Have you ever wondered what are those giant hearts in Union Square? Let me explain to you the meaning of those heart-shaped statues and how they become a very important part of San Francisco.
When you walk through Union Square, you can’t help but notice the hearts sculptures at each of the plaza’s four corners. The iconic hearts have become a favorite picture taking spot for tourists. They are not just another city sculpture; those giant statues are part of the “Hearts in San Francisco” fundraising project benefiting The San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. I came to this city eight months ago, and when I passed one of the giant heart sculptures for the first time, the “I left My Heart in San Francisco” song instantly played in my head even though I didn’t know about the story behind it. Nor did I know that Tony Bennett’s ballad inspired the story behind the eye-catching installations. Unlike the “Cows on Parade” campaign, a worldwide exhibit using cow sculpture as an art object, the City By The Bay picked a heart icon to express its acceptance and openness as one of the biggest melting pot in the world.
The annual heart exhibition debuted on Valentine’s Day 2004, and every year San Francisco General Hospital Foundation (SFGHF) picks various established and aspiring artists to create fiberglass sculpture in one of three sizes: large (5′ tall x 5’9″ wide x 3’3″ deep), tabletop (14″ tall x 17″ wide x 8″ deep) to mini (7″ tall x 6″ wide x 2″ deep). Each heart is unique with special distinguishing features. Before being auctioned, the heart statues will be placed on display for the public for three months. According to the SFGHF website, over the years, the “Hearts In San Francisco” project has raised $2 million and its success has lead to another events, such as the Heroes and Hearts annual luncheon and the Hearts After Dark night-time fundraiser at AT&T Park (San Francisco General Hospital Foundation). Together, they have raised more than $13 million for the Foundation.
Currently, there are more than 131 hand-painted sculptures each with different designs in locations around the city and beyond. The most popular one, of course, is the large red heart entitled America’s Greatest City By The Bay painted by the Tony Bennett. The sculpture was one of the first hearts inaugurated in 2004 and installed permanently on the corner of Powell and Post Streets. Just like his song lyrics, Bennett painted a foggy San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge view. We can see Marin County as the green background, white twin peaks view under the blue San Francisco Bay, and one additional little red heart drawn in the center for a final touch. Bennett might not be the best heart painter and his landscape might not be hyper realistic; however, the statue sends a clear message: the vibrant red color combined with The Golden City view symbolizes affection and love of San Francisco.
Another famous piece is Open Heart located at the end of Pier 39. The 6-foot tall burgundy heart is divided with a line of abstract gradation bands of color. Each shade and hue has distinctive thicknesses and complexities. Different shades of pastel colors blend vertically together, directing our eyes to the bolder colors. In a glance, it looks like the reflection of light on the mirror. The sweetness of neutral shades is in contrast with the dark shiny heart, and it makes me think of the reflection of our heart. The artist behind it, Patrick Dintino, is well known for his spectrum painting. His mother had open-heart surgery that saved her life, which was the inspiration behind his work. “The important thing to remember about the color selections is that no two colors are exactly the same, just like the infinite diversity of life,” explained Dintito on Pier 39’s website. “Open Heart represents the larger idea of love and understanding self-concept—of opening our hearts and seeing what’s inside, what makes us tick” (Dintito).
My personal favorite of the 2016 art pieces is the tabletop heart sculpture “Love Wins” by Laura Lineback. Lineback’s father died of a heart attack, that’s why SFGHF cause is very special to her. At the same time she wants to show her support to LGBTQ community; the heart piece is covered with melted rainbow paints, the color of gay pride flag color. The heart is divided into six stripes of red, orange, yellow, dark blue, and dark violet, just like the 1979 version of the rainbow flag that embodies vibrant diversity. Paints are dripping down like tears, crying for both LGBTQ struggle and celebration. This is not the first time for Lineback to participate in the “Hearts in San Francisco” Project. In 2015 she turned one of the Large Heart Sculptures into a shiny chrome mirror, which helped to raise $75,000 for SFGHF (Laura Lineback Website).
Unfortunately, just like every love story, many end up with broken hearts. Some heart statues were damaged by vandalism. On April last year for example, an unknown suspect carved random initials on the Wild Poppies in the Twilight Rain sculpture. The act was recorded in South San Francisco Conference Center surveillance camera. The vivid cobalt blue art piece was ornamented with white poppies silhouette paintings, giving a clean and modern feeling. The outcome shares resemblance with paper cuts art, like the White on Black by Hans Christian Andersen. The statue was made by artist Shannon Amidon in 2013, and donated to the city by Genentech, a biotech company (City of San Francisco California Website). It was a dreadful shame, so please don’t be a heartbreaker.
If you want to get to know San Francisco, I challenge you to do the “Hearts in San Francisco” scavenger hunt since the majority of the hearts can be spotted in the popular areas of the city, including the Embarcadero, AT&T Park, City Hall, Lyon Street Steps, and Golden Gate Park. Just stroll down the beautiful streets of the city while seeking out the heart sculptures and let art be your guide as you find your heart in San Francisco. Trust me, you will fall in love with this city and be ready to leave your heart in San Francisco.
"Hearts in SF - San Francisco General Hospital Foundation." San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
"Laura Lineback." Laura Lineback. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
"Open Heart" - PIER 39 San Francisco." PIER 39 San Francisco. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
"Wild Poppies in the Twilight Rain | South San Francisco - Official Website." Wild Poppies in the Twilight Rain | South San Francisco - Official Website. Web. 12 May 2016.