“Ok to Burn” – John Fitzsimmons

On the afternoon of October 25, 2003, a hunter in the Cleveland National Park became disoriented.  He lit a small fire to signal for help.  By the time that they announced the fire had been contained a week and a half later, almost 300,000 acres had burned, nearly 3000 buildings had been destroyed and fifteen people had lost their lives.  It was the largest fire in California history.

In 1970, John Fitzsimmons and Kat Flyn drifted to San Diego from New York City.  It was not part of any real plan, but John got a job as a teacher and Kat started the first vintage clothing store in that city.  The store was successful and John soon joined the business.  Some of the customers wanted to rent the vintage clothing rather than buy it.  The next thing you know, a small costume spin-off business was born, ultimately swallowing up the original business.  It was quite successful and thirty years later, they began planning their retirement.  They built their dream home just outside of San Diego, surrounded by towering pines, near the national forest, in the town of Cuyamaca.

As part of their business, Kat had designed some of the costumes and John had photographed some of the models.  It was artistic to a degree, but both dreamed of seriously pursuing art.  Kat, who was and is a talented assemblage artist, had taken boxes and boxes of materials from the business, storing them in the basement of their home.   A lifetime of artist supplies was assembled and ready to go.  Then, on October 27th and 28th, the fire reached Cuyamaca and all 120 homes in that community were incinerated.

Remarkably, both John and Kat not only physically survived the fire; emotionally, as well, they rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix.  John photographed the aftermath of the fire.  He took the photographs to a local gallery and had his first solo show.  It was a new beginning.

With no trees and no real prospect for trees, they decided not to rebuild in Cuyamaca.  Almost arbitrarily, they moved up to San Francisco.  They loved it right away.  Artistically, they moved to the SOMA Artist Studios, where they still maintain a studio, and they began making art.  Kat produces wonderful assemblages.  She also collaborates with John on his photography, making the trademark frames that work so well with his photographs of urban decay.

I have always been particularly drawn to that body of John’s work.  Last year, in the “Guerrilla Show” at Arc Gallery, I was ready to buy “Green Trailer, Salton Sea” when someone snatched it off the wall just in front of me.  I went to Open Studios in October hoping to find a similar work.  Then I noticed a photograph of three abandoned homes in Atascadero.  I had to have it.  The work, shown here in the banner for this story, was called “Ok to Burn”.  At that time, I did not know anything about their personal story.  It was only when I began writing this profile that the significance of the work become apparent.

John’s photography divides into two broad categories of work:  urban decay and fantasy.  The fantasy work has a staged element to it.  It is a touchstone back to the costume design business.  John cites contemporary influences such as Maggie Taylor and Jerry Uelsmann.  Overtly manipulated, the photographs are visual collages of imagery that explore themes of sex, bigotry, drugs, global warming.

The other works, which explore themes of urban decay, will be prominently on display next week in the Arc Gallery exhibition “FourSquared”, where John will be one of the sixteen featured artists.  These works have a political edge.  They revisit American glory, now left behind and rotting away.  Cars are abandoned and rusting.  Drive-in movie theaters are overgrown.  Houses are ok to burn.  Even the landscape itself is allowed to deteriorate from willful neglect in a series of works photographed in the Salton Sea.  The images are powerful, yet somewhat ambiguous; nostalgic, yet somehow bittersweet.  They evoke memories of the longing in Charles Foster Kane’s plantive last word: “Rosebud”.

You can see John Fitzsimmon’s work in the upcoming Arc Gallery exhibition: “FourSquared”, opening on Saturday, August 27th and continuing through September 28th.  He will be participating in San Francisco Fall Open Studios, the weekend of October 14th.  You can also contact John directly for a studio visit by appointment.


Curiosity Dissected the Cat – Sandra Yagi

Earlier this year we visited the studio of Sandra Yagi in San Francisco’s SOMA area.  Her studio is in an industrial building in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, but it has great light – very important for an artist whose work is rooted in life drawing.  While Sandy’s work often has a surreal feel to it, an exploration of her studio reveals the references that inform that work.  She is a diligent student of nature.  There are books on botany and anatomy.  There are taxidermy forms.  There is a skeleton named Frederick.

Sandy’s life as an artist was a dream deferred.  While she was always interested in making art, that was not an education that her father, ever practical, was going to pay for.  Instead, she started out with a business degree and a career in finance.  After Bank of America relocated her here to San Francisco from Denver, she began seriously studying and making art on the side.  With her business/finance background, she developed a formal plan to transition to art.  She and her partner settled into a very frugal lifestyle, saving towards the goal of being able to support themselves with Sandy pursuing art.  There was an actual business plan.  They worked with the most conservative assumption that there would be no revenue from art initially.  And, they set a standard of living for themselves that allowed for that.  This gave Sandy the time she needed to find her voice as an artist.

