Mural at 2742 Martin Luther King Way; photo by John Storey.
Mural at 2742 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. Photo: John Storey.

In a back yard off of Martin Luther King sits a mural that has long outlived its life expectancy.

It was painted by Berkeley resident Jane Norling in 1984 as part of the Balmy Alley Mural Project in San Francisco’s Mission District. Artists painted murals along the alley, celebrating indigenous Central American cultures and protesting U.S. intervention in Central America. At the time, President Reagan was supporting counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua, the Duarte junta in El Salvador, and the military dictatorship of General Efrain Garcia in Guatamala.

How it came to rest in a back yard is why it is part of Berkeley’s quirky fabric.

For several reasons, this mural is my favorite Berkeley mural, bar none.  First, it is visible from the street but not easily seen, adding a dash of mystery. Second, artistically it is a beautiful example of social realism, all that a mural can be in my book. Third, the subject matter — the literacy campaign of the revolutionary Nicaraguan government — is inspiring. Fourth, it has a great 30-year story.

Jane Norling mural in Balmy Alley; photographer unknown.
Jane Norling mural in Balmy Alley, San Francisco. Photo: Timothy Drescher

Among the murals on Balmy Alley was Jane Norling’s depiction of  the Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign that had been launched in 1980 by the Sandinista  government in order to reduce illiteracy. The mural is named “Darles Armas Y Tambien Ensenarles a Leer” (Give Them Arms and Also Teach Them to Read), a quote from Sandinista educator Carlos Fonseca Amador.  

Jane Norling was not a newcomer to art honoring struggle when she painted the mural.

Jane Norling in 1978; photographer unknown.
Jane Norling in 1978. Photographer unknown.

In the 1970s, Norling was a member of the People’s Press collective in San Francisco. The collective designed, printed and published movement literature, community flyers, posters and small books. Norling printed and designed posters at People’s Press, at the San Francisco Art Commission Neighborhood Arts Print & Design Shop, and elsewhere. Here are two of her iconic posters:

Norling Tri Poster

Jane Norling was an early member of the Haight Ashbury muralists and helped to create the 1976 mural “Our History is No Mystery” on the wall of John Adams Community College at Masonic and Hayes in San Francisco.  

Her mural stayed in Balmy Alley for several years, but eventually the landlord took down the fence which had been the canvas for the mural. Norling was able to rescue her mural, fence plank by fence plank.

Once the mural was rescued, Norling and her son washed and clear-coated the painted boards. She has it loosely installed in her Berkeley yard, leaning against a fence, lightly secured by horizontal wires.

Norling explained her relationship with the mural today: “Once removed from its original context, I saw no need to keep up the painting, and have enjoyed watching it go the way of time. From where I sit at my computer, I see my favorite figure, painted from a photograph by MargaretRandall. The painting is now part of our local environment in Berkeley.”

Jane Norling; photo by John Storey.
Jane Norling. Photo: John Storey
Sometimes the wind blows the murals panels apart. Photo: Tom Dalzell
Sometimes the wind blows the mural panels apart. Photo: John Storey

When I went by her house to photograph the mural properly, the fence was in disarray on account of strong winds the night before. Jane straightened it out, plank by plank. This spring, recognizing the passage of 30 years since painting the mural, Norling made a photographic series of close-up images of the boards, “examining the faded paint on ridged weathered board. Each board has weathered differently.” Here is one example:

Close-up of mural; photo by Jane Norling.
Close-up of mural. Photo: Jane Norling

You can see the mural if you stand on your tiptoes at the front gate and look south by southwest. Norling welcomes visitors. “I’m happy to show it to visitors, with photo of complete mural in hand.”

Norling remains proud and fond of the mural, although she has moved away from overtly political work to paintings “that focus on expressing the intense beauty she experiences firsthand in the canyons, forests, glaciers, shores, mountains lying just beyond city life.” Her work as displayed on her website is stunning.

For a fuller treatment of Jane Norling’s mural, see Quirky Berkeley.

Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,400 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means. This is the fifth installment in the series.

How quirky is Berkeley? Topiary art (05.02.14)
How quirky is Berkeley? The giant orange of Spruce St. (04.17.14)
How quirky is Berkeley? Painted garage doors
How quirky is Berkeley? Check out these dinosaurs (03.20.14)

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Freelancer Tom Dalzell has lived in Berkeley since 1984. After working for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers for 10 years as a legal worker and then lawyer, he went to work for another labor union...