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.


The Importance of Place

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I sat down with William Salit in his brand-new studio at ARC, the gallery/studios complex that my partners and I recently started in SOMA.  We talked about setting up his new space – his first studio since the tragic demise of Belcher Studios two years ago.  Belcher Studios was, in many ways, the template that we used when we started ARC.  We all loved the energy and spirit of community at Belcher. In fact, when I first found out that the building that used to house New Langton Arts was available, I actually approached some of the former Belcher artists about the possibility of resurrecting that community in the building.  Ultimately that did not work out.  We formed our own partnership and started ARC.  However, I was really thrilled when William, one of the Belcher artists that I really admired, decided to join the studios.

At Belcher, the first studio that you encountered when you entered was William Salit’s studio.  When William saw the studio at the top of the stairs with its window open to the staircase, it was like coming home.  He immediately took the space.  In February, he started moving in.  By last week’s grand opening, it was beautifully laid out.  All of which led to a conversation about the importance of place.

Over the past two years, he has largely taken a hiatus from drawing.  As you can tell from his beautifully organized studio, William has a love affair with order.  Everything has a place and everything is in its space.  This is true in his home, his office and his studio.  However, strangely enough, he found that this need for order in most of his life was stifling his art.  He was not able to “let go” in his ordered spaces.  At Belcher, he had given himself the freedom to allow chaos into his studio.  He is not quite there yet at ARC.  But, he envisions very shortly carving out an island of chaos where he can have the freedom to let his art take him wherever it wants to go. 

There is an echo of Greek mythology in this discussion.  Chaos was the primordial ether from which the gods created the universe.  It was not the opposite of order.  Rather it was the raw material from which order was drawn.  For William, the physical connection between chaos and order is his crayon.  He talks about his hand and the graphite in that hand as if it was somehow disconnected from his body:  “My hand loves a piece of the Conté crayon in it.”  He draws aggressively.  It is not a delicate process.  This is no gentle foxtrot.  It is a wild tango.  And, the Conté crayon is a very hard kaolin/graphite/pigment mixture that accommodates his dance. 

The range of William’s work is astonishing.  I asked him to pull out some of his work , so we could talk a little bit about some of the different things that he had done and that he was doing.  We actually started with a recent series of photographs.  When he was without a dedicated studio, his drawing almost completely stopped.  No island of chaos was available.  His design work benefited, as his art sought an outlet.  He also began photographing more seriously.  I was particularly drawn to a large series of works of “found objects” photographed in the streets of San Francisco.  They are unstaged objects found lying on the street that do not belong.  I was particularly fascinated with the Band-Aid meticulously affixed along side a crack in the sidewalk.

There are the “Old Master” drawings – studies of the head and the figure reminiscent of Italian Renaissance drawings.  He opened his flat file and pulled out study after study of Val, his continuous muse for over 20 years – going back to his college days in New York.  They moved to San Francisco together.  He has drawn her literally thousands of times. I, in fact, met her leaving William’s studio when I arrived.  These are masterful, traditional drawings.  They are beautiful in their own right.  But, they are also like a musician playing his scales.  As William gears up, the drawings are his way of stretching his artistic muscles.

And, last but not least, we talked about the organic abstractions.  The foundation here is also the figure.  However, it is a sub-conscious foundation.  He begins with a line and starts drawing without purpose.  As it takes shape, he might turn it sideways or upside-down to make sense out of it.  He adds oil washes to the waxy charcoal.  He collages on the drawing.  He colors on the drawing.  In some cases, he makes a series of prints utilizing techniques similar to monoprinting.  I asked him how he knew he was done.  He described a process of “half lives”.  The frenzy simply winds down.  It is never really done.  But, much like a calculation in calculus, the drawing simply approaches being finished to the point where there was no meaningful difference between being finished and being almost finished.  Then he stops.

William Salit is one of the featured artists on this month’s Tour des Artistes studio tours.  You can also see his work at the SOMA Spring Open Studios.  There will be a preview exhibition at ARC Gallery on April 9-10.  And, his studio will be open for Open Studios on April 16-18.  Or, you can contact William through his website to arrange to for a studio visit by appointment.

Craft versus Art – What’s The Fuss?

