It came to him one raucous night in 1978 while dancing at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Gilbert Baker took in the colored lights, the swirling bodies, the reflections off the mirrored ball, and in a flash he conceived a symbol to represent his LGBTQ+ community: a rainbow flag.
That flag has since become the ubiquitous banner of gay communities and pride parades everywhere. And Baker, who died in 2017, has been remembered as a latter-day, queer Betsy Ross.
Now Berkeley-based sculptor Dina Angel-Wing has memorialized Baker in bronze with a piece celebrating the flag and its importance. All the sculpture needs is a permanent home.
“I realized the most important part of this story is the freedom to love,” the Israeli-born artist said. “That’s the essence of the flag.”
In the piece, a smiling Baker is seated on one end of a bench, the famed multi-colored flag draped across a shoulder. On the other end are the figures of a loving gay couple in a casual embrace. And in between, there’s a space for anyone to sit.
The couple depicted were modeled after Dr. Jerome Goldstein, a prominent San Francisco neurologist and LGBTQ+ activist, and his late husband, Tom Taylor. Goldstein commissioned the piece and first met with Angel-Wing two years ago to discuss the project — underneath a wind-whipped rainbow flag at Harvey Milk Plaza.
After Baker’s death, Goldstein wanted to pay tribute to him, and at the same time honor his husband who, by 2020, had fallen gravely ill. A work of art seemed to be the best way possible. Goldstein “wanted to commemorate both of them,” Angel-Wing said. “He was trying to get in touch with the merchants association of the Castro, but he knew it would take too long [for approvals]. So he [commissioned] it himself. Then we met at the plaza where the big flag is.”
Goldstein, 81, has been active in the local LGBTQ community for decades. In 1977 he co-founded Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, an organization dedicated to improving health care for members of the LGBTQ community. A few years later, he helped start the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, known as GLMA today. He was also a pioneering member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the city’s predominantly LGBTQ synagogue.
He and his husband — known among their friends as Tom and Jerry — received a San Francisco Pride service award, the Heritage of Pride, in 2015, an honor given to “organizations, individuals or other entities that have contributed 10 years of consecutive service to the LGBTQ community.”
Tom and Jerry were together from 1973 until Tom’s death in 2020, and when they got married in 2013, Baker was a co-officiant at their wedding.
Baker had left his native Kansas for San Francisco, where he finally felt free to live as an openly gay man. A graphic designer and vexillographer (flagmaker) by trade, he toiled to replace the pink triangle, used by the Nazis, as a symbol of the LGBTQ community. On June 25, 1978, the first rainbow flag flew in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza in time for the city’s Gay Freedom Day Parade.
In 1994, Baker created a mile-long rainbow flag for the 25th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, a milestone in modern LGBTQ history. The 5,280-foot flag was 30 feet wide and was carried by 5,000 parade marchers.
Angel-Wing knew and understood all this history when she started work on the sculpture. Born in Kiryat Motzkin north of Haifa, Angel-Wing, 78, met her first husband while studying art in Israel, and the couple moved from Europe to the Bay Area in 1976. Her studio is in Berkeley.
She started out as a ceramicist, eventually learning the complex craft of bronze sculpture.
“There are seven stages for casting in bronze,” she said. “It’s a very old technique. You produce an original, then a rubber mold. From that you produce a wax version, then it goes into another mold. You melt the wax, and the bronze gets poured into the mold. You weld the pieces together and then do the patina.”
She has done bronze busts of several prominent deceased San Franciscans, such as poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (on display in the North Beach Public Library), S.F. fire commissioner James Jefferson (Jazz Heritage Center) and S.F. Redevelopment Agency commissioner LeRoy King (also in the center).
Currently, the rainbow flag sculpture is parked in a Berkeley foundry. Because it was privately commissioned, the piece is not guaranteed a public installation.
Angel-Wing hopes for the best. But unfortunately, Goldstein is in poor health and cannot petition officials to accept the sculpture. Though the original objective was to place it in Harvey Milk Plaza, its ultimate fate is unknown.
No matter what happens, Angel-Wing is gratified she could honor Baker, Tom and Jerry, and by extension the LGBTQ community through her work.
“I lost a lot of friends in the ’80s to AIDS,” she said. “I have a lot of gay friends, and once they’re your friends, they’re your friends. If we can help, we should.”