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Diego Rivera’s massive mural and the woman dedicated to showing it off

Vickie Simms is a docent for the Pan American Unity Mural, painted by 20th-century artist Diego Rivera. Vickie gave up a business career to study art history, and this is a plum gig. The artwork is extraordinary. And Vickie’s pretty amazing, herself. The Pan American Unity Mural is Diego Rivera’s largest, and as a founder of the Mexican Muralism movement, he has made some big ones. The fresco is as long as a blue whale, and taller than a double-decker bus. It was painted on 10 steel and concrete portable panels which weigh thousands of pounds each. When assembled together, like they are inside the Diego Rivera Theater on the Ocean Campus of the City College of San Francisco, the entire artwork weighs 23 tons. That is one humongous watercolor.

Before we get into the making and the history of this legendary mural, I’d like to introduce you to Vickie.

Meet Vickie Simms

“I won’t tell you my age, but I can tell you I’m older than 50,” she says, giggling.

Vickie’s kind of like your cool grandma. She likes to wear colorful shawls made of dainty fabric, and younger students will drop by the theater just to chat and invite her out for a drink. She told me she only started thinking about her age recently, when one day she got on the bus, and people started getting up to give her a seat.

“Because they think you might get tired before you have to get off,” Vickie laughs.

She’s spent most of her life in the business world. Looking back, she says she was “a corporate robot, where you’re cut off from everything. You don’t know it when you’re working, because you have expense accounts and such.” 

As her business career progressed, Vickie increasingly felt like there was a gap in her knowledge of the world — a void in her life begging to be filled. When she went on business trips, she kept finding herself wandering to the nearest art museum, looking for something.

Then, almost 10 years ago, a close family member took ill. Vickie had to go down in hours at her business job to become a caregiver. Needless to say, it was a difficult time.

“SoI decided to take one class to keep my sanity,” she says of going back to school at CCSF. “To be honest, I only planned on taking one or two classes and then getting back to my life. What happened is I actually liked art history.”

As it turned out, the college was looking to restart the docent program for the famous Diego Rivera mural here on campus. Vickie was recommended by her professor, and now she’s paid to be here three days a week to give tours of the mural. Vickie also works as a guide at the MOMA, the modern art museum downtown. The gigs don’t pay as much as her old jobs, but Vickie doesn’t mind.

“Every day I feel this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says, “and every day is validation.”

The Pan American Unity Mural

Diego Rivera and his assistants live-painted this mural in a frigid airplane hangar on Treasure Island for the World’s Fair in 1940. He was the star attraction; people would come just to watch him paint.

“It's a mural of dualities,” says Vickie, appraising the work. “At the top, you have the ancient world, and [to the right] you have modernity, the modern world.”

The left side of the mural is dominated by the history of pre-20th century America. And no, I don’t mean the United States of America, I mean all of the Americas.

In the top left panel you see the ancient, yet strangely futuristic, city of Tenochtitlan — that’s old Mexico City. Its buildings are organized in neat little squares, with straight roads all leading to a decorated pyramid in the center. In the bottom panel, the foreground, there appears to be a pre-European-America factory. In this “factory,” it looks to me like indigenous people are manufacturing gold jewelry on a workbench that’s literally a log chopped in half. 

“That’s it exactly,” Vickie assures me. “And it's no accident, that assembly line also makes a statement that the idea of an assembly line is ancient. Ford didn't invent the assembly line but improved it.”

The right side of the mural represents modernity. You can see tractors plowing over fields, a lake-sized pit of gouged out earth ( the beginnings of Shasta dam), and lumberjacks chopping down comically huge redwoods. A conveyor belt winds through it all, filled with chunks of rock and gold flecks. In the foreground inventors, like Henry Ford sit surrounded by models of their creations.

“You see the factory line, but what's much more important in this panel seems to be the inventors in the front,” I tell Vickie.

“Yes, so very well put. Keep talking,” she responds with an encouraging smile. “And if you look closely, there's someone who can't keep up with production. They're all working side by side, and they're kind of roboticized. So next, jumping across to Thomas Edison, and that black thing that you're seeing. That's the first phonograph he invented, like a cone. That's your precursor to your iTunes. And so next to that, the guy scratching his head. That’s Samuel Morse who invented the Morse code. That's the precursor to your text messaging.”

Learning from the artwork ... and the docent

Vickie is an excellent listener. Throughout the tour, she seems just as eager to hear my thoughts as she is to share her seemingly endless knowledge. It makes her a joy to be around, quite frankly, and I have to call her out on it.

“Can I just say, Vicky, that I really appreciate how supportive you are,” I tell her. “It's awesome. It makes me feel very smart all the time.”

“You are smart!” she exclaims with her usual exuberance.

With that, we made our way to the center panel — what Vickie refers to as “The Marriage Chamber.”

“The marriage is between the cathedral of industry and the deity,” she says. “And this is the deity: the Coatlicue.”

The Coatlicue is the primordial earth goddess, an Aztec deity who gave birth to the sun, moon, and stars. The two center panels are dominated by Diego’s version of the Coatlicue; half Aztec Totem, half machine, it’s a jumble of jade, teeth, cogs, and pistons jammed together to create a monstrous cyborg as tall as the mural itself.

“The deity is a steel machine, part of a factory,” she explains. “And in order to make steel, what do you need? Iron ore that comes from the gut of the earth. And so you have this syncretism of the machine and the deity.”

It’s funny to hear Vickie expound upon the deity of industry morphing with the primordial earth goddess. Until recently, she herself felt like just another cog in the machine.

And now? Vickie is still partly living off the money she made during her business career. Financially, she doesn’t know exactly how she’s going to sustain herself with an art history degree. But the more time I spend with her, the more I understand why she doesn’t worry about “the money stuff.”

“Some things really aren't that important,” she says. “They really aren't. And I don’t know if it's because I'm not in the corporate world, but this new world where all of the history, and all of the people, and how they lived, and what they did is more important to me than selling a product. But I still want to work.”

And work she does. Vickie has a passion for art history. She wants to inspire her visitors to express themselves by interpreting the art in their own words. In her field, all perspectives are valuable, regardless of age, or experience. Come and visit, and she’s just as likely to learn something from you as you are from her.

The Diego Rivera Theater is open every day except Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and you might just get Vickie Simms as a docent to tell you all about it.

Nikolas Harter originally made that story for City College’s radio station KCSF, and you can hear a longer version on Nikolas’s podcast, the 38.