Benny Buffano

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Beni­amino Bufano
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.
The Dream
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 georg​erath​mell​.com

One thought on “Benny Buffano”

  1. Pam Riley says:

    I am trying to find infor­ma­tion about Benjamin Bufano’s paint­ings

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