(Photo by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)
Bufano’s “St. Francis of the Guns,” on Phelan Avenue in front of City College of San Francisco.
THE ARTIST & THE SAINT
October 1st, 2013
By Valerie Schmalz
Because of a quirky Italian-born sculptor and pacifist, the arms of St. Francis of Assisi stretch out, blessing some of the most public, and unlikely, places in San Francisco
Beniamino Benvenuto Bufano, who died in 1970, was a prolific sculptor whose stone and metal sculptures of St. Francis, Madonnas of peace, and animals grace public spaces from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Valencia Gardens public housing project in the Mission District to City College of San Francisco. His 14-foot stainless steel and red granite statue of Chinese revolutionary hero Sun Yat-sen glitters at St. Mary’s Square in Chinatown.
“He’s an amazing little man and a true legend,” said Alessandro Baccari, whose family was close to the 5-foot-tall Bufano. The youngest of 15 children who immigrated to New York and grew up with little formal education, Bufano first came to San Francisco to work on the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and returned to reside here permanently in 1921.
Over the course of his life, Bufano created more than 500 works of art, according to a 2007 article written by E. Breck Parkman, an archeologist with the California Department of Parks and Recreation. A favorite of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen and a local legend, Bufano married and divorced twice. He was an inconsistent husband and parent, at one point leaving his first wife and infant daughter in 1918 to travel to China for two years to study ceramic glazes, Parkman wrote.
“To Benny, his pieces were his children,” said Baccari. “He had his peculiarities.”
Vision of the peacemaker
However, in the city named for the 12th-century saint, Bufano’s powerful vision of St. Francis the peacemaker continues.
Anyone driving along Phelan Avenue can see the statue of “St. Francis of the Guns,” positioned beneath the science building at City College of San Francisco. The 9-foot-tall, gunmetal St. Francis was forged from guns collected in a 1968 voluntary gun turn in drive by Mayor Joe Alioto after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
The statue reflects the turbulent ‘60s with an inset mosaic of four of America’s assassinated leaders: presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and King, perhaps echoing in sculpture Dick Holler’s 1968 hit song, first recorded by Dion, “Abraham, Martin and John.” Beneath the heads of the leaders are portraits of children, a recurring motif of Bufano’s.
On a tree-shaded park corner of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union parking lot, a 12-foot-tall granite St. Francis extends its arms over the Fisherman’s Wharf intersection of Taylor and Jefferson streets. Bufano created the figure while in Paris in 1927-28. It was erected briefly from 1955 to 1960 at the Shrine of St. Francis and eventually relocated to North Beach.
Grace Episcopal Cathedral’s Bufano St. Francis sculpture greets visitors to the cathedral as they come into the vast space. The cathedral gift shop carries a postcard with its picture. Bufano’s red marble head of St. Francis rests on a block in San Francisco State University’s main quad while his stylized figure of the saint of Assisi on horseback stands in Westside Courts, a public housing project at Sutter and Broderick streets, part of the city’s civic art collection, according to the San Francisco Arts Commission.
‘Damn fool to cut finger off’
In addition to his sculptures, Bufano is perhaps best known for the widely circulated story that he cut off his trigger finger and sent it President Woodrow Wilson to protest U.S. involvement in World War I. In a televised interview Baccari conducted with Bufano, “he explains ‘what a damn fool I was to cut my finger off,’” Baccari said. One of the main drawbacks, he told Baccari, was figuring out how to hold a cup of coffee.
However, another story is that Bufano capitalized upon a woodcutting accident, Parkman wrote. “From an early age, Bufano believed in peace, but he was not the typical ‘peacenik,’” writes Parkman. “He was eclectic, suspicious, egotistical, occasionally hostile, and often given to exaggeration if not outright lies. People either loved him or they hated him.”
His date of birth has been variously reported as 1886, 1890 and 1898, but his grave and death certificate list 1890.
In addition to his preoccupation with St. Francis, Bufano sculpted peace Madonnas, in the shape of a missile and many works also featured the recurring motif of the universal child. One Madonna is at Fort Mason, another situated along Brotherhood Way, although temporarily displaced due to construction and a third is located on the grounds of San Francisco General Hospital. His smoothly rounded sculptures of bears, frogs, porpoises and other animals can be found throughout the Bay Area, with a large collection at the Valencia Gardens public housing project, according to the San Francisco Arts Commission.
The Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park has several Bufano sculptures including one of a mother bear nursing her cubs.
Primarily a sculptor of large pieces, Bufano also painted and created smaller works in ceramic. The Oakland Museum of California and Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco both hold collections of his pieces. Elsewhere, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has a Bufano menagerie of animals in a sculpture garden, donated by his son in 1983.
In a fitting capstone to the life of Bufano, he is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery beneath a statue he sculpted of St. Francis of Assisi – a statue 5 feet tall, as he was. It is set alone on the top of a grassy hill at the back of the cemetery, above the old mausoleum and up the hill from the statue of Rachel Mourning which marks the graves of unknown small children who are buried there.
“When he died, no prearrangements had been made for his funeral, but his friends wanted one of his works of art to be used as his headstone,” said Monica Williams, director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
Holy Cross worked with them to determine a meaningful spot for his burial that could also accommodate a work of art that size, said Williams. “It was determined that, because of Bufano’s work for peace and a peaceful future for children, a spot in Section W where so many children are buried, would be the right place.”
Where to see Benny Bufano’s public art in San Francisco
“St. Francis on Horseback”: Westside Courts public housing, Sutter and Broderick streets
Various animals: Sculpture gardens at Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park
“Peace”: 38-foot Madonna sculpture of Madonna with four-eyed universal child, Brotherhood Way near 19th Avenue (temporarily in storage)
“Head of St. Francis”: Tree grove on main quad at San Francisco State University
“St. Francis of the Guns”: City College of San Francisco, Ocean Avenue campus, stairs to Science Building
“Seal,” “Frog”: Maritime Museum, Fisherman’s Wharf
“Bear and Cubs”: Valencia Gardens public housing project
“St. Francis”: Jefferson and Taylor streets, Longshoremen’s Memorial Building parking lot
“Penguins”: Golden Gateway, Jackson and Davis streets
From October 4, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.