And, it is a fascinating voice, indeed.  Sandy is intensely interested in how things work.  And, at the same time, she is very interested in how different societies at different times have tried to unravel those mysteries.  Much of her work explores both the modern world’s scientific discoveries and the ancient world’s mythology looking for similarities and disconnects.

In one series of work, she specifically explores myth and symbolism.  She scientifically illustrates horses with detailed anatomy in one painting that is based on the myth of the Mares of Diomedes – horses with an unnatural appetite for human flesh.  The story resonates in the modern world as parable of nature punishing man.  She paints skulls with reptiles crawling around in the cranial cavity.  The paintings are not just a little disturbing.  And, it is not an accident that one of these paintings is in the collection of Axl Rose.  But the symbolism is again very modern.  It is a direct reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is a representation of man’s reptilian brain taking over.  Consumption of the bird in the painting symbolizes consumption of freedom or the soul.

In a more recent series of paintings, Sandy has focused specifically on the skeletal forms.  She shows skeletons having sex – an amusing reference to Petit Mort.  She illustrates Madonna and Child, where the child is a skeleton of conjoined fetal twins – the opposite of perfection.  And, there is a whole series of dancing skeletal conjoined twins, appealing to her desire to intensely study how the body works, but in a slightly twisted and highly amusing way.

Recently, Sandy produced a series of sixteen small works for an exhibition at ARC Gallery in San Francisco, “FourSquared”, that I had the honor of co-curating.  The concept of the exhibition was to showcase sixteen artists in sixteen articulated grids, effectively creating sixteen small separate exhibitions.  All of the works were small and affordable.  Sandy embraced the concept enthusiastically and characteristically.  She used the exhibition as an opportunity to embark on yet another series of works exploring the world both scientifically and surrealistically.  The question she asked was “What if evolution took a different path?”.  With obsessive detail, she imagined hybrid creatures:  Mandrill Demons, Feathertail Possums, and PigeonRats.  In meticulous rendered small oil paintings, she not only imagined these creatures, she also created entire worlds for them to inhabit. SpiderMonkey now graces my personal collection.

Everyone has a wonderful opportunity to visit Sandy in her studio this weekend as San Francisco Open Studios moves to SOMA for Weekend Two (October 15-17).  Her studio is in the South Beach Artists Studios at 2nd & Bryant Streets.  And, if you miss her this weekend, she will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Bert Green Fine Art Gallery in Los Angeles in January 2011.  You can also arrange to see Sandra Yagi’s studio by appointment.

“A Place of Her Own” – The Art of Cynthia Tom

The idea for “A Place of Her Own” , Cynthia Tom’s on-going collaborative art project, really took shape about three years ago when Cynthia began showing work at the annual Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibition DAy_of_the_Dead_10-06__27__webin San Francisco.  This show has traditionally been dedicated to victims of violent death in the Bay Area.  It is not, however, simply or exclusively a memorial to those who have died.  It is also about those left behind and it is about art’s power to heal.  For the exhibition, artists create installation pieces of reverence and remembrance.  Often the installations are rooms – full scale assemblages.  

It is work that Cynthia Tom is uniquely qualified to pursue.  Since childhood, she has been creating assemblages.  She was taught by her mother, also an artist, who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Sue Tom was one of seven children of a merchant-class father who was a gambling and opium addict. Her mother had been sold to him in China and brought to San Francisco in a cargo-hold.  After her father died when she was 12, there was no money for art supplies.  With no formal training and limited resources, Sue Tom fashioned assemblages from things others had thrown away.  It was, for her, a way to re-invent her world – one that she passed on to her daughter. 

Cynthia works in a variety of media – painting, collage and sculpture.  Bright colors, texture and 3D are all characteristics of her art.  In terms of process, she starts with a single germ of an idea or an image.  Over time she builds onflying_in_the_trees_2_op_800x1208 that seed, gradually adding context and narrative to the work.  The process can be a long one and she is often working on as many as 20 pieces at a time. Her background did not provide the opportunity for formal training in an art school.  However, my guess is that this is fortunate.  The unique combination of whimsy with a serious message that is present in her best work probably would not have benefited from a BFA degree.

