Berkeley has long trumpeted its pride that hometown artist Mildred Howard has achieved international recognition and acclaim. But it’s only now, a full decade after a 2011 proclamation declared March 29 “Mildred Howard Day” in Berkeley, that the city has commissioned its first public artwork from the artist.
On Feb. 23, the City Council approved a $210,000 contract with Howard, funded through the Cultural Trust Fund. Her sculpture will sit in a green space at the intersection of Adeline Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Its toric shape is based on a type of West African currency and will be around 10′ of hammered bronze, according to Howard’s proposal.
“I don’t think I can think of anybody more uniquely qualified to create public art at this exact spot than Ms. Howard,” Council member Kate Harrison said at the meeting, naming a few of Howard’s lengthy credits: her activism as a member of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality in during the Civil Rights Movement; her time as a cultural ambassador with US State Department; her involvement with Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School’s edible schoolyard; and the successful advocacy by her mother, Mable Howard, to fully underground the BART line that runs through Berkeley in order to protect the predominantly Black neighborhoods that aboveground tracks would have disrupted.
“I have an immense amount of reverence for what it means for her art to stand at this intersection,” Harrison concluded.
The enthusiasm for Howard to finally have a public artwork in Berkeley goes both ways.
Howard is “grateful” to the Civic Arts Commission for selecting her, she said in an interview, and excited for what this sculpture will represent for her old neighborhood.
“I’m really happy to be doing this piece because hopefully, just hopefully, it’ll make a difference at how people look at art,” she said. “It’s a way to show the hidden talents and wealth within the Black community, specifically as it relates to the areas of South Berkeley that were once African American.”
Howard originally proposed the sculpture for placement in San Pablo Park in late 2018, and her design was one of four finalists before the selection committee, said Modesto Covarrubias, who is a member of the Civics Art Commission and sat on the San Pablo Park committee. Even after the committee opted for another proposal, “Mildred’s spoke to us in such a strong way that we spoke to the Civic Arts Commission and recommended that it become part of the city, in some way,” he said.
Forced out of Berkeley after rent was doubled
Howard’s story echoes that of many Black families who once lived in South and West Berkeley.
She grew up in South Berkeley and lived there until 2017, when her rent doubled and she was forced to move out of the building where she lived and worked. Howard now lives in Oakland, and, while she’s not far from her childhood home, the pain of displacement has stayed with her.
“I thought Berkeley would protect me,” she said. “But it’s probably good that it happened, because it’s part of the myth.”
“It’s so unfortunate that we’ve lost this community gem, in terms of where she lives and where she works,” said Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson, a former Civic Arts commissioner and an artist herself. Johnson has lived in south Berkeley for 38 years, and she’s “watched the diminishment” of the city’s Black neighborhoods, she said.
“We’re a city that is also complicated and conflicted about who lives here,” Johnson said. “Unless Black people live here, there’s no Black representation on commissions and committees… The face of those policy-making bodies have changed.”
“There’s just so much Black culture in south Berkeley, and (now) I go there and I’m lucky to see Black people at all,” Howard reflected.
“Where does that legacy go when they leave? What are they taking with them?” Johnson asked of the Black families who once lived in Berkeley. Howard’s sculpture is one way of asking that question to the public, she said, and to “reclaim, remember, pay homage to, the people that were an important part of Berkeley’s revolutionary history.”
Before Howard’s as-yet-unnamed sculpture is erected, fans of Berkeley’s extensive list of public art can see the newest additions soon at the North Berkeley Senior Center, where work on a tree-themed artwork will soon be complete, Covarrubias said, and at San Pablo Park, where wildflower benches by Michael Arcega will soon be installed.