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).
|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.|
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.
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.
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.
Other people just let it in with effortless delight. Whatever "it" is...
A few really studied it. Knelt before the altars, read the artist's notes, or just stood for minutes soaking something in.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Eventually I started to realize that even drawing sketchogenic weirdos get dull after hours and hours. They were starting to blur together...
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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