Summer 2003

826 Valencia

Chris Ware’s new mural tells the story of the human race

Given that Chris Ware is famed for comics that combine inspectable illustration with fiendishly small typography, the artist’s vast public mural for San Francisco’s 826 Valencia centre is an oddity. The piece, which measures 13 feet by 20 feet (3.9m x 6m), was commissioned by the author Dave Eggers and applied by artisans to Ware’s exacting specifications.

The mural’s intricate causal diagrams depict the development of the human race, along with its efforts at, and motivations for, communication. The theme is sympathetic with the centre’s philanthropic function to encourage and tutor young writers. ‘I didn’t want it to make anyone “feel good”, especially in that typically muralistic “hands across the water” sort of way,’ explains Ware, ‘I especially wanted it to be something that people living in the neighbourhood could look at day after day and hopefully not tire of too quickly. I really hoped whomever might happen to come across it would find something that showed a respect for their intelligence, and didn’t force-feed them any “message”.’

Ware’s earlier drafts of the piece were considered too ‘adult’ for some of the centre’s patrons. ‘The original version of the mural was deemed too graphic for the five-year-old children who were to be passing underneath it. (I’d originally thought that 826 Valencia was only for high-schoolers.) So, it went through an “R” rated, and then a “PG-13” rated version, which was painted on the building.

The original “X” version, however, will be on the Quimby the Mouse book.’ The centre’s director, Ninive Calegari, notes that viewing such unusually complex artwork has its hazards as well as rewards: ‘We’re so blessed to have the mural – Chris Ware fans, old and new, come in the store and ask about it. Sometimes I worry because people stand out in the middle of the street – by far the best vantage point to look at the work.’

826 Valencia is located at 826 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, www.826valencia.org

See a photograph of the mural at: www.826valencia.org/about/facade/

Chris Ware’s Quimby the Mouse is published by Fantagraphics, priced .95. www.fantagraphics.com

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