Helen Bruton, 1898-1985
No better place exists for a mosaic of San Francisco’s namesake and patron saint of animals, Saint Francis of Assisi, than the Mother’s Building at the San Francisco Zoo. Created by Alameda natives Helen Bruton with sisters Margaret and Esther, all were recognized artists before being hired during the Depression by the male-dominated Works Projects Administration (WPA). Helen and her sisters had studied in New York, Paris, and New Mexico before returning to San Francisco in 1929 for a joint exhibition. Helen’s interest in California-Spanish architecture gained her commissions for installing mosaics at the University of Southern California and UC-Berkeley. Dedicated to the matriarch of the Fleishackers, the philanthropists who donated the zoo to San Francisco, the Mother’s Building (currently closed, awaiting renovation) was designed by architect George Kelham and opened in 1925. Reserved for women only, the building provided amenities during their visit. In 1934, Helen and her sisters were commissioned to add the mosaic of St. Francis, while artists Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli painted egg-tempura murals depicting Noah’s Ark. Unlike the political overtones of most WPA art in San Francisco, the peaceful scenes in the Mother’s Building provided a respite for mothers and children during turbulent times.