Her art is an exploration of personal and social issues – those in the lives of her ancestors, those in her own life and those in the broader community of women, and Asian women specifically.  The rooms that Cynthia created for the Dia De Los Muertos exhibitions were extensions of these explorations.  Like many third and fourth generation San Francisco Chinese-Americans, Cynthia Tom’s journey began years before she was born.  It began in China and ran through Angel Island on the way to San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The experiences of her grandparents and her parents, experiences that hugely influenced who she is as both an individual and an artist, were often shrouded in mystery Boxed Set Meta IVand shadows. The stories were harrowing.  Like many Chinese of their generation, her parents were reluctant to talk about them. 

In the Dia De Los Muertos rooms she had license to more fully explore those stories. The scale of the project made her think about their impact on her in new ways.  She began to question her assumptions.  Which assumptions were hers?  Which assumptions had been imposed on her by others?  She posed the question, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?”  Starting with an Artist-In-Residence program at the de Young Museum (in association with the Asian American Women Artists Association) in January this year, she has created a five-year collaborative project seeking multi-faceted artistic responses to that query.

You can see Cynthia’s work at San Francisco Open Studios.  She is also a featured artist on ArtSpan’s Tour des Artistes, an exclusive tour of select artist studios this Sunday, that raises funds to support art education in San Francisco elementary schools.

“Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That”

Earlier this week I stopped by for a studio visit with Mitchell Confer, who was is the midst of preparing for this weekend’s Hunters Point Spring Open Studios.  Since he was working on one the pieces for a new series that he will be showing, I thought that it would be a good time to talk about “process”, and also to talk about some of the debates that swirl around the use of digital technology in art.

 confer-cityscapeMitchell attended college in Fullerton where he received a degree in Printing.  He then went on to formally study art at the Arts Center College of Design in Pasadena.  For the past 20 years, he has worked as a commercial illustrator, photographer, artist and teacher.  The marriage of art and technology in his work is no accident.  It was almost pre-destined.  His mother was an artist.  His father was an engineer.  He is the resolution of his left and right brain mixed heritage. 

 Mitchell approaches his work, as he puts it, “as a long running experiment, of sorts”.  We discussed some of the controversy surrounding the use of technology in art.  As he points out, most of the artists who utilize digitalconfer-wall-walking technology are not very transparent about it.  They seem to feel a little bit guilty that it was not all created with traditional drawing and painting techniques.  He is, on the other hand, unapologetic.  He fully embraces digital technology, which he combines much of the time with drawing, painting and photography.  For him, it is about “solving the problem”.  He talks about “happy accidents” – starting with an idea, exploring that idea, but also allowing “process” to take him in unexpected directions.  Because he has both an art and a technical background, he is constantly forging new ground in what is possible, particularly with his innovative printing techniques.  Watching him print multiple layers on a wood veneer is a really eye-opening experience.

 In the end, however, it is about artistic vision.  Picasso (or perhaps it was Matisse) said of Paul Cezanne that “he is the father of us all”.  Certainly there is a case to be made that much of modern art is taking the vocabulary thconfer-abstractat Cezanne gave us and finding new ways to use that vocabulary.  Cezanne intensely studied his subjects, more often than not landscapes.  He deconstructed the subjects and then reassembled them into planes of color.  You cannot help but to see that continuing conversation in Confer’s work.  He has a real sense of design, combined with a truly deft touch with an unconstrained color palette.  And, with almost missionary zeal, he is embracing modern technology and incorporating that into the conversation, as well. 

Mitchell Confer’s studio is at the Hunters Point Shipyard.  Don’t miss Spring Open Studios at the Shipyard and at Islais Creek, this weekend.  And, if you go to the Shipyard, be sure to visit Studio 2114 in Building 101.

Alternatives in Alternative Spaces

One of the primary reasons that I started SF Art News is a feeling that the mainstream San Francisco art business world largely overlooks outstanding local artists.  There is simply not a lot of risk-taking (ground-breaking shows featuring local talent) at the majority of the downtown galleries. 

San Francisco does have some cutting-edge galleries:  White Walls, Fecal Face, Varnish and 111 Minna to name just a few.  But, even these galleries all have a somewhat similar sensibility.  There are literally hundreds of very talented San Francisco-Bay Area artists, who do not fit either the traditional or the current avant-garde mold; and they get little opportunity to exhibit in a gallery setting.  Now, however, with the internet and social networking venues like Facebook, My Space and Twitter, it is possible to sidestep traditional galleries altogether and put together well-attended exhibitions in alternative venues.  In the past two weeks, I have attended openings that I would like to highlight, with four different alternative approaches.


