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by George Rathmell
He was just five feet tall, but he was a giant in his field. His field was sculpture, and the majority of his work resides, fortunately for us, in and around San Francisco.
A one-day visitor to the city who simply did the forty-nine–mile scenic drive would be likely to encounter at least five of Benny’s works. The Virgin and Child statue on the lawn at Fort Mason would no doubt capture our tourist’s attention. A stark, simplified version of Mary stands with her hands on a child’s shoulders. One hand is white, the other black. The child, done in mosaic, has four eyes but somehow does not look grotesque. Down the street at the Longshoreman’s Hall at Fisherman’s Wharf, a smiling Belgian granite St. Francis of Assisi, his arms outstretched, looks down benevolently on the passersby.
As our tourist continues west through Fisherman’s Wharf, he’ll see on the promenade deck of the Maritime Museum a collection of smaller, stylized Bufano works. Down in Golden Gate Park at the new Academy of Science, there are several animal sculptures in the West and East Gardens.
And, as the visitor completes his circular tour of the city and arrives at St. Mary’s Square, he will encounter one of Bufano’s most impressive pieces, the Sun Yat Sen statue, a twelve-foot rendering of the “father of modern China.” Sun Yat Sen was a major hero to the iconoclastic Bufano, who created this impressive work in stainless steel and red granite, a unique combination of stone and metal that he would use in future works as well.
Beyond The Tourist Route
At the Valencia Gardens Housing Project, Bufano’s glistening statue of a mother bear nursing two cubs, in smooth red granite, is a joy to the eye. Nearby are two granite seals, a granite cat with a mouse, and a granite butterfly. At the Sunnydale Project, a curious work titled Bear and Virgin shows the head of a growling black bear over a woman’s head, symbolizing peace. St. Francis on Horseback, an elegant twelve-foot black granite statue stands in the Westside Courts Housing Project. Its smooth, understated form is both calm and potent.
A favorite of San Franciscans is Bufano’s Penguin’s Prayer, another steel and granite work, located in Davis Court in the Golden Gateway Project. San Francisco City College has a work that includes a mosaic of a children’s choir. Curiously, two cats are pictured with the choir, their mouths open as if they were singing along. For years, visitors arriving at San Francisco Airport were greeted by Bufano’s thirty-foot Peace figure. When the airport was expanded, the statue was moved to Brotherhood Way, just off Highway 280. It’s another Madonna and four-eyed child representation in steel, granite, and mosaic.
Who Was Benny Bufano?
Beniamino Bufano, born in San Fele, Italy ,in 1886, was one of sixteen children. His family immigrated to New York when he was three, and at six he began contributing to the family income by shining shoes and peddling newspapers. He dropped out of school after the third grade, but entered art school as a teenager, working there as a janitor in lieu of tuition. Later he became apprenticed with the sculptor James Frasier, while he continued to work as a janitor.
In 1915, a fellow sculptor, who’d been selected to create works for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, offered Benny a job as his assistant. Once in San Francisco, Benny’s talents were recognized, and he began receiving regular and lucrative commissions.
One of the legends around Bufano was that he had cut off his trigger finger and mailed it to President Wilson to protest America’s involvement in World War I. According to his wife, Virginia, however, the artist had accidentally lost two joints of his right index finger to an electric saw. Nevertheless, that legend established his credentials as a pacifist for the rest of his life.
He returned to New York to convince his girlfriend to accompany him back to California. The couple settled in a cottage in Sausalito, and had a daughter whom they named Aloha. Benny spent the next three years in China, studying pottery, supported by a wealthy Marin County patron, Colonel Charles E. S. Wood.
When Benny returned, Colonel Wood secured a position for him as an instructor in sculpture at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts. Benny was extremely popular with his students, but not so with the school’s administrators. A free spirit and dedicated bohemian, Benny had difficulty with rules, paperwork, and bureaucracy, and his teaching career at Fine Arts was short-lived.
His attitude toward money was equally nonchalant. He gave away more of his works than he sold, even though they were worth large sums. Recently, his ram’s head carved from jade that a benefactor had donated to the Children’s Hospital in Oakland was appraised at $50,000. He lived simply, and when he ran out of funds, he would tell his friends he was off for an important commission and then head into the valley to pick fruit or vegetables. Herb Caen reported at one point that Benny was delivering newspapers from 3 to 6 AM to keep body and soul together.
Having abandoned his common-law wife and daughter, Benny married Virginia Howard. The sale of the works he’d brought from China permitted an around-the-world honeymoon that began in Japan and ended in Paris when his wife announced that she was pregnant. Bufano was furious and sent his bride home. He had a large project in mind and had no time for babies.
He’d discovered and purchased a huge piece of granite in a quarry outside of Paris. From salvaged lumber, he built a crude shelter over the stone. This hut served as his home and workshop for the next four years while he carved his sixteen-foot St. Francis of Assisi. When it was complete, he returned to San Francisco to raise money to ship it home.
But money was not easy to come by in the Depression of year 1930, and St. Francis lingered in a French warehouse for twenty-five years before the Church of St. Francis at North Beach undertook to pay its passage and install it at the church entry. Not everyone was happy with it; parishioners complained that “it got in the way.” It was deported to Oakland where it spent time before arriving at its present Fisherman’s Wharf location.
From the time he first saw her at the age of three and each time subsequently, Bufano had been inspired by the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York harbor, symbolizing freedom and welcoming immigrants. He dreamed of a similar monument on the west coast æ a huge statue that would represent peace and harmony. And who else to create it? Bufano, of course. It would be a stainless steel statue of St. Francis on horseback, 156-feet high, and placed at the top of Twin Peaks, visible for miles in all directions.
He drew plans, made a model, and began promoting the project which, he was sure, would gain him immortal renown. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) supported his plan and provided him with workshops, assistants and a salary. All was progressing smoothly until a local columnist, Westbrook Pegler, began to oppose the project with biting satire, calling it a “tombstone cutter’s nightmare.” Controversy followed, and public opinion was polarized. Finally, the WPA withdrew its support, and Benny’s dream died.
In his final years, Bufano was a genuine San Francisco character. He lived rent-free at the Press Club, and ate free meals at Moar’s Cafeteria where he’d created three huge mosaic murals. Vic Bergeron, the owner of Trader Vic’s, paid the rent on Benny’s studio and gave him a permanent meal ticket. Vic was generous but objected whenever Benny would order champagne, pàté, and caviar.
Outside the city, Bufano works are scattered around the Bay Area: at Stonestown and Hillsdale shopping centers, the College of Notre Dame, Mondavi Winery, and the largest work, the ninety-three-foot Peace totem at Timber Cove Lodge on Highway One, north of Jenner. When Bufano died in 1970, he left all of his unsold and undonated works to the Bufano Society of the Arts. In a final touch of irony, his son, Erskine, whom he’d seen only twice briefly and never acknowledged, contested his father’s will and became head of the Bufano Society.
It is thanks to this society that so many Bufano works are still in this area. As Kevin Starr wrote in The Dream Endures: “Bufano’s animal sculptures remain…masterpieces of their genre, elegant and simply shaped, dynamic with the essential innocence, the unconscious joy, of the animal world as perceived by a disciple of St. Francis.”
George Rathmellis a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Nob Hill Gazette. His information is available at georgerathmell.com