Shannon Alley, between Geary & O’Farrell and Jones & Taylor, doesn’t have the best of reputations–or the best of odors. In fact, since there are a couple of vacant buildings just around the corner on O’Farrell it is often used as a toilet or as a place for homeless people to sleep. As it turns out many of those homeless people are veterans, as photographer Amos Lee Gregory Jr. discovered while spending many nights in the neighborhood photographing them between November 2010 and April 2011.
During that time Gregory came up with the idea of a mural project in Shannon Alley to allow veterans to express themselves and tell their own story. A veteran himself of the Naval Submarine Service, Gregory is a founding member of the SF Veterans Art guild. He’s been frustrated that so much art about veterans and war is created by artists who themselves are not veterans of any American conflict. So, he wanted to give a voice to the American veterans regardless of their discharge status, sexual orientation, length of service, branch of service, race, language or national origin. In March 2011 he photographed Rigo‘s “Truth” a mural on Market Street by the UN Plaza during a protest marking the 8th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. This photograph has inspired many Veterans of all backgrounds to speak about their experiences in the US military and about peace, and it seems to have been the driving force to start this mural project.
As reported by the Veteran Artists blog, the first section of the mural was started on October 24th, with a tribute by Brian Parker to his friend Chip Santos who survived the Iraq war but then committed suicide as a result of PTSD. Parker, who now resides in South Dakota, was flown to San Francisco by Gregory from his own pocket as he wants this mural to be part of the veterans’ healing process. Gregory hand-painted a quote by Vietnamese philosopher Thicht Nhan Han, that you can see on the right of the picture below:
Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation.
If Veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war.
And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.
Yesterday evening when I passed by the alley Gregory was working on a new section of the mural that is going to depict a little girl he met and photographed in 2002 in Havana, Cuba. He doesn’t know her name or if she’s ok, but he’s hoping to find her one day. Another section of the mural was being painted by a homeless veteran who usually likes hanging out in the alley and who is in need of medical attention. His name is David Wickham and the mural is giving him an opportunity to express himself in a way he never gets the chance to do.
Gregory said he’s hoping the project will create a dialogue between veterans and the community at-large to “help facilitate healing and promote the concept of universal peace”. These might seem like very ambitious goals, but in just a few minutes of hanging out by the mural I saw several people approching him and sharing their stories. Such as faithful Tender reader Reyeuro, who as it turns out is a Vietnam veteran. Also, the owner of the store at the corner of Geary and Shannon explained that her dad was in their army as well and she became an orphan at 12 so this mural is very close to her heart.
If you want to see Gregory in Shannon Alley talking about the mural, here’s a video by the #OccupySF team.
The SF Vets mural project is an open project and they welcome all suggestions and contributions. They’re also asking anyone who knows of a veteran who has touched their lives or is a veteran themselves to contact them via their website or their Facebook group to request a mural concept in honor of a deceased veteran. Or if you are a veteran and want to do one yourself in the alley with them, they’ll be happy have you.
And since it’s Veteran’s Day today, you should also read this story on The Bold Italic featuring a few post 9/11 veterans in San Francisco.