StudioI recently met with David Patchen, one of San Francisco’s premier glassblowers.  He was one of the featured artists on a tour that I co-hosted of San Francisco studios in the ArtSpan Tour des Artistes program.  Interviewing David was a little bit different for me than some of the other interviews that I have engaged in.  Usually I throw out questions and allow the interview to develop organically.  Often I enter the interview with only a vague idea of what I will write about, often moving in an unexpected direction.  However, with David the interview was more participatory.  It felt more like a panel discussion than an interview.  And the subject of the panel discussion was “craft versus art”.Foglio3

Back in the day, when I was studying Japanese art history in graduate school, I was very drawn to the traditional crafts, particularly pottery.  One of the things that I loved about craft in Japan was the over-arching importance of technique.  Technique was instilled in a very traditional, very rigid apprenticeship system.  If you wanted to become a potter, you started by kneading clay until you could do it perfectly.  Then, you made teacups until you could make those perfectly. And so on and so forth.  Becoming a craft master was a long, arduous process, often taking literally decades.  When you see some of the twisted, distorted pieces that are so valued in Japan, there is certainly an element of “accident” that is incorporated in those works.  They are, however, a result of “accidentally on purpose”.  Before there are departures from perfection, first there is a mastery of perfection.


David Patchen is, of course, a glassblower, not a potter.  And, he has never formally apprenticed in the arduous way that Japanese craftsmen apprentice.  Nor did he spend decades in a glassblowing workshop in Murano.  However, the commonality with David’s study and both those systems of apprenticeship is a commitment to excellence; a commitment to perfection.  Starting with his earliest classes at Public Glass, David’s quest has been a quest for technical mastery.  In the tradition of apprenticeship, he worked in the collaborative social environment , an environment at Public Glass that fostered discussion and the exchange of knowledge.  By observing and occasionally assisting professional Bay Area glassblowers such as Jerry Kung, Sean Salstrom and Pamina Traylor; mixed in with  sporadic but leveraged study with Sean and Pamina; David was able to gradually build a formidable skill set.Foglio4
He visited Italy where he observed and learned at the studio of Afro Celotto in Murano.  When Afro Celotto, visited the United States, he worked with and assisted him.  More recently, he was the recipient of the first annual GLANC/Pilchuck Scholarship to study advanced Venetian cane and murrine techniques with Kait Rhoads, at the famed Pilchuck Glass School founded by Dale Chihuly. It has been the kind of hands-on training that traditional apprenticeship systems, like those in Japan and in Italy, have utilized for centuries.  And the resulting mastery of one’s medium is one that I, in particular, value.  So, I am often taken back when glass and ceramics are characterized as “mere craft”, not fine art.  For me, the line dividing craft and fine art is fuzzy.  Great art is typically (though not always) under-pinned by great craft.  And, great craft – craft that is not just accomplished, but which also is expressive – moves into the realm of great art.  I do not really see a divide.  Rather I see a continuum.

David’s work is an exploration of the unique properties of glass.  He is fascinated by its physical properties.  The move from solid to molten and back to solid is an intense one.  The window for creation is very constrained.  It requires meticulous planning and attention to detail.  But the rewards are great.  The best of his works bend color and light in an almost magical way.  David, himself, describes it best:


While varied in composition and design, I most often create work within a series of graceful forms which I consider three dimensional canvases. The diversity and variation in my work reflects my desire to explore a variety of ideas simultaneously. Some visual themes that recur include windows with views into or through a piece, contrasting transparency and solidity and disrupted repetition. Colors in contrasting and/or complimentary tertiary tones woven into complex patterns challenge expectations of the amount of detail glass can carry and its place in the art world.   


This year, David has been selected for an artist residency by the Seto City Art and Cultural Foundation in Japan.  Seto is one of the most historically important centers for the manufacture of pottery in all of Japan.  In fact, the name “Seto” is synonymous with pottery.  It Allegro1will be fascinating for me, personally, to see how this residency resonates in David’s future work.  Will his work become even more precise; or will we start to see some more “accidentally on purpose” elements surface?  Time will tell.

David Patchen is represented by numerous galleries nationally.  Here in the Bay Area, you can find his work at Gump’s.  This fall, he will be showing his work at Public Glass during San Francisco Open Studios, the weekend of October 24th -25th.  As for those of you seeking immediate gratification, this Labor Day weekend (Saturday-Monday), he will be across the Bay at the Sausalito Art Festival, in booth # 131.



Illusion of Choice – The Art of Tanya Wilkinson

tanya-2The most recent works by Tanya Wilkinson are a series of half life-sized paper dolls collaged over layers of fashion magazine layouts.  They are inspired, in part, by the semi-destroyed temporary walls that you often see surrounding construction sites.  The walls are plastered with tattered posters making vague promises, partially peeled away; revealing fragments of older posters with more vague promises. I was really taken with one of these new works in particular.  Tanya was struggling with a title for that work and she threw out a few possibilities.  The potential title that immediately resonated was “Illusion of Choice”.  It was a title that, for me, tied together many of the threads running throughout her art.

