Guest Blogger: An Intern's Behind-the-Scenes Look at Exhibit Curation and Installation

With the season of school semesters, the San Francisco History Center has interns in the department working on special projects. What's on the 6th Floor? asked Carolyn, San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection intern, to be a guest blogger and highlight one of her projects.

All That Glitters Exhibition and Programs by Carolyn Gruss

Fillmore Roller Rink, 1949. Drawing by Kaytea Petro
Fillmore Roller Rink, 1949. Drawing by Kaytea Petro

The All that Glitters is Not Gold exhibit by San Francisco artist Kaytea Petro opened on November 1st. The exhibit features Petro’s unique hibiscus ink drawings alongside photos from the San Francisco Public Library's photo archives, which she used as inspiration for her work.

Kaytea Petro was born and raised in San Francisco and attended University of California, Santa Cruz, the Sichuan Academy of Art and the Florence Academy of Art. She is a sculptor and illustrator, and shows her work in the United States and China. She’s a member of Cyclecide Bike Rodeo, City Arts Cooperative Gallery and Red Brick Studios.

As the photo archives intern, I had the honor of curating and installing the exhibit (a completely new endeavor for me). Before I could even begin, I had to find all of the photos Petro used as inspiration. While some photos were easier to locate than others (the distinct images of North Beach beatniks on parade in 1958 was unique enough that finding it was pretty simple), I had the privilege of getting to sort through files of (mostly architectural) photos of San Francisco. Through photographs, I saw the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sutro Tower and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. I also had a chance to dive into the photos in the Library’s collection from the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 (also depicted by about half of Petro’s drawings on display). We sometimes had to settle on two photos, as the piece in question had synthesized elements of both.

Once all of the photos were located, I brought them down to the Exhibitions team, who taught me how to mount the photos and drawings. With the title tags they printed, I then installed the exhibit, arranging the photos with their corresponding drawings.

I had a very hands-on opportunity to collaborate with Petro and the Mix for an ink-making workshop this past Wednesday (November 13th), which gave me a glimpse into Petro’s process. We had a fun time microwaving hibiscus flowers with water and filtering the resulting mixture to make hibiscus ink (the same ink she used for all of the drawings in the exhibit; the ink changes color over time, making it a unique medium with which to work). Using the same process, we also made turmeric ink and eucalyptus pod ink. The ink-making event was a neat way to see the artistry and effort behind the drawings, and the chemistry/culinary work that allows said artistry.

Different teens were interested in different parts of the process — some favored ink-making, while others preferred to paint with the pre-made inks, and some teens were a little too turned off by the myriad smells in the maker lab to participate (the eucalyptus pods were, admittedly, very fragrant). Watching some of the teens in their artist element, collaborating with Petro, was inspiring and gave me a newfound appreciation of her artistry (and why the library is displaying her art).

Alcatraz, 1969. Drawing by Kaytea Petro
Alcatraz, 1969. Drawing by Kaytea Petro
But there’s also a tremendous importance in showcasing Petro’s art in conjunction with the photo archives. It’s easy, especially as someone who spends hours sorting through boxes of old photos (I’m currently working on the extensive Tenderloin Times photo collection), to forget the artistic and aesthetic qualities of photography in favor of its historical significance. As part of the San Francisco History Center, the photo archives (consisting of 2 million photos) has tremendous historical value, as documentation of the city’s history. But, as Petro shows, it also has value as artistic inspiration — and even as art in and of itself. This exhibit illustrates how the photo collection has not only historical relevance, but aesthetic relevance as well.

The exhibit will be on view until January 2nd, 2020. Kaytea Petro will be giving a gallery talk near the exhibit on Thursday, November 21st, at 6:30 p.m.

If you’re interested in more information about the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz, check out the Occupy Alcatraz! and Before the Occupation of Alcatraz exhibits, located in the Skylight Gallery (6th floor) and Government Information Center (5th floor), respectively. Find other events and programming at the library for National American Indian Heritage Month on the San Francisco Public Library calendar.

Fisherman, wife & grandfather, Alcatraz, c. 1970. Photo by John Sheafe.
Alcatraz Indian Occupation Records (SFH 11), SF History Center, SF Public Library.