Creativity by committee


Dear Artist,

Last summer, after being invited to submit to an open call, artist Lava Thomas’ proposal for a public monument was selected amongst hundreds of applicants and three finalists. The work, as part of the city’s effort to remedy the fact that out of 87 public monuments in San Francisco, only two represent women, is slated for the outside of the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. It would honour the life and work of writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Thomas, whose practice spans figurative drawing, painting, sculpture and installation, proposed a nine-foot-tall freestanding book made of bronze and etched with a portrait of Angelou’s face, a nod to the library and Black art, referencing the rectangular Benin bronzes of West Africa. Inscribed at the base would be a quote from Angelou: “If one has courage, nothing can dim the light which shines from within.” Two weeks after her proposal was chosen however, the selection committee suddenly rescinded its offer, with a singular complaint that Thomas’ proposal wasn’t a statue.

Rendering of "Portrait of A Phenomenal Woman" by Lava Thomas (b.1958) Eren Herbert image

Rendering of “Portrait of A Phenomenal Woman”
by Lava Thomas (b.1958)
Eren Herbert image

“As I carried the legislation across the finish line to elevate women in monuments, I wanted to do it in the same way that men have been historically elevated in this city,” explained San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani, the sponsor of the project. Stefani asked the commission to restart the process from the beginning, this time with clearer guidelines for a “significant figurative representation.” The initial design brief had specifically crossed out the word “statue” in favour of the word, “artwork,” with an aim at receiving proposals that were contemporary and forward-looking.

“Patriarchy is so fossilized in her mind that she doesn’t even realize what she wants is anti-feminist,” said Thomas, at a public meeting held to address the selection withdrawl. Thomas had spent months requesting further information about the decision through the city’s freedom of information laws and had received no response. “I can’t believe that we’re here two months later with a suggestion that this project be closed, and a conservative, traditional statue in the manner of European figurative traditional monuments — that Confederate and colonial monuments are based on — that we are here discussing this in this city, San Francisco, that’s known for its progressive politics.” Toward the end of her speech, Thomas’ mic was muted and she was refused extra time.

The back of the proposed monument, “Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman” by Lava Thomas Eren Hebert image

Rendering of the back of “Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman”
by Lava Thomas
Eren Hebert image



PS: “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” (Maya Angelou)

Esoterica: After an uproar, San Francisco Arts Commission president Roberto Ordeñana apologized to Lava Thomas and the commission voted unanimously to suspend the new selection process until they could find a way to be more transparent. Meanwhile, with no new timeline and the city-mandated deadline for increased representation of women in public art fast approaching, the project’s budget has swollen from $180,000 to $250,000. “Yes, Lava [Thomas]’s proposal is challenging conventions of sculpture and monument and representation. That’s exactly what we want our art to do, and if it makes you feel uncomfortable, then that means she is doing her job.” (Angela Hennessy, artist, professor at the California College of the Arts and member of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Visual Arts Committee.)

Self Portrait, 201 Water Based oil on canvas 24 inches diameter by Lava Thomas as part of her ongoing project Childhood, which depicts the realistic colors of the subject's teeth, gums and eyes, while the skin and hair incorporate shades of ultramarine blue - historically the most expensive pigment used by Renaissance painters.

Self Portrait, 2013
Water Based oil on canvas
24 inches diameter
by Lava Thomas as part of her ongoing project “Childhood,” which depicts the realistic colors of the subject’s teeth, gums and eyes, while the skin and hair incorporate shades of ultramarine blue – historically the most expensive pigment used by Renaissance painters.

Have you considered a Premium Artist Listing?  With each letter, an artist is featured at the bottom of this page. The Premium Artist Listings are a means of connecting artist subscribers through their work. Proceeds from each listing contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.  

“Information is so important, and it must be open. Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.” (Maya Angelou)





  2. I am so livid about this that I can hardly type! Lava Thomas proposed an innovative, contemporary and thoughtful concept that was rejected by, yes, societal patriarchy – sadly and unknowingly practised by women as well. I wish her the fortitude to carry on and not give up. Thanks for this story, Sara, and for all your twice-weekly blogs. :-)

    • This is what I’ve written to Catherine Stefani, email

      I am saddened and angered by your decision to rescind Lava Thomas’ proposal for a monument honoring Maya Angelou. If it’s true that the initial design brief had specifically crossed out the word “statue” in favor of the word “artwork,” with an aim at receiving proposals that were contemporary and forward-looking…I want to know your reasoning behind your action. Please reconsider, go with your first approval, and allow Thomas’ moving and beautiful monument to be built.

  3. Public art is political, so these offer rescissions should be expected from time to time. What surprises me about the Lava Thomas affair is that the artist is a liberal and feminist progressive. Usually it’s conservatives who have been invited to speak at college campuses and are then “disinvited” because of pressure exerted against weak college administrators by left-wing progressives who oppose the free expression of differing viewpoints.

  4. This would have been such an easy fix – Maya’s portrait could have been rendered/etched as it was begun on the left side gradually going 3-dimensional by raising the pointillist engraved dots into tiny mounds, larger by her mouth so that Maya’s face “emerges” from the book cover – literally illustrating what books ’embody’
    Some relationship could be formed with sculpted bronze letters/words spilling out of the books’ pages – three – dimensional words spilling out of the pages at the side – giving a very attractive silhouette from a distance.
    Lava Thomas’ concept is brilliant as it captures the function of a book visually – if they want a more “traditional” statue then include the means by which we convey man’s best, one to another in books – words & letters. I just happen to be a lover of letters, specifically calligraphy & I urge Lava to look at some pieces – what some of the best pieces of calligraphy convey on a flat, 2-dimensional piece of paper can be very powerful – imagine what Lava could do with 3-dimensional bronze! Surely the brilliant bronze “book” could still become a messenger to our children?

  5. Back when Maya Lin did the Vietnam memorial wall, I still had a conventional idea of what a monument should be. I had marched against the war so was conflicted about the memorial to begin with. I was actually more affronted that she was described as an architect and not as a sculptor! (There are no people represented; it goes down, not up; it is made of words, not images; ergo– not art!!!) However, visiting it in person completely changed my view. I understood it as art you experienced by moving through it, not viewing from afar. The people are there as your black reflection reaching out to you as you touch the very tangible names. I was crying within minutes. I do wish had more bas relief as has been suggested above, but even without that it is a thought provoking representation.

Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop Moment
oil on canvas
54 x 40 cm

Featured Artist

I am a painter. I am delighted to be a painter.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.