Emmy Lou Packard may not be a name that you recognize immediately, but a visit to the Richmond Art Center’s new exhibit on the artist will quickly correct that.
The exhibit Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience (through August 20 and free to the public) showcases and recognizes the life and timeless works of the Bay Area artist, activist, and visionary in the first show since her death in 1998.
While Packard was never a household name during her lifetime, she managed to dance continuously just beyond fame’s reach. Packard is most often recognized for her proximity to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo—they were her mentors, supporters, and close friends. Packard, who showed an early passion for painting, was introduced to Diego Rivera as a child while living in Mexico with her family temporarily. Upon looking over some of her work, Rivera offered to do weekly portfolio reviews with her.
This chance introduction was the start of a great creative mentorship between Rivera and Packard and shaped much of Packard’s future career in the arts. She went on to study art at UC Berkeley and San Francisco Art Institute before reuniting with Rivera both as his studio assistant back in Mexico (during which she lived with Rivera and Kahlo and documented moments of their lives through photography) and as his chief assistant for the Pan American Unity mural he painted for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940.
As chief assistant for the project, Packard thoroughly documented the process of creating the mural. Pan American Unity permanently resides at CCSF, but it is currently on display at the SFMOMA; Packard’s notes proved to be critical in understanding the mural, how it was made, and how to safely move it.
The exhibit at the Richmond Art Center, however, makes it obvious that there is much more to Packard’s work than her time as an assistant to Diego Rivera. The gallery consists of prints, paintings, sketches, and photographs made by Packard, switching between several common themes such as nature, childhood, work, and political activism, particularly against war and racism.
During World War ll, Packard created cartoons and drawings encouraging the end of segregation and supporting voting rights for the Fore ‘n’ Aft newspaper at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, CA. Her political feelings continued to make appearances in her work and are particularly notable for their timelessness and current relevance.
A satirical print titled “Someone has to Suffer, Madame,” depicts a pig in a business suit with contracts bulging out of his pockets, comforting a mother while explaining “In the event of war, you lose sons. In the event of peace, I lose money.” Another print, created during the McCarthy era, shows two men in suits grabbing hold of George Washington, the caption below reading “We’ve discovered that this guy was an insurgent leader, Boss—What’ll we do now?”
It left me thinking of the irony in that, despite activism and government criticism being a fundamental reason for our nation’s existence, those who voice their dissent are continually considered a threat by our government.
Packard later became a mentor and activist in the Mission mural community, and also led the movement to save the Mendocino headlands—a place that appeared in many of her prints—from development.
In a nod to their collaborative creative relationship, Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience was timed to perfectly align with SFMOMA’s exhibit on Diego Rivera. And if you happen to visit the Pan American Unity mural, keep an eye open for a blonde Emmy Lou Packard painting in a red sweater. Her name still may not be as recognizable as those of her colleagues, but the power of her art and life’s work is undeniable.
Emmy Lou Packard: Artist of Conscience will be on display at the Richmond Art Center until August 20. A closing reception will be held from 12-2 on August 20, with tortilla printing by The Great Tortilla Conspiracy.