 Tanya’s career as an artist was nearly stillborn.  She began formally studying art in college.  Ambient (window) lightHowever, in one of her first classes in painting, the professor was quite dismissive of her efforts.  For him, the only work that was “worthy” was abstract expressionism.  He characterized her piece, which incorporated quilt collage elements, as “very feminine”.  This was not a compliment.  The tone was sexist and derisive; and it led to a ten year hiatus from seriously making art.  Tanya’s immediate reaction was to seek out the only department with a tenured female professor. That department was the Psychology Department.  Thus began her professional career as a practicing clinical psychologist.  She is also on the faculty of California Institute of Integral Studies where she teaches Clinical Psychology. It was a serendipitous detour for her artistic career.  Her professional work combining feminism and Jungian theory/practice has deeply informed her art. 

Tanya Wilkinson  When cotton was King

After the decade long, self-imposed exile from art, Tanya’s initial artistic explorations were more about texture and less about context.  She, by her own account, “obsessed” with papermaking.  She made paper from every conceivable fiber possibility.  Stacks of handmade paper accumulated everywhere.  When a certain critical mass was achieved, she started to work with the paper in collages, eventually expanding her experiments into sculptural castings.  This direction in art was not really an accident.  Tanya was born without depth perception.  And, it is only natural that her artistic work would involve a physical exploration of space. 

About ten years ago, Tanya took an intensive workshop with renowned book artist, Julie Chen at Mills College.  Slowly content had begun to infuse her work.  The results were typically “one offs” that she exhibited in a series of feminist shows.  There she met artist and curator, Tricia Grame.  This “force of nature” strongly encouraged Tanya to focus on “the political, autobiographical and narrative elements of the Feminist Art Movement” that sharply define her work today.  

Artist BookThe exploration of the nature of the choices that women make is a recurring exploration in Tanya Wilkinson’s work.  In recent years, she has specifically investigated the place that women occupy in society.  Which of the choices that women make are fundamental? Which are illusionary?  In her “Female Personae” series, the focus was on women’s clothing.  In many cultures, clothing is specifically used to subjugate women:  bound feet and burqas.  However, even here and now, in this most “modern” of societies, women love their clothes, but their clothes do not love them back.  High heels injure.  Corsets and underwire injure.  Skin tight pants and dresses injure.  These are the obvious physical injuries.  Layers of more subtle psychological injury are reflected in the collaged mixed-media layers from which Tanya fashions her garments.  

Pieces like ‘Strap/Yoke/Halter/Hook’, which sports a skirt decorated with the names of menacing-sounding fashions or ‘GoodGood Mornin' Little Schoolgirl Mornin’ Little School Girl’, a sweet little sundress fabricated from escort and massage parlor ads, use rather blatant strategies to show the seductiveness of a persona that injures.

Women invest massive resources of time, energy and money making choices about their physical appearance.  These decisions create the illusion of choice.  Deeply ingrained cultural patterns obscure the real choices surrounding this need to create a public personae; this need for some sort of idealized presentation of self.  As Tanya points out:

Female personae are pretty things made of sinister materials. They are a feminine disguise that slowly and surely confuses both the wearer and the beholder as to the nature of the person within. Yet, the seductiveness of Feminine disguise remains largely impervious to this insight. That is the conundrum that my work explores.

 Tanya Wilkinson maintains a studio at the Noonan Building in San Francisco.  Her work consists of Mixed Media Paintings and Artist Books.  She will be participating in Fall Open Studios during October.  You can also visit her studio by appointment.  In addition, she will be a featured artist on ArtSpan’s Tour des Artistes, a fundraiser for the Art for City Youth program, which I will be co-hosting, next Sunday, August 16th, with Alan Bamberger.  Tanya is also a published author.  She is currently writing a book, entitled Joy in the Making:  Artist’s Dreams and the Recovery of Delight in Art-Making, to be published by Council Oak Books later this year.

“Why Birds?” The Art of Zannah Noe

NOE_FRTSan Francisco Open Studios kicks off every year with a celebratory party previewing many of the works that will be shown over the month of October and into November, as over 800 artists open their studios.  One of the recent traditions has been to have many of those artists paint wine glasses as gifts of appreciation for the fellow artists, art collectors and patrons who attend the Private Preview party.  For a number of years, my wife and I sought out the glasses painted by Zannah Noe, adorned with her distinctive images of crows and ravens.  It was, therefore, a minor tragedy when, at a recent party, someone knocked over the glass we had carefully sought out, and shattered it.  I shared our misery with Zannah. She generously offered to replace it; and the result was a wonderful set of painted champagne glasses.  I share this story because I have admired her work for years, strangely drawn to her images of the birds – sometimes solitary, more often in groups.  And yet, I had never really asked her about them. 

