Naked Dahlia: The Harvey Milk Mural

JPoethig Harvey Milk Mural 2NAKED DAHLIA

I can’t grow dahlias. I have tried several times but they never poke themselves up through the dirt. The Harvey Milk Mural wall was discovered by my dear friend Rick Terry. It was not far from the dirty beige apartment building we lived in on the panhandle, in the Haight Ashbury. This site was an obvious location for a mural to honor the first gay and tragically shot San Francisco Supervisor. The Harvey Milk Rec Center in Duboce Park overlooked a grassy knoll where dog owners scooped up after their hounds with Harvey’s famous pooper scooper. The Rec center had a photo studio, a tribute to Harvey’s camera store. When I met my friend Rick he introduced himself as a “Castro Clone”. He was a Tsimoso, a gossip, a fallen angel with red bird nesting on his head for his 30th birthday party. I had reluctantly let him use my fancy cut glass pitcher to make his tequila sunrise mix. When I heard the crash a few minutes later I knew my grandmother was right about giving me nice wedding gifts and my reckless lifestyle. Rick wailed his apology but I still miss that pretty present.

We were young and sinfully silly but I was serious as I started down the road of creating the Harvey Milk Memorial. The wall that rose up over the park was a perfect square with a long view.   I called up Harvey’s “widow” Scott Smith and went to meet with him, go through old pictures and hear the stories. Harvey loved to play the clown dressed up in full regalia. He was an instant classic with his flower lei as he rode in the convertible, Jackie Kennedy style for the victory parade. He adored his big black dog “the Kid”. He was exuberant, full of life, humor and promise. Should this mural be a tragedy or a victory, a reminder of what was lost or what was won?

Rick loved dahlias so at the center of the mural design I planted a glorious fuchsia bloom. Like a Hindu goddess floating on petals, Harvey rode on the shoulders of his clown self, flowers around his neck and the Kid in attendance. I had gotten the permission for the wall, gone door to door to show my design and raised a few thousand dollars to cover the scaffolding and paint. The design had passed through the flaming hoop of the San Francisco Arts Commission review. When the time came to get final approval from the San Francisco Rec and Park Department a snake came out of the grass of Duboce Park. Across from the wall out of the corner of his eye, if he angled himself just so at his window, Deputy Mayor Rotea Gilford could see that bare wall. He wanted it to stay that way, naked, concrete, meaningless. No matter that most everyone was excited about the idea.   He was a friend of Mayor Dianne Feinstein who had taken over after the fateful shooting of Moscone and Milk. He spoke to the Mayor and the fight was on.   The Castro neighborhood rallied, petitions were signed and articles published. “Her back against the Wall” was the headline. The bad news was the mural project was at risk, the good news was people cared about it.

When the five Rec and Park Board members met at McLaren Lodge, at the entrance of Golden Gate Park, the carved mahogany door shut out the crowd and radio newscasters waiting for the decision. By one vote they said yes to the mural but shifted it to the side wall overlooking the basketball court so Rotea would not have to look at it.

By the time the mural was done Rick had full blown AIDS. It was the late 1980’s. For the unveiling, Gilbert Baker, designer of the rainbow Gay Pride flag and member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence made a huge purple curtain with a polka dot trim to drape the mural. It billowed up and around that day revealing parts of the painting in a sweet tease. We had a dog fashion show and Sista Boom marched in full percussion. Up and coming politician Tommy Ammiano and other luminaries from the community were judges for the canine styles. Ernie from tech services at SOMArts built a special ramp at my request so Rick could be wheeled up on stage. It was a blazing hot afternoon and the dogs were toasting their paws on the planks as they showed off their stuff. Blue Gene Tyranny’s composition of sound and historic speeches drifted out over the green hill.  Rick had refused to attend the opening.

He was angry and despondent those days. But in the end, after it was over, the purple drape dropped for the final reveal, in the excitement of the attention, a burning stage and fake flowers in my hair, I had not thought to look out over the crowd to see if there was a wheelchair and my Rick waiting for his turn for some glory. He was there in the very back and I hadn’t noticed. I was despondent. He died not long after that. There was a little wall to the side of the mural that I took as my consolation prize for the new site. Next to that Dahlia explosion I painted the famous photographer Imogene Cunningham, a little girl playing a violin, a drama queen and Rick holding a candle in vigil. A sad woman stood in the shadows behind him.


The mural became a poster and found its way around the world. I discovered it on a restroom wall of a pot club in Amsterdam. It’s gone now, lost to a building remodel. The options the City gave me to save it were not viable so now there is a plaque in its place.