Milk and the Castro during the 1970s from the historical society's archives to recreate a photo of the slain San Francisco supervisor taken by his close friend and photographer Dan Nicoletta. A limited edition of 100 copies of the 36 by 27 inch photomosaic printed on aluminum will be sold for $3,500 through the Scott Richards Contemporary Art Gallery in San Francisco.
"I have seen the final work. I think it looks beautiful," said Paul Boneberg, the society's executive director. "As soon as they make it available to us, we will put it on display."
The society stands to make $50,000 from the sale of the art, said Boneberg.
"We are very grateful. It is a lot of money for us," he said.
Rebecca Rolfe, the executive director of the center, said the project will bring renewed attention to Milk's inspirational history as the first out gay man to be elected to public office in a major U.S. city. In 1977 Milk won his bid for the supervisor seat after several failed attempts. His signature line of "You Gotta Give 'em Hope" has become part of the LGBT community's lexicon.
"In terms of his being a role model and his message of hope, it is still relevant, if not more relevant than it was 30 years ago," said Rolfe. "I do think Harvey Milk is really an icon and that his message remains very fresh for people and very relevant today. I think people are looking for hope and inspiration and he has come to represent that for people."
The unique fundraiser came about through a chance meeting between local art collector Dr. Larry Bennett, a retired veterinarian who co-owns the Lookout bar in the Castro, and Richards, who represents Silvers, at an art show in Florida earlier this year. Richards later phoned Bennett to seek his help in connecting Silvers with photos of Milk to create the artwork.
The openly gay Bennett, 67, who knew Milk back in the mid-1970s, approached both the center and the historical society about the project. He said he signed on to help because he saw the project as a way to honor Milk's legacy in a more lasting way than the Oscar-winning film Milk , which was released last year.
"I wanted this to be a permanent fixture. The movie may be forgotten but art collectors want to have him in their life forever," said Bennett, who had yet to see the final artwork as of this week. "Harvey was a symbol of gay liberation and I think he would be so pleased that we want to pass his image to the annals of history. That is really what we are doing."
Silvers, who is straight and lives outside of Boston, pioneered the photomosaic technique while a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has used it to recreate images of Marilyn Monroe, President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, Elvis Presley, and countless other images coveted by collectors. Sir Elton John owns two of his works, which normally sell for anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 depending on how many prints are issued. Usually Silvers will create no more than 20 prints of each photomosaic.
"I saw a man arranging dominoes to look like portraits. I thought, why not arrange photos to look like another photo from a distance," recalled the 40-year-old Silvers of the inspiration for his signature pieces in a phone interview this week. "I am always looking for inspiring people to do portraits about. I saw the movie about Harvey Milk. I didn't know anything about him before that. It made me want to read more."
Rifling through the society's old photos it had sent him, Silvers failed to find a signature portrait shot of Milk. The society then asked Nicoletta for one of his photos, and he sent Silvers a black and white shot of a smiling Milk, similar to the image used to create the bust of Milk now housed inside City Hall.
"Dan's photo just grabbed me," said Silvers. "I could see in his photo he knew the subject really well and was conscious of that."
In order to have the artwork done for Pride, Silvers truncated the time it normally takes to create one of his works, working day and night to complete the project. The hardest part is assembling the smaller photos in such a way that they recreate the larger photo.
"I crop them all to squares to fit together and do it by hand. I then load each photo by hand and hand crop it on a computer, that way I can get the composition right. I don't want to cut off people's heads," said Silvers, who 11 years ago donated a piece that used panels of the AIDS quilt to create a non-gender specific face to help raise money for the Names Project Foundation.
The Milk piece will be unveiled at a free public celebration beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 23 at the Lookout, 3600 16th Street near Market Street. The artwork is available for purchase through the gallery at 251 Post Street, Suite 425, in downtown San Francisco.