When we recently met over coffee for the interview for this profile, we chit-chatted briefly – then Zannah asked: “How are we going to do this?”  I hesitated briefly and responded: “So, why birds?”  Zannah pointed out that the Corvidae family of birds, which includes ravens, crows, magpies and jays – among others, are the most intelligent of birds.  Many have self-awareness and tool-making abilities.  As a result, man has from time immemorial been fascinated with them. They appear in the myths and legends of most cultures.  They are iconic.

In most Western cultures, as we have looked to religion to provide absolute answers, the raven has morphed into a singular symbol of ill-will or misfortune.  However, in virtually all pre-conversion, shamanistic cultures the Raven has been a more complex symbol.  They are about the Zannah_Noe_Portraitquest for knowledge – knowledge which can be both a boon, but also perilous.  They stand at the gateway between this world and the after-world; they are healer, but not entirely trust-worthy; they are creator and trickster.  It is that duality that has drawn Zannah to them.  One or two in a painting, and they are waiting and watching.  They are about possibilities.  Put them all in a line, and they are gatekeepers waiting to take you to the other side. They are about transformation.  Repeating these images into the picture frame is a way for Zannah to tell a story, but not in a linear way.  Why birds?  It is because, for Zannah, the ravens and crows tie together many avenues of exploration.

In addition to her painting, Zannah also embraces yet another of the Raven’s traits: assemblage.   The raven’s nests can be works of art, brightly incorporating man-made objects in their construction.  “Her new interest in assemblage stems from utilizing her collection of objects and images from solely functioning as inspiration into becoming the art itself.”  The latest works are more overtly conceptual in nature, with the collection of objects contained in each box conveying a message with a wide range of potential interpretations.

fish_and_bird_It is interesting to look at the work of some of the artists that she lists as influences. There is the brilliant graphic novelist Bill Sienkiewicz. His seminal work, Stray Toasters, is a crime thriller with a protagonist, “Magik” who is either a wrong-accused, unfairly incarcerated hero, or possibly an untrustworthy narrator – you be the judge. She pulled out a powerful image of “Woman with Dead Child” by Kathe Kollwitz.   This German illustrator/printmaker spent a lifetime chronicling injustice in the world around her.  She studied under Carrie Mae Weems, at the University of Massachusetts. The works in series by this distinguished photographer exploreTransAmerica_Pyramid racism and gender issues and bravely challenge the establishment. And then she throws in Bansky, the infamous graffiti artist, whose work is both politically-charged, but also tongue in cheek.  Clearly Zannah is a little bit complicated.  With the Crow, she seems to have found a perfect avatar.  I know that for me, drinking champagne from flutes encircled by crows on glass branches will always be a little more thought-provoking from now on.

Zannah Noe maintains a studio at Hunters Point.  She is a landscape artist (Birds on a Wire & Cityscapes) and an Assemblage artist.  You can see her work at both Spring and Fall Open Studios; or at her studio by appointment.  She will be a featured artist this month on ArtSpan’s Tour des Artistes, a fundraiser for the Art for City Youth program, which I will be co-hosting.


Whenever I am looking for an art oasis here in San Francisco, I try to plan a visit to the live-work space of Silvia Poloto.  With Silvia, the line dividing her life poloto in studio 6from her art is definitely blurred.  She lives in a space where she is completely surrounded by her art – works both finished and in progress.  Her life permeates her art and it is, in turn, permeated by it.  She told me that she cannot imagine living in a space where she could not immediately access her paintings at any time.  It is not that she needs to be constantly working; but, ideas for work can come to her at any time and she loves being able to walk into her adjacent studio when that happens.

On one memorable Sunday afternoon, more than a dozen intrepid art trekkers made their way to her Mission loft.  There we sat around drinking fine wine and nibbling on artisan cheeses, while Silvia held court. Silvia is a great story-teller and her story is both inspiring and moving.  Raised in Brazil, she was born into a family and a society that was not particularly supportive of any artistic ambitions.  For her parents, the academic achievements of her brothers, leading to careers in engineering, were praise-worthy. So, intensely competitive by nature, she focused on academics.  She entered the best engineering schools; became a sales engineer; and went on to get an MBA – all to prove to everyone that she was as good as or better than her brothers.  Becoming an artist was not an option – not even a dream.

