A 6-foot hug is a difficult concept to visualize unless you are a 4-foot boy with a mother who is a painter.
Seven-year-old Gus Plock told his mom, Kelly Tunstall, that he would like to give every frontline healthcare worker a social-distanced embrace in gratitude, and now his slogan, “I Would Like to Give You a 6 Foot Hug,” has been applied to art posters that are 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide and posted in kiosks up and down San Francisco’s Market Street.
Gus’ wording accompanies an illustration by Tunstall as one of 10 fine art posters commissioned as tributes to COVID-19 health care workers. A total of 40 posters go on display Monday, Aug. 10, and will be up for at least three months in the curvy green JCDecaux Group stands that line Market Street from the Embarcadero to Castro Street.
Smaller versions have been delivered to all the hospitals treating coronavirus patients in San Francisco. Some have been posted in break rooms and some given away to the workers as mementos.
The poster series, titled “Heroes: San Francisco Thanks Frontline Healthcare Workers,” is a project of the San Francisco Arts Commission, paid for with a $45,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage a season of shows in honor of the 50th anniversary of the SFAC galleries at the Veterans Building and City Hall. When those buildings were closed in March, the commission shifted some of the funding to create art related to COVID-19.
There was no time for a competition. The artists were selected by commission galleries Director Meg Shiffler, who curated the project and gave them one month to turn it around. They were each paid an honorarium and got to keep the originals. Most of the project cost went to graphic design and printing.
The artists are Tunstall, Nicole Dixon, Esther Elia, Kristin Farr, Cliff Hengst, Terri Loewenthal, Tucker Nichols, Jenifer K. Wofford, Chelsea Ryoko Wong and Juan R. Fuentes. Each artist has four posters, placed randomly on the side of the kiosk that faces the sidewalk.
“We hope that it will aid in the recovery by reminding the public to wear masks and take protective measures,” Shiffler said, “and that there are frontline workers risking their lives every day to care for coronavirus patients.”
If you count Gus, the artists range in age from 7 to 70, with the high end represented by Fuentes, a poster artist in the Mission who’s been active since the Chicano movement of the early 1970s. He found the model for his painting by searching the internet. That was the extent of his online work on the project.
“A lot of people work digitally now, and I could have scanned it into a computer and all of that,” he says, “but it is not going to have the hand quality that I am after.”
His plan was to do a watercolor painting of the woman in his poster, but he felt it lacked the soul and commitment that health care workers deserve. So he switched from a simple drawing on paper to a linoleum cut, which is about the most labor-intensive method imaginable for creating a poster.
His portrait of a Latina worker had to be drawn, then traced onto a linoleum block, then etched, then inked and rolled onto Japanese paper with a wooden spoon. He then peeled the paper off the linoleum, dried it and applied color to give it the feel of a Diego Rivera mural.
“I wanted to make sure that I did it with as much feeling and gratitude and love as I could convey in my art,” he says from his studio in the Bayview. “Our lives are in the hands of those health care workers.”
Tunstall and her husband, Ferris Plock, both paint in stylized figurative acrylic and have had solo and joint exhibitions in San Francisco and New York. They were featured in the show “Trace Elements” in the San Francisco Arts Commission’s main gallery in 2009.
When Shiffler called with the new commission, Tunstall brought it straight to the dinner table with her husband and their two boys, Brixton, 10, and Gus.
“We like to talk about big ideas at the dinner table,” Tunstall says, and the biggest idea was their close family friends who are nurses at UCSF Parnassus and at Kaiser Permanente. Thinking of them compelled Gus to make his statement about the 6-foot hug.
Before the dishes were even cleared, Tunstall could envision the concept of her poster. She grabbed her sketchbook and opened it on the table and started building a picture around Gus’ words, with both children and husband offering advice — and the two cats walking on the paper.
“I wanted to create something very simple and celebratory,” the 40-year-old artist says. “Kids are missing a lot right now, and what Gus said is the purest form of thanks.”
The final product, painted on a wood panel, shows Gus in his Giants cap with the two cats, Louis and Figgy, underfoot. Behind him, in a headband, is his mother. Next to him is a classmate from Claire Lilienthal School. His arms are reaching in a 6-foot hug to a health care worker modeled after his upstairs neighbor Brooke Nystrom, who is part of the COVID-19 team in the intensive care unit at UCSF Parnassus.
When Nystrom came home after a late-night shift, she found the original painting left at her door as a gift. There was no note, but this is what Gus will tell her when he gets to see her in person again:
“Thank you for taking as much care as you can for the people who are sick.”
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