Transgender artist's murals debut at SFO Milk terminal

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 12, 2024
Share this Post:
The completed murals by artist Craig Calderwood are seen in Harvey Milk Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
The completed murals by artist Craig Calderwood are seen in Harvey Milk Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

A vibrant cornucopia of flowers, fruits, butterflies, canines, and flora-headed figures awaits airline travelers arriving to San Francisco International Airport via its Harvey Milk Terminal 1. The psychedelic mélange of blissful grooviness fills the wall spaces of a three-story atrium lighted by a skylight.

As people descend the escalators or staircase after leaving the terminal's new automated security exit gates as of June 17 to retrieve their luggage and access ground transportation, they will be flanked by the large art installation painted onto the walls surrounding the area. It is the creation of San Francisco-based artist Craig Calderwood.

Three years ago, Calderwood won the $200,000 commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission to design the art for the space. It is the first large public art project for the transgender and queer artist, who grew up in Bakersfield in California's Central Valley.

"An opportunity to create work that has a kind of queerness to it, that is highly visible, feels exciting to me. Also, it is just such an interesting space," Calderwood had told the Bay Area Reporter shortly after being selected for the project.

This year, working three days a week beginning in March and wrapping up in mid-May, Calderwood and five other artists painted the artwork onto the walls, at times from scaffolding. Among them was gay muralist Richard Bolingbroke, who happens to live a block away from Calderwood and would commute with them on public transit to the airport.

"I can't emphasize enough what a huge deal this mural is. To be part of the Milk terminal, which in itself is a major accomplishment, is enormous," noted Bolingbroke. "For the SFAC to choose a nonbinary artist of Craig's accomplishment was an act of bravery on their part. It's an in-your-face piece of defiance of the cultural norms of the rest of the U.S., which are so threatened right now."

Bolingbroke had been contacted to assist with the installation by Susan Kelk Cervantes, the founding director of Precita Eyes Muralists Association Inc. Calderwood had reached out about contracting with her organization to lend its expertise with their commission at SFO.

Cervantes noted to the B.A.R. that Calderwood "had never done anything as big as this project" and "wanted to do it really hands on." After being asked if she was interested in helping out, Cervantes checked out Calderwood's other work and their concept for the SFO murals and said, "it's a great project, let's do it."

(Calderwood didn't respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. Cervantes told the B.A.R. she believes they went on a vacation in the mountains.)

Also assisting on the installation was Eli Lippert, Jared Mar, and Ellen Silva. It marked the first time that Cervantes and Precita Eyes were involved in an art project at SFO.

"It is going to be monumental," said Cervantes of Calderwood's murals, with their "bold colors and images of people with very colorful costumes and flowers and fruits that make up their heads."

Working with Calderwood was "very fun," added Cervantes, who hopes SFO passengers have a similar feeling about the murals.

"If they go away just feeling happy and joyful being in their presence, I think that is the best thing to be expected," she said.

Bolingbroke pointed out to the B.A.R. that four different pink paints were used for different parts of the artwork, which he described as "outrageous" and "in your face." It is clear from looking at it that it isn't the work of a straight guy, he added.

"I don't think there is any doubt about that," said Bolingbroke. "Look at the long hands and fingernails of the figures. The imagery is magnificent and so decorative but also so poignant."

When he asked Calderwood why the figures' faces are made out of flowers, the response he received was, "Well darling, what do you think?"

While Bolingbroke hopes it elicits smiles on the faces of those who see it, the artwork has a deeper meaning embedded into its fanciful depictions, he noted.

"It is not just a pretty piece of art. It is art with some depth to it," said Bolingbroke.

Showing off the artwork to the B.A.R. in late May, SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel noted, "It is quite an amazing welcome."

Muralists Richard Bolingbroke, left, and Craig Calderwood took a break while working on the public art at Harvey Milk Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport. Photo: Courtesy Richard Bolingbroke  

Terminal redo wraps up
Calderwood's murals are part of the final phase of the yearslong $2.5 billion makeover for the Milk terminal. Also completed are two new gates, five new concessions, a new common-use lounge, a new museum gallery, and a connecting walkway linking all four of SFO's terminals post-security. San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Airport Director Ivar C. Satero will take part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10:30 a.m. Monday, June 17.

