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Gallery Gawkers

Sketches of visitors to City Art Gallery, San Francisco, 2003-2005, by Wayan.

for Katie Gilmartin and Fly


For several years I showed my work in City Art Gallery on Valencia Street in San Francisco. It's a fun place--a co-operatively run art gallery showing mostly low-priced stuff by local artists, a lot of them queer.

But whenever you show a batch of new work, you have to take your turn to sit at the desk a couple of afternoons or evenings. I took a sketchbook along. I did a lot of drawing at that desk--at first, of dreams I wanted to illustrate, but increasingly, as time went by, and I lost my shyness and started talking more, I drew the gallery patrons themselves--the art nuts, the tourists, the idle, the cool and geeky and waifish and crazy (this IS Valencia Street).

photo of Chris Wayan at desk of City Art Gallery, Valencia Street, San Francisco, in 2004.
Valencia and the wider Mission District, like Haight-Ashbury a generation earlier, has no single culture--it's cultures, coexisting but not mixing that much. Refugees from mainstream America sort themselves out by worldview and build little virtual villages, each one scattered through the Mission. All those worldviews really have in common is that they're rebellions against the mainstream's vacuity. The alternatives may be political (anarchists and greens), spiritual (witches/goddess worshipers plus a dozen cults), technological (solar nuts, bike nuts, skateboards), sex/gender (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, pan, and just generally queer), housing/family arrangements (families of all structures, co-ops and shared houses, converted warehouses, and of course the simply homeless and the crazy homeless, who flock to the City because hard though street life is here, it's at least possible) and of course artistic and musical (grunge, experimental/noise, punk, reggae/dub, rap, mix, singer/songwriter, emo, goth, burners and their hundred flavors of techno, and hippies, who aren't dead at all, not here.) One's choices are partly personal but partly driven by the sort of abuse one suffered. Oh, sure, nearly all of us suffered some abuse--religious, sexual, in-family battering, queerbashing. The school weirdo, the school brain, the school atheist...
Sepia sketch of a man's cragggy face in profile, with a squashy conical hat; visitor to City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco. Click to enlarge. Sketch of a waifish girl in profile, with a cylindrical hat, looking at paintings in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco. Click to enlarge.
So here's a gallery of some Valencia types. I'd just seen Fly's book of portraits, PEOPS, and her work may have influenced me--it certainly inspired me. But there's a big difference: Fly got a short interview with each person--she had minutes, even hours, to draw them. In contrast, nearly all of these are fast guerrilla sketches unnoticed by the subjects; I often had only a few seconds to catch their quirks. No camera, so I lacked reference photos (except one: the pirate girl below). I used pencil or pen or occasionally crayon, which I scanned and tinted in Photoshop when I got home.
Sketch of head in profile, wearing large earphones, looking sad; seen in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco. Sketch of man's head in profile, with big nose and beard; seen in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco.

I love the self-conscious poses people got in, confronted by some avant-garde art piece, when they weren't at all sure they liked it but didn't want to be caught looking stuffy or ignorant.

Sketch of a lanky barefoot girl in green pants, blue top, lavender sweater round waist, looking at paintings in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco Caption: 'So tired of shopping!' Sketch of a tired woman carrying a valise and papers under her arm, looking at pictures in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco

Or, funnier yet, when they were appalled or didn't get a thing from it, or were secretly turned on, and felt they had to hide that to look sophisticated.

Couple fidget on seeing a painting of a man mounting a dog; sketch by Wayan. CLick to enlarge.

Some just swept their eyes across the wall, hoping something would grab them and please them without effort, the way a good ad does. Of course most art refuses to do that. Not its job.

Others made strange gestures, trying to process the strangeness of the art through their bodies, turning it into a private dance. I don't understand that, but I've found myself doin' it. Maybe it works.

Sketch of a woman with curly hair, beaming while making a strange hand-gesture. Words: 'Fingers solve art.' Seen in City Art Gallery on Valencia Street in San Francisco

Other people just let it in with effortless delight. Whatever "it" is...

Renoirlike girl in skull-and-crossbones scarf; a visitor to City Art Gallery on Valencia Street in San Francisco. Sketch by Wayan; click to enlarge.

A few really studied it. Knelt before the altars, read the artist's notes, or just stood for minutes soaking something in.

Oval sketch of girl squatting to peer at a small altar with artist's statement, in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco. Click to enlarge.
And of course, other artists, or wannabes, came in to gawk. You could always tell them. Despite the lack of chairs, they sat on the floor, pulled out their own sketchbooks, and started drawing in reaction to what's on the wall.
Sketch of girl in dark dress hunched on the floor over a book, in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco. Click to enlarge.
Mostly people, though, didn't bother with all that; they just knew it was crap.

True, a lot of it was. Poorly thought-out, or dashed off, or caught in a loop, or deep-felt but technically flawed, or just banal.

