In May of 1906, a 38-year-old artist named Mary DeNeale Morgan ventured into San Francisco ten or twelve days after the great earthquake and fire and recorded the destruction in drawings and pastels.
It was important historically _ preserving in images a dramatic moment in time _ and a couragous thing to do. I'd known about Morgan's act for a while, but only fully recognized how brave it was after an experience I had on the night of October 17, 1989.
That was the evening of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. I covered it for the Monterey County Herald with a gutsy photographer named Kathleen Olsen, and it was one of the more harrowing nights of my life. Our assignment was to cover the destruction from Watsonville to Santa Cruz.
In Watsonville, with burning houses off foundations, people huddled around bonfires, sky black, feeling like the end of the world, we were threatened by thugs near St. Patrick's Catholic Church, saved a likely beating or worse by an approaching fire truck, or maybe it was by St. Patrick; in Santa Cruz authorities took us down main streets as furniture dangled and fell from the second and third floors of doomed, tilting, partially wall-less buildings; in the same town, when rescue dogs instinctively pulled out of an unreinforced brick building and their handlers followed, crowds jeered and yelled and bravely ordered the bewildered rescuers to get back in there.
The strangest moment came when we stopped at the Santa Cruz Sentinel newsroom, and it was wide open, deserted, not a soul, as if everyone had fled into the night or been removed by some mysterious vapor. Trucks could have been backed up to the building and computers stolen and driven off and no one would have known. And it was just after midnight with miles to cover and hours to go.
So of course I'm impressed by what Morgan did in the Spring of 1906. Yes, it was some days after the earthquake and fire, but buildings were unstable, and dangerous types were still on the loose without much law to call on for protection; a woman alone could easily have been a victim of a beating, rape or murder.
But perhaps what took even greater courage for Morgan, who was born in San Francisco, attended schools in San Francisco and Oakland and eventually taught at Oakland High School, was to look upon a city she had loved and bring a journalist's objectivity and an artist's vision to her depiction of its utter ruin.
Another important woman artist of the time, Euphemia Charlton Fortune, after surviving that terrifying night of fire and torn earth, recorded her memory of it in a powerful little oil painting of black sky and red flames _ Morgan's images came after the flames had burned themselves out and only ruins remained.
Those paintings by Morgan, in the collection of Terry and Paula Trotter of Trotter Galleries of Carmel and Pacific Grove, were chosen to be part of a 100-year earthquake anniversary exhibition in Sacramento, ``Rumors of Great Disaster,'' by the Senate Curator for the State Capital Collection.
Now the twenty-eight works are being exhibited at the Pacific Grove Public Library. It's a small exhibition, titled ``Witnessed Through an Artist's Eyes,'' but these drawings and pastels of a crumbling St. Luke's or Temple Emanu-el, the fallen Grand Opera House or leveled Lincoln School, or simply what was left of streets and intersections, such as Hayes and Polk or California and Market, are powerfully moving.
Those images can be seen by going to www.trottergalleries.com and tapping on ``Exhibitions.''
``Imagine what it must have been like for her,'' said Paula Trotter, ``at the age of thirty-eight to tour the city and then record the effects of the calamity _ in most cases, identifying the building and street location . . . The catastrophe destroyed four-fifths of the city along with the studios and the life work of many of the artists residing and working there.''
Many of the artists, like people of all occupations, scattered throughout the state in 1906, many to never return. Morgan eventually settled in Carmel, where she established a reputation as a strong landscapist, dying in 1948.
I sometimes think, after surviving and documenting 1906 in her art, she said to herself, ``Give me ocean, trees, rolling hills; I don't ever want to see a city destroyed again much less record that destruction.''
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...