Today, my Facebook memories provided me with a snapshot of the same day in my life across just a few of my twenty-seven years as a Bay Area artist. And the reflection, viewed from the distance of Montana, along with the pervasive residue of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, has me a bit downhearted.
Note: No ideas.
From Amanda’s house in SF, as the understanding was solidifying that this was not the guest situation/delightful art residency proposed, but one with some serious responsibilities that I wasn’t sure I could handle. The time and space required for making my Christmas Loteria Cards had become a point of friction, energy that wasn’t dedicated to my friend’s needs. It was a decision point. A few days later I took a break (with another friend, whose sanity and clarity and warmth and intelligence–and space–was like a super-fortifying antibiotic against overwhelmedness; bless you, Lette), and returned, ready to have the hard conversations. We did, and I decided to stay, and to find a balance between helping her and taking the course at BAVC. I tucked my art supplies back into the storage room. Art later. (Logistical aside: My car had just given up the ghost, making the hours on multiple forms of public transport to get to my friend’s nature photography show/party in the East Bay impractical; and also meaning that other friends had to do me the kindness of taking me to and from my friend Lette’s house. Again with the economics. Again with the list of debts I owe…)
Oakland. Wonderful, funky, political, complicated, real-life Oakland.
Cascada de Flores, my touchstones, mi familia. Chilaquiles, tequila, musica y amor–the ritual, the formula, for joy, if nothing else, that I’ve developed with Arwen & Jorge.
From my tiny space in Alameda, the time dearly bought–barely sustainable even then, but my rent was still low-ish, by Bay Area standards. I was still working half-time, and that meant I was 30 lbs lighter, on the rent-first diet, but I could read a little, write a little, carve out a day to paint, a weekend to make Loteria Cards for my nieces and nephew. The letter from the IRS, btw, was not good; it was for taxes owed on a 1099 contract. Always hoping for a better tomorrow…
My artist/craftswoman friend Laura, selling her and her partner’s wares at the KPFA Crafts and Art Fair in 2010. She’s been gone from the Bay Area–and art–for about 3 years now. Her brilliant writer/curator/art presenter sister Paula left this last year as well.
Say what you will, in the Bay Area you can dance. Those multi-kulti arms are not always welcoming…and who gives a shit? Music is the most universal of all the universal languages, and one of the reasons I chose the Bay Area: to mix it up with a broader range of flavors…my own included. Bring it.
Brand new to my Alameda studio apt/studio, so bloody happy to be making it mine. And incredibly lucky my landlords did not choose to take exception to my art-making on the premises, as so many, perfectly rightly, do. Shockingly out of Work work. Still stunned at the loss of Parsons Paris and Uncle Mike a few months before. Living on word-of-mouth sales of pet collages–and getting pretty damned good at them–as necessity demanded.
Unlike the artists in cooperative spaces so much in the news, my Bay Area art journey led me to maintain my own tiny space, most of the time. In my years in Theater, I found myself holding the bag for cooperative costs; or I found myself in dangerous (in other ways than fire, but still dangerous) shared housing situations; or my pride would not accept putting housemates in a bind when I couldn’t make the rent on time (I always made it; always; just not always on time). Eventually, I decided cohabiting wasn’t workable. So I took on bigger commitments to day-jobs, and wrestled financial compensation out of arts jobs, to support a single-payer rent.
I also received the gift of housing at several critical moments, and equally important, as a painter, I received the gift of storage. Those gifts are without question the sole reason I was able to stay in the Bay Area. Even from the beginning, when I was in Theater, and therefore traveling lighter, I would have ended up on the street in those transitional moments between shows or jobs or housing, when the cost of a temporary stay, storage, moving, would have been impossible. As I began painting, that gift made it possible to become a painter.
Right now, I am firmly holding at arm’s length an anxiety that threatens to bring down the darkness. Everything I have ever made that has not sold–or, more importantly, those pieces too precious to me to put up for sale–and all the equipment and supplies I have acquired over the last 15 years are in Amanda’s home, per her offer. Now that she is gone, all that has passed into the hands of people I barely know, and so far, have been unable to reach. I am telling myself that that is for very good reason; there are far more important things on their plates right now. Nevertheless, it is hard to stay calm.
In this last week or so, I’ve had some great–and difficult–conversations with Bay Area friends who are not in the arts about the Ghost Ship fire and the circumstances surrounding it. Having gone the way I have, these are many of the people my life has led me to, and I love them. The discussion has been complicated. Good, because they care. Hard, because their outrage and desire for straightforward answers seems to open an expanse between us.
It’s fair. While I have trafficked more in their worlds than they have in mine, that has always been my secondary pursuit, and I have not taken on the big responsibilities that go with it: home ownership, marriage, children, education and raising of children, the civic and professional responsibilities of invested membership. So I can’t say I deeply understand their lives any more than they deeply understand mine. But the world we live in is made for their lives, not mine. Even, and maybe especially, in the storied and supposedly thriving cultural hot spot that is the Bay Area. It feels a little like the artist version of the Dave Chappelle/Chris Rock election night sketch on SNL.
What the Ghost Ship fire revealed is painful; and surprising and unacceptable to those who don’t live it. The things that are unimaginable to real worlders are the stuff of artists’ day-to-day lives. The reasons for that are complicated and myriad. It makes me wish for a closeness with other artists who have shared this specific set of circumstances, with whom to Dave Chapelle/Chris Rock bitter-laugh. But they are very far away, in deep crisis, at this crucial moment to all of us who are or ever have been Bay Area artists. Me too. Only from 998 miles away, where my particular rendering of “Bay Area Artist” has taken me.