Secession Art & Design

Secession is a more recent addition to the crop of alternative venues that has been emerging.  Eden Stein started producing trunk shows in a small architecture office in the Outer Mission.  When the architecture firm re-located, they asked if Ms. Stein would like to take over the space.  After gathering an eclectic group of artists and designers, the answer was yes.  The vision for this “gallery, boutique, workshop” is loosely organized around recurring themes of a design sensibility that is informed by architectural design; along with the use of recycled and vintage materials – reassembled in interesting ways.

This is not a traditional gallery setting.  It feels more like an artist co-op, with jewelry and clothing designers working side-by-side in small design work stations with studio artists.  I attended the opening for the current group show that features Bay Area artists: Ivy Jacobsen and Peter Andrea.  It was the work of Ms. Jacobsen that had me trekking to the Outer Mission.

ivyjacobsen3 I first encountered Ivy Jacobsen’s art at San Francisco Fall Open Studios several years ago, and I have been a fan ever since.  There is a decorative quality to much of her art that she exhibits, which tracks back directly to the Japanese decorative painters of the 17th century, most famously Korin.  It was his painting and lacquer-ware that inspired the woodblock artists of the later-Edo period, the decorative arts movement in Vienna and subsequently the global Art Deco movement.  Like Korin, Ms. Jacobsen’s painting is deeply rooted in nature. Her palette is restricted; her designs are simplified, almost abstract; and yet a complete naturalism is achieved.  Technically, the process she utilizes to obtain an almost lacquer-like quality to her work is very complex.  She describes it on her website:

I use oil paint, bronzing powder, earth pigments, acrylic paint, resin, and other mixed media on canvas and birch panel in creating my paintings. I start each painting with a solid gold background using bronzing powder. The rich gold has a reflective quality, which allows an iridescence to shine thru the foreground layers. Once I have the luminous bronze under-painting I apply layers of thin glazes, oil paint, and sometimes two-part epoxy resin. By painting the trees and plant forms in between the layers of glazes the forms begin to occupy various spaces in the foreground and background. The thin glazes expand the color and the forms fade into silhouette.

 The show at Secession Art & Design runs through May 30th.


Kalart Gallery 

Kalart began its existence as a traditional gallery in the late 90’s.  It was founded by San Francisco architect, Arvind Iyer.  With the dot.com bust in 2001, Mr. Iyer decided to focus his efforts on his core architectural business.  He rented out the space to another gallery.  With the recent re-location of that gallery, Kalart Gallery has, in the best Indian tradition, been resurrected.  Currently it is not truly a commercial gallery.  Rather it is devoted to projects and artists that appeal to Mr. Iyer. 


Salma Arastu, a Bay Area artist by way of Rajasthan, India, approached Mr. Iyer about an exhibition of her paintings to coincide with the launch of her new book, “The Lyrical Line”.  The exhibition, which included her painting, her book launch, a lecture and Sufi music at the opening, was just the sort of project that Mr. Iyer embraces.


salma3Much of Salma’s work is influenced by Indian folk art, Mogul miniatures and Arabic calligraphy.  She has combined these traditional influences with many of the western techniques that she has embraced in over thirty years as a professional artist (see also site banner).  The result is lyrical work that can often approach abstraction, where her deep spirituality is always present.



 31 Rausch

Really putting the “Alt” in Alternative Spaces, 31 Rausch is the home of San Francisco artist Chris McCaw.  For the past fifteen years he has resided in SOMA.  For the first ten of those years, his walls and hallways were decorated tastefully with a collection of black velvet paintings.  Thankfully, four years ago the attraction of black velvet , or at least black velvet paintings, wore out.  He bought a large supply of Black Velvet whiskey and threw a party.  Everyone who attended had to take a painting home with them.  It was cathartic, but it also left a lot of blank walls.  One of his friends (and a Black Velvet party alum), Chris Koperski, asked if he could mount an exhibition using the now blank walls – and thus started “art in a hallway”, with the first exhibition in September 2005.

Since 2005, 31 Rausch has mounted twenty shows.  The shows are unique.  Artists who exhibit must price their work at no more than $200.  The goal is to price work that fellow artists can afford.  Also, the artists retain 100% of the sales proceeds.  The “gallery” is underwritten by a modest grant from Southern Exposure and the Andy Warhol Foundation that supports alternative venues.

pazWhat brought me out was the current exhibition of Paz de la Calzada’s work.  A native of Madrid, Paz studied fine arts in both Spain and Madrid.  She came to the Bay Area as an artist-in-residence at Djerrasi in 2003. This was follwed by an artist-in-residency at Kala in Berkeley in 2004.  I met her at San Francisco Open Studios a couple of years ago and one of her graphite paintings of woven hair proudly adorns my entryway.  She best describes her work:

 My three-dimensional and two-dimensional work compliment and complete each other. I create a variety of forms inspired by the complexity and playfulness of labyrinths. Knots, tangles, woven shapes and patterns of hair feature prominently in my work.  I am interested in exploring the tension between order and chaos. I combine unexpected materials and colors to change the appearance of real objects. I often work with contradictory ideas, shaping natural forms from artificial materials. Sometimes, I apply the order of a formal plaid pattern to a chaotic form. In other projects I work with objects from daily life, like old shoes or beauty masks, and present them transformed with unnatural colors and in new context.