As varied, and often defective, as people. As gallery gawkers.

Sketch of a know-it-all art critic, in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco Sketch of an elfin blonde skateboarder in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco. Click to enlarge.

But not all were flawed. The Skate Pixy was a sexy angel on a skateboard who rolled in shining with benevolence and gave me a CD of quite interesting music.

She can also, I think, represent the significant minority of the gallery visitors who were both angelic and queer, one way or another. Not so much rebellious as too fairylike (in both senses) to live in capitalist America. So they had to move here.

Fairies on wheels. My own dream-art shows seemed mostly to attract lesbians on skateboards. Apparently they're my audience. I'm not sure why, but it was consistent. They got my dream paintings. Straight boys rarely did. Gay boys understood them but didn't find them sexy--too girly. Straight girls found 'em sexy but too wild--over-rich, disturbing. But queer girls on a stick just loved 'em. That's certainly worth knowing. In my next life, I guess I know who I'll be...


The Phone People are a borderline case. They meant to be gawkers, or at least to have made the scene, to have gawked, but they barely saw a thing of course; they can't. The brain is elsewhere, sniffing for the sweet spot where they will get such good reception that God will finally return their calls.

Sketch of humans on the phone, stalking sweet reception spots, in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco
Sketch of a grizzled blue-eyed man looking lost in City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco

But then are they really so different from the headphone people? Both let voices from elsewhere dominate their mood. Earphones and phone phones are both just armor, really, and abused refugees often need armor until they're strong enough to retain their shaky new worldviews in the face of assault. And in an avant-garde gallery, a gawker does often face visual and ideological assault. So I really can't criticize the phone people. I suppose it's better than booze.

Though based on their driving, I'm not sure.

One of the more interesting sides of minding a place that welcomed all, on a street both trendy and trashy, was that the crazies, confronted with art, often saw; their filters were blown. They didn't understand all they saw, but they gawked like pros.

This puzzled, sad-eyed man knew he'd been destroyed in Nam but didn't quite see how. He didn't come to gawk--he really just wanted to be seen, though not in the social sense. He carried the faint hope someone might see deeply--and figure out what had been amputated, and tell him how to rebuild it. I couldn't. I wasn't sure what was missing besides confidence. He could see; he was one of the few to notice me sketching, and gave me permission to use his portrait. Ironic, since his eyes looked blind--huge, pale, staring in old, frozen panic at something just behind you.

The crazies were grateful for a little courtesy, to be listened to. And not all were all lost in self, either. When they saw what I was doing, some even shyly pulled out their own grubby sketchbooks and dream journals. People joke that artists and crazies are indistinguishable; but it was true, until they opened those books. And then you knew, instantly you knew. The burnouts talked and wrote endlessly about themselves, collecting injustices, wrapping themselves like Egyptian mummies; the next generation of artists wrote too, but also drew what they saw in others, in themselves, between other and self.

One homeless guy showed me the sketch he'd made at midnight when he was seeking shelter in an alley off Valencia and a barn owl swooped overhead! In the heart of the city, an owl. I knew that one would make it. An artist.


Who's crazier, the homeless guy who notices owls, or the coffee guy striding along with his precious cup, who never glanced in the window once? Is tunnel vision a personality trait, a sign of sanity, a symptom of caffeine?

Sketch of bearded smiling guy in baseball cap striding along with coffee in tall paper cup.

And this biker, high on hubris, coming home from Critical Mass one Friday afternoon, biking down the streets with her eyes closed. I didn't hear a crash right after, so she probably biked blind just for the few moments it took to coast by my gallery window. Still, I saw what I saw.

Sketch of a Critical Mass biker riding down Valencia Street with her eyes closed. Click to enlarge.
That much reckless idiocy seems almost heroic. Got me hot.


Eventually I started to realize that even drawing sketchogenic weirdos get dull after hours and hours. They were starting to blur together...

bubbles showing visitors to City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia St., San Francisco. Click to enlarge.
Sitting in my gallery had turned into a job like any other. Though I doubted it at first
girl at table asks herself 'Is this depression... or am I just bored?'
I mean, how could I be? This was sketch-paradise! But the truth was...
doodle of green creature with a long snout, who says 'BORED'.

Why? It was time for me to get serious about my art--writing, painting, and music--and that demanded sustained effort, time, concentration and deep delving. Sketching the gallery gawkers had taught me to see, and draw what I see--but if I wanted to be a creator (not a mere reporter) I had to move on from simple gawking to expressing my own inner life--one I wasn't seeing on Valencia Street.

I had to leave Valencia to work its patient, scruffy magic on the next wave of refugees from America. It had done its work on me. My way forward led inward--into dreams. Whether or not they were drawable. Whether or not they'd sell in a gallery on Valencia Street.

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