Then, love entered the picture and everything changed. Everything became possible.  She metObservationsGreen1 her Irish husband on a beach in Brazil.  After a whirlwind romance, they married.  Billy won the Irish “U.S. green card” lottery and off they went to live in the United States.  Three months after moving here to San Francisco, and without the familial and societal pressures, Silvia decided that she had become an engineer for all the wrong reasons; and she quit.  She took some metal-working classes at City College of San Francisco and started making sculpture.  She actually worked as a welder for a short time. But her art quickly gained traction.  Her art professors recognized her talent and encouraged her.  She got a merit scholarship to the Art Institute, but dropped out quickly because she needed to focus on actually making art to meet the demand. Galleries started representing her.  Art consultants sought her out.  When she stopped making sculpture and turned to painting, they all came along for the ride.  It was, in many ways, a charmed life.  Then, tragically, her husband, who was both her best friend and an important partner in her career, became seriously ill.  In early 2009, she lost him to cancer.  On that visit to her studio, he was omni-present in both a large series of photographs and in a funerary art piece she created.  It has been incredibly challenging, but we all got a sense of just how strong, just how determined Silvia is.

PolotoCrushStudies47x47 Silvia has worked in sculpture, photography and video, in addition to painting.  And all of these make their way into her artistic process.  With photography and sculpture, the idea usually comes first.  These are what she calls “thinking pieces”.  She has a vision and she sets out to realize the vision in the work.  However, she pointed out that “there is a space of not thinking, even in the thinking pieces”.  With painting, it is more overtly “not thinking”.  Her goal is to allow her sub-conscious to direct the pieces.  The works are not really planned out in advance.  These are what she calls “intuitive pieces”.  They develop naturally.  I asked her a question that I often ask abstract artists:  “How do you know when it is done?”  In her inimitable style, she stated with absolute confidence that “I always know when it is done; it is very clear”.  She realizes that other abstract artists have a hard time knowing when to stop.  They hang paintings on the wall for weeks to be certain that the work does not need something else.  But for her, there is clarity and certainty.  When a work is done, it is done.  In both art and life, she is striding forward confidently.

Personally, I was first drawn to Silvia’s work when I encountered two mixed media pieces featuring pigs.   The pieces were “in progress” at Trillium, a local printer for artists and they were very complex.  Plexiglas boxes had been built and filled with painted panels, sculptural insets and toy pigs.  The works explore the human condition, with the pigs playing the leading role of the humans.  In one of my favorite works:  “Reverence”, the pigs hanging from meat hooks have a certain medieval quality of religiosity.  The works were both engaging and disturbing.  Two of this series of works are in Silvia’s collection and I frequently revisit them.

The “Pigs” series was a progression from an earlier series from 2004, “Unresolved”.  This was the first series where Silvia technically brought together her sculpture, her photography and her painting.  The works here were less ambiguous.  Titles for the works, such as “Betrayal” and “Vows”, were very much descriptive of the subject matter.  With “Pigs”, there was much more room for the viewer to bring their perspective to the work.  Even for Silvia, who lives with the “Pigs” in her bedroom, her evolving experiences have changed the meaning of the works for her, as well.  These are works that do not sit still.  They morph.

I was very pleased to see Silvia return to this kind of artistic exploration when I recently visited her loft.  She is once again working on large assemblages.  This series is aptly titled “Private Puzzles”.  Once again, she has built elaborate frames that combine photographic, painted and sculpted elements.  However, when she started on these new works, her original thought was to print the photographic elements very large on watercolor paper.  This proved to be prohibitively expensive.  So, instead, she printed the images in sections.  She then found herself rearranging the different sections in various combinations.  It is a very physical exploration of the artistic possibilities that allows her to take images that are well-thought out, then combine her abstract sensibilities to move the sections into compositions that are built sub-consciously.

I am particularly fascinated with her work, “Family Tree # 1”.  Here Silvia has explored the “Spanish” side of her family tree – her mother’s family.  The Spanish women were formidable, dominating family life.  At the same time, they were vulnerable to physical domination and abuse by the men.  Silvia takes three separate panels and physically unites them with steel bolts.  Her grandparents and great-grandparents populate the top panel.  The ties bind the middle and subsequent generation, reaching down to Silvia’s oft-repeated and self-identifying rose.  It is serious work.  At the same time, it is humorous work.  There is a particular subject to the work.  And, there is an ambiguity to the work where the viewer can enter it and make it their own.

Silvia Poloto is represented at numerous galleries nationwide (see “contact & galleries” on her website).  In April, she will be participating in 2011 Spring Open Studios at ARC Gallery, April 1-3; and at her live-work loft, April 16-17.  She also will be participating in 2011 San Francisco Fall Open Studios this coming October, also at both locations.  And, her studio is open 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.