I’m sitting in the Virginia City public library to write this, where the librarian brews coffee and dispenses cookies to the sparse population of this town, who congregate here to share gossip and fellowship, and pats and treats for the town dogs, who roam freely from hand to hand. I ran up here on a bright 25° day with a brisk wind off the Gravelies whipping my ears, pulled across the crunching snow by the most infectiously joyous dog in the world, Ruby, the red heeler/pit bull chute-working breed, who has been so generously shared with me by my friends Jim and Sheri. I am taking a break from making this year’s Loteria cards, digital this time, as my traditional materials are all back in Amanda’s house…
And I have no idea how it all fits together.
I guess this is just some way to express my fellowship…my alignment with those people who live in unconventional and possibly unsafe circumstances, to say there are countless ways in which we all do the same, that are not visible in the painting or film or dance or play you see, the music you hear, the book you read, but which are absolutely a part of their making.
This is also to send out some love to those folks from the “real world” who care for me, and the Arts, and the Bay Area, who have cared enough to try to wrap their heads and hearts around this tragedy. I know that one of the most frustrating things about supporting art and artists is that there is, arguably, but frequently, little or no pay-off for the patron. Lives are not, usually, transformed long-term as a result of support. Artists receive moments of peace, of release, with possibly brilliant results. Some work may be made. Or advanced. Or shown. Support may lead to other work, other shows. Or maybe one of the vagaries that plague artists’ lives takes hold, and nothing comes of it. But whatever patronage one offers, most artists’ lives will remain, nevertheless, unstable. It’s hard to embrace that without disappointment. I think it’s maybe fair to say that supporting artists requires a similar kind of fortitude to being an artist. We get that. It’s one of the biggest challenges for us to make what we can out of each opportunity, and then, no matter what the results, magnificent or disastrous, to celebrate or mourn as appropriate, and then ground ourselves however we can, however we must, and get back to work. On some level, creating has to be its own reward; as, I imagine, does supporting creation. And therein lies the conundrum, because creating can’t be done without food and water and time and space and tools of the trade, thus whatever makes those things possible must be given its due. No easy answers, ever, in art in America.
I have observed many times that artists are the junk yard dogs of affluent society. Sometimes what that means is that, while we can be counted on to occupy the fringes and clean shit up, we’re also known to be too low on resources to be a serious force. There are an exceptional number of exceptional creators in the Bay Area, but sadly, our energies are consumed entirely between surviving the economics and bureaucracies of the region, and making our art under, mostly, far from ideal circumstances. This community needs not only the advocacy and assistance of the larger communities in which we live, but the commitment of the culture to the simple idea that everyone deserves to make a living by way of their work (obviously, not only an arts issue), and if we want art in our communities, there are things we can and must do to make that possible. I look to Seattle often for models we can and should adopt: civic support, both intentional and financial, for making buildings available to artists for work and live/work space, supported by civic dollars to bring up to code, or to subsidize affordable rents, all while bringing artists and their vibrance to key areas of the city…making fringe or dying or dead areas alive, and bringing out the surrounding communities to be enlivened by and engaged in creative events. (EDIT: Jonathan Youtt, co-founder of SF’s now defunct CELLSpace, and Oakland’s A PLACE for Sustainable Living, said it perfectly on KQED’s Forum, Dec 15, 2016: “We need a cultural preservation act that creates a fund, supported by individuals and philanthropic groups, and especially tech companies that specifically moved here for the creative nature of the area, and grow that $1.7 million grant the mayor spoke of to 10’s & 100’s of millions of dollars, so we can secure spaces, make them safer, take them out of speculative hands and create land trusts to make these permanent fixtures in this community.”)
I see artists of the Bay Area pulling together, and real worlders with a range of expertise offering to partner with them to address the issues involved in building a more sustainable, humane and safe arts community. So I am hopeful that this will begin the movement–of policies and practices and civic will–that we need. Artists are the most can-do people on the planet–there’s much to be gained, just in the contact; and vice versa.
I don’t know if I’m going to get to be a part of that. But I sure want to see it happen. And I hope this tragedy proves to be the catalyst.
Below are a few links to pieces by folks who articulate the issues better than I do, as well as links to provide help in various ways, if that is something you would like to do.
Though nothing, and I do mean nothing, supports the arts like directly supporting artists. Every one of the artists stepping up to respond to this crisis in the aftermath of the fire is still working, creating, even as they are mobilizing to take on this greater task.
So buy tickets to shows. Buy music. Buy artwork. If you’ve got space to share, share it.
Equally important: Show up!
Personally, I work in a bit of a vacuum; but always in the back of my mind is a compelling vision of the moments when my art gets to come out of isolation and do its work. I make it in absurd faith, as there is no place with which I–like the majority of artists–am associated, who will make that possible. I just keep making, and believing, and somehow, by whatever random interaction–and the very occasional submission–someone comes around and says yes, we’d like your art work in our world. It is the most precious thing possible, for me to see it doing what it was made for. The joy and satisfaction I feel when I get to see its impact–those are the moments that can pull me over the dangerous places.
So extra blessings to everyone who makes that happen, especially in defiance of the multiple barriers that make up the fabric of our lives in the Bay Area. And to my people who show up. Or care. I love you, miss you, and need you. My heart, especially the part that makes art, is yours.
Salud, Bay Areans. Mad respect.
Individual Victims Funds: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1lk7Sxk47ReY1us9L_6GhrdwNpxIjTWZUtfCtRGu466M/mobilebasic