The current show at 31 Rausch features small, colorful prints of her hair knots.  It is open by appointment.


Art in the Alley

The opening for the 9th year of Art in the Alley event was at the notable North Beach watering hole, Vesuvio, located next to the landmark bookstore, City Lights – beacon of the Beat generation.  It is truly a neighborhood event, celebrating the creativity that has been the hallmark of North Beach since the 1950’s.

vescitylwebThis long-running event is truly a grassroots effort.  It is organized by North Beach artist, Elizabeth Ashcroft.  Elizabeth is a multi-faceted artist, creating mixed-media collages and vibrant acrylic paintings.  However, the works that perhaps best define her as an artist who resides at a certain place are her graphite pencil drawings. These drawings, created over the last twelve years, depict the unique architecture of San Francisco’s historical Italian neighborhood where she lives.

The preview for the group show, featuring more than 30 artists, continues from April 15-30 inside the Vesuvio.  It culminates with a full afternoon of art and jazz in the cobblestoned Kerouac Alley.  Mark your calendars for Sunday May 3rd from noon-6.

Judy North at Electric Works

Beast of Burden

The Judy North solo exhibition, “Why Not Say It?” at Electric Works closes on this Saturday, April 18th.  It is a wonderful show.  If you have the opportunity to go before it closes, I encourage everyone to do so.




It is, in many ways, really a retrospective for this remarkable Bay Area artist and educator.  It covers a broad range of her work from 1982 to the present.  Stylistically, the work is in the Romantic tradition that reaches back through the Symbolists, to the French Romanticist, Eugene Delacroix and beyond.  There is a bold expressionist use of color and line that echoes those works.  Like those painters, much of Ms. North’s work has a distinctly narrative quality to it.  But the paintings can also be very current, with titles like “Desert Storm” and “Coercive Tactics”; as well as spiritual with titles like “I Give You A Golden Thread” and “It Furthers One to Cross the Great Waters”.   


I was fortunate to drop into Heavens Dog last night, the new venue by famed San Francisco restaurateur, Charles Phan, for a mixer organized by the gallerists, Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang.  It was a great opportunity to meet and speak with Ms. North.  It was also a great opportunity to see another side of her work.  Charles Phan has chosen to adorn his restaurant with some of Ms. North’s animal portraits for the indeterminate future.  Appropriately enough, most of the portraits are of dogs.  However, the work that most resonated with me was a trilogy of cows hanging over the bar.  Ms. North resides in rural Marin.  Apparently, bull thistle is a problem in the grazing pastures. Ranchers that she knows in Nicasio, not wanting to harm the environment with toxic weed killers, decided to train their cattle to eat the thistle.  They introduced the cattle to young thistle with molasses so that the cattle acquired a taste for the weed.  Then, they sprayed the thistle in the fields with molasses and the thistle problem was addressed.  It is so successful that the new generations of cattle no longer require the molasses.  Whimsically, the calf pictured in one of the paintings is named “Thistler” and the painting of the cow next to it is titled “Thistler’s Mother”. 


Whister's Mother

Heavens Dog is a short stroll from Electric Works, around the corner on Mission Street.

Jennybird’s Treacherous Gardens



Jennybird Alcantara’s art is a side trip into the back alleys of fairytale kingdoms.  You do not find her creations on a guided tour. They do not inhabit the Main Streets of fairytales, fables and mythology.  If you want to go where she goes, then you need to know a local.




The surrealistic influence on her art is apparent.  There is also a definite Juxtapoz sensibility to the work.  That, however, is just vocabulary.  Her work is uniquely her own and transcends that.  She fashions stories, stories that draw you in and make you want to know more. She uses a vocabulary of wide-eyed chimera – often dismembered and reassembled.  It is a personal doll hospital where a fully realized vision of creation, extinction and re-creation are all present.


The current show at Varnish Gallery runs through May 9th.  I recommend the Easton Zinfandel to accompany your visit:  “candied red fruit, white pepper and cloves – a nervy Zin” to compliment some nervy art.