Still to be installed is another artwork inspired by Milk, the first out LGBTQ person to hold elected office in California after the gay rights leader won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 only to be assassinated a year later. As the B.A.R. reported in 2020, artist Andrea Bowers received a $1.1 million commission to reimagine the underpass in front of the arrivals area outside the Milk terminal.

Inspired by the marquee of the Castro Theatre in the city's LGBTQ district, where Milk lived and owned a camera shop, Bowers' piece is to feature disco balls and neon quotes from Milk. It was to be in place by now, but there was a manufacturing issue with some of the neon components Bowers, a straight ally, needs to have made, Yakel told the B.A.R. As of now, the installation is slated for some time in 2027, he said.

"When she can get that fabricated, she will be able to install it," said Yakel.

It will further add to the "wow moments" that Milk terminal arriving passengers will encounter. It isn't often that airport arrival areas receive such artistic treatments, noted Yakel.

"The fact we are getting something on that level is going to give someone arriving to the region one last moment of surprise and delight before they leave the airport," he noted.

The new section of the Milk terminal officially opens to the public Monday. It was delayed by a week due to state inspectors needing time to check on its moving walkways.

Alaska Airlines is expected to make operational on June 19 its new ticketing area to the left of the Door 5 entrance into the terminal. Come the fall Delta is scheduled to also relocate its operations in Terminal 2 at SFO into the area to the right of that entrance way into the Milk terminal.

Passengers needing to check in or drop off luggage with either airline will use the security entrance at the southern end of the Milk terminal by Door 4 that has been in use since the revamped area of the airport reopened in the summer of 2019.

For those arriving by SFO's AirTrain who already checked in online and don't have to drop off luggage, they will be able to walk from the shuttle station into the Milk terminal and access a new mezzanine-level security checkpoint above the main departures area. Calderwood's mural is visible to the left of that entryway.

"The travel hack for Harvey Milk Terminal 1 is you can stay on this level and go right to security," said Yakel as he pointed out the new checkpoint.

In January, a B.A.R. reporter using the airport's automated shuttle system that travels from its long-term parking structure to the four terminals noticed the voice-over didn't refer to Harvey Milk Terminal 1. It merely called it Terminal 1.

Since then airport officials renamed the International Terminal in honor of the late U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein, who died last fall. Like the Milk terminal, its new name is not used for the AirTrain narration.

Asked about SFO updating the script so the names of Milk and Feinstein are used, Yakel told the B.A.R. airport officials have taken it under consideration.

"We are reviewing the AirTrain announcements to determine if we can accommodate named terminals in the audio. There is a time constraint in these that favors more condensed announcements," explained Yakel.

Artist Craig Calderwood earlier this year worked on their mural in Harvey Milk Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport. Photo: SFO Museum  

Murals nod to Milk
After an initial request by gay former supervisor David Campos to name the entire airport after Milk was rejected, followed by a protracted fight over naming Terminal 1 for the civil rights leader, city officials finalized the aviation honor in 2018. It became the first airport facility in the world named after an LGBTQ leader.

Other legislative fights ensued over how the airport would handle the signage for the Harvey Milk Terminal 1 and how it would incorporate Milk's life story into its design, resulting in the requirement for artwork inspired by him.

The SFO Museum created a photographic exhibit tracing Milk's life from his childhood in New York to his days as a pioneering political operative in San Francisco during the 1970s. It is in an area dubbed the Central Inglenook near the American Airlines check-in counters at the Milk terminal.

In talking about the inspiration for their murals, Calderwood had told the B.A.R. they wanted to create a piece that didn't necessarily represent Milk in a straightforward way.

"I was looking at Harvey Milk's legacy and his wanting life for others to be nice and easy. Not just queer people, but labor unions and all kinds of marginalized people who deserved to have a nice life and an easy life," said Calderwood.

The murals incorporate a 1960s motif that harkens to Milk's growing up during that time period and derided for looking like a hippie with his long hair and way of dress. The inclusion of dogs into one mural scene nods to Milk's sponsoring a local law to encourage dog owners to pick up their pooches' poop. Milk famously planted a pile of dog excrement to step on following a news conference he held about the law.

"Dogs feel very San Francisco to me. A lot of people are trying to make a dog happen in their life in the city," Calderwood had noted.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife.
Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!