Nancy Cato helps us see ourselves through art

Nancy-Cato-SFPUC-mural-on-Evans-at-Sewage-Treatment-Plant-Jamaris-Journey, Nancy Cato helps us see ourselves through art, Culture Currents Featured Local News & Views News & Views
Construction fencing around the $3 billion Sewage Treatment Plant upgrade project provides display space for Nancy Cato’s 18-panel mural, “Jamari’s Journey.” It’s along Evans Avenue east of Third Street. The panel of Jamari meditating is the most popular panel, Cato reports.

by Zaire Saunders

Nancy Cato, cartoonist and painter, helped invite a new perspective into Bayview Hunters Point. Cato was given the opportunity to paint utility boxes on Third Street when she was referred by William Rhodes, who works at the Dr. George W. Davis Senior Center. He is a sculptor and mixed-media artist – and he is amazing. 

“I have to thank him for getting me the gig because Building 180 reached out to him and he couldn’t do it so he asked if I wanted to do it and I was like yeah,” said Cato.  

This isn’t Nancy’s first time with her craft. Long before she was painting murals, Cato was learning to draw at 12 years old. Her work then was “tracing Peanut cartoons and comic book cartoons.” Her early art education was enhanced through her Uncle Donny’s art book. That book and another on stick figures, she said, were how she learned to understand the positionality of the body.

Then she was ready. “I really started to get into my art during the graffiti era of the ‘80s. Back in that time, people were writers or they did characters or both, and I liked characters. So a lot of my drawings were a lot of characters.”

Jamari-art-by-Nancy-Cato-Bayview-Hunters-Point, Nancy Cato helps us see ourselves through art, Culture Currents Featured Local News & Views News & Views
Jamari can be found on the utility box at Third and Shafter.

Whiteness, unfortunately, permeated the work. “None of them looked like Black people. They all favored Latinos or white people. And that’s common! A young Black artist who can actually draw people who look like them is amazing.”

According to Nancy, “We don’t see ourselves. We are inundated with white people and white faces. Whiteness is everywhere – we take it in.” Even in a post-Obama and George Floyd uprising era, where diversity and representation are becoming the norm, children are still faced with the white world. 

“They probably see themselves more than they did, but still I’ve worked with kids now at my son’s school and Black kids draw white boys and white girls. They favor white people. Even with a surge of representation, we still take in what is ‘preferred.’”

For Cato, it wasn’t until her tendency to draw non-Black people was pointed out that she was able to face the truth. She says, “I had to come out of myself and say, ‘I am drawing a lot of white people.’’’ Once she started to draw more Black people, she noticed an uptick of support: “I did start drawing Black people back then. You get a lot of attention from Black people because Black people start to see themselves.”

The project she dedicated two weeks to was inspired by this need to see ourselves. “Even when I was working on this mural, whether I was doing the raccoons or Jamari here, they’d be like ‘wow’ and I’m like ‘wow!’ because there are a lot of comic book artists. But to actually see a Black person in the midst of creating, I think it does something for them. I think it should happen more often.”

Admittedly, her ideas for the utility boxes were not appreciated by all in an instant. Her sketches of raccoons, a particular favorite of hers, garnered criticism. “I’ve gotten feedback from a friend, you know raccoons, us being considered coons by white people, like what’s going on with the raccoons?”

A-raccoon-lifting-weights-Bayview-Hunters-Point-art-by-Nancy-Cato, Nancy Cato helps us see ourselves through art, Culture Currents Featured Local News & Views News & Views
Meet the raccoons! This utility box can be found on Van Dyke.

Cato maintains her intentions were far from that and besides, her muse is the children: “You know, children in cars, children walking in the streets. I wanted them to see something a little bit funny. The raccoon series is called ‘caught in the act.’” Cato explained, “They are residents of San Francisco, and it’s just when we see them and they’re looking at us and we’re looking at them. It’s just this standoff, this staredown. And so, in this series we are catching them doing things we do: They’re on their phones – caught in the act. They’re doing Yoga – caught in the act.”

Another of her works is Jamari, a Black child in an astronaut suit floating and meditating through space. “I did Jamari because I did ‘Jamari’s journey.’ That was an 18-panel mural that was on Evans Avenue. I wanted to give Jamari another life, so I did the most popular panel, which is Jamari meditating. It’s loosely based on my son and the children of Hunters Point in hopes they seem themselves connected to the universe.”

 It hasn’t always been easy. Nancy is a working artist and parent. Better support for Black artists and engaging in a dialogue with their work is one end goal for Cato. “Ask for more art in your neighborhood! One of things I’ve realized is that you have a lot of elder artists or people who draw but maybe abandoned what they do for one reason or another, who have come up to me and asked, ‘How do I become a part of this?’ and I’m like I don’t even know where to begin!

“There needs to be a space for artists to live and work. Like born and raised – I’m not born and raised here – and I appreciate people sharing their stories. But some of these people have been painting or drawing most of their lives and it’d be good for them to have a box.”

Cato reflects fondly on the experience: “It’s been a blast creating these images in one of the Blackest parts of San Francisco. It’s an honor. I sat here and heard people tell stories. You got to hear stories in the background. A lot of sentiments were said. There were people shouting from their cars. People genuinely were appreciative that I was out there helping to make the Bayview liven up.”
Bay View writer and copy editor Zaire Saunders can be reached at