Noe Valley Voice April 2006

Putting Jesse Back on His Bench

By Lorraine Sanders

Remember the slight man with a huge presence who once sat smiling from his habitual perch between Le Zinc and the small public parking lot on 24th Street? Since his death last fall, Noe Valleyans have missed the beret-capped man who inspired people with his kindness and strength of spirit. One local artist has a plan to bring him back.

When Jesse Zele died from complications of lung cancer at St. Luke's Hospital on Sept. 7, 2005, friends and neighborhood residents showered the 24th Street bench he'd occupied nearly every day for two decades with cards, flowers, and remembrances. Carole Warner, 68, a local artist living in Glen Park, saw the memorial soon after Zele's death and was immediately inspired.

"When I read all the things that everybody left at the memorial, it was such a widespread loss, and it was so sincere. It was not like he was a publicly recognized figure. He was just an individual who affected people on a very basic level," Warner says.

Zele, who was born in Los Angeles in 1946, was perhaps best known around the neighborhood for his remarkable ability to remain positive and his unflagging interest in others' well-being, despite the trials and hardships life dealt him. Zele began life with a curvature of the spine that grew worse over the course of his life. His mobility was further hampered by a motorcycle-accident foot injury. He was known to occupy free rooms offered up by friends and acquaintances. He is also said to have resided under the Cesar Chavez Street bridge on occasion. At the time of his death, he was living on Worth Street in Eureka Valley.

"He had tremendous hardships, and you'd never know it," Warner muses.

This bronze version of artist Carole Warner's Jesse statue is 12 inches tall.

Warner, a retired legal secretary who creates everything from ceramics to carvings in her home studio, decided a bronze statue of Zele, permanently installed on the 24th Street bench where once he sat, would be the ideal way to commemorate his life and presence in Noe Valley. She floated the idea at a memorial service held for Zele at the Noe Valley Ministry and soon began working on the project.

Because a full-sized Jesse statue could cost tens of thousands of dollars to make and maintain on public property, Warner decided to begin with a scaled-down prototype to raise money for the project. Using photographs from friends and others she studied at the memorial, Warner created a 12-inch statue in clay that could later be used to render a version in bronze. During the process, Warner says she felt guided by Jesse's presence, almost as if he was sitting on her shoulder.

"It was some kind of supernatural connection," she says with a soft chuckle. "I almost couldn't make a mistake. It sounds a little woo-woo, and I'm not a woo-woo kind of person."

Later, when Warner sent a photo of the clay model to a cousin of Zele's who lives in North Carolina, the response was overwhelmingly positive. "She said, 'I didn't think it would be possible to catch the twinkle in his eye, but you've done it.'"

After finishing the clay statue, Warner hired a foundry to create a mold from which multiple bronze statues could be cast. She picked up the first Jesse statue on March 20, and plans to have nine more made. "If there's an interest out there, I would be glad to issue a limited edition," Warner says.

Meanwhile, another of Jesse Zele fans, Ann Farrell, has offered to lead the fundraising effort for a life-sized statue.

Warner says the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Department of Parking and Traffic, the entity responsible for the lot near the bench, have given their preliminary approval for the project as a temporary work of art, but a number of hurdles remain. Regulations require public art projects of this nature to have funds allotted for insurance, as well as maintenance and general upkeep. Further complicating matters, an individual benefactor or community group must officially adopt the piece and agree to supervise the de-installation and moving process, should another permanent location become preferable in the future.

Warner has communicated her ideas to the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association and the residents group Friends of Noe Valley. Now, she says, the fate of the Jesse statue is in the hands of the people who live and work in Noe Valley.

"I did what I needed to do in memory of Jesse. I have already completed my promise to myself," she explains. "If the public support for it is not there, then that's okay with me, too."

For more information about the Jesse statue project, contact Carole Warner at 415-239-8706.