This weekend I realized a dream of mine: to show my paintings in an art gallery. The show was for three days in the Live Worms gallery on funky Grant Ave. in the North Beach district of San Francisco, as hip a gallery as can be imagined.
I met the gallery owner, Kevin Brown, at an art workshop this is summer, and learned that he likes to help emerging artists by letting them rent the gallery for a three-day weekend—thereby covering his rent as well. He’s a good guy, and quite encouraging, and we hit it off.
So I formed the plan of putting on a show here. The rent isn’t terribly high, and my publishers, Tor Books, helped out; we’re using the show to help promote my new book Postsingular. To that end, I gave a joint reading with fellow Tor author Kage Baker in the gallery on Saturday.
For the last week I’ve been working my butt off, putting out a mass emailing about the show, getting it listed on various online calendars, framing a couple of my paintings that needed it, organizing them into a list (I was a little surprised to realize I’ve done thirty paintings now), taking high-quality slide photos of the newer ones, writing up annotations on the paintings for a catalog to post on the web and print for the gallery, figuring out which paintings my family didn’t want me to sell, setting prices for the others, getting chairs for the reading, carting the paintings up here, hanging them, setting out refreshments, and talking to all the people who wander in.
About six months ago when I photographed my earlier paintings and began selling prints of them online through ImageKind, our friend Mimi was kidding me about learning to “suffer for my art.” Boy was she right.
Writing this note on my laptop for use in my blog, I’m alone in the gallery, feeling happy. Sylvia’s been in and out, helping make the place look civilized and giving me moral support, but just now she’s off getting a breakfast bowl of pho in Chinatown.
Friday I had more walk-ins, but today is pretty slow: a wino unemployed carpenter, a stoned beatnik in beret and three-piece suit with yellow glasses who kept saying “far out,” a tourist woman and her impatient husband. I know how that feels, you go into a gallery and as soon as you’re in there you’re wanting to get the hell out without the artist begging you for money. Not that I’m doing a hard sell.
The space looks so beautiful. I have one painting in the big glass storefront window, the “logo” painting, Da Nha Duc, that I have on my business card. On the back wall is my Hylozoic triptych, refulgent in its glory. And lining the two long white side walls are twenty other paintings, ten on each side. Like a cathedral with a rose window!
The paintings light up the room; they’re so warm. Looking at them all together—for the first time ever!— I see that I have a fairly consistent palette. Lots of cobalt blue, cadmium yellow, and shades of green (usually made by mixing blue and yellow, though recently I’ve gotten to like mixing cad yellow with thalo blue or thalo green). Wonderful to see them mingling, talking to each other, breathing the air.
The reception Friday night went well. A lot of my friends showed up, maybe two hundred people over the evening, at the peak we had about fifty people in the gallery. It was gratifying to have a few artist friends here too, saying nice things about the work: Paul Mavrides, Glen Moriwaka, Rudy’s friend Nicholas Coley, Vernon Head.
Late in the evening, the crowd degenerated—Friday night in North Beach—and I closed down the party at 10:30, after the crowd had dwindled to a speed-fueled Hungry I stripper in goth-clown makeup, plus three intimidating 6’ 3” soccer-hooligan types itching for a fistfight.
I’d fantasized about selling out the show, but realistically, most of my friends don’t have much money. And for the average person, actually buying a picture is not within the compass of possible behaviors. I only sold a few.
So I’m not quitting my day job. “What’s your day job?” “I’m a writer.”
Yesterday I had a lot of walk-ins, including at least half a dozen local painters. Shabby guys; there’s a fine line between being a painter and a homeless bum. All with a kind of freshness and innocence about them. Some of them high, some of them wearing berets, mostly unshaven, paint on their hands, a few of them wise-cracking, but mostly slow on the uptake. My favorite two were a pair of pals called Joe and Eddy. I felt right on their wavelength, discussing the craft, joking with them, happy to be accepted as a peer. I think of the end of the Todd Browning movie Freaks when the main character is taken in by the sideshow workers, and they’re chanting, “One of us! One of us! One of us!”
I’m so used to being a writer and hanging out with writers, that I don’t see being a writer as a big deal, or as commanding an elite cadre type status. But I’m enough of an newcomer to painting, that I still feel excited at the thought of being a painter—and a bit like a charlatan. But now I’ve had my first show, which is some kind of a milestone.
Saturday afternoon I held a reading. It was a rainy afternoon, the streets shiny. I got my guest-reader Kage Baker to read first. She read a funny story from her new story collection Gods and Pawns, featuring old-time England prostitutes; she did a great job on the Cockney accents. Her sister was in the audience with a large green parrot.
The audience started out small, but people kept trickling in, and by the time I read, the place was full. I read from Chapter 3 of Postsingular, the part where Ond releases the orphid nanomachines upon the world. It was nice to read in the “chapel” of my paintings; when I mentioned a cuttlefish, I could point to my painting of the cuttlefish under Frek’s bed. Jude Feldman of Borderlands books was there with a table of our books to sell; she did pretty well with them.
Several of my old students were there—they’ve been successful in the world: a Pixar programmer, the head of a philosophy department, a programmer at IBM, an arcade game programmer—it made me proud to see them. (That’s Alvin Cho on the left in this picture, and his friend Phi on the right.)
A guy told me he’d read Postsingular online this week—things had been slow at work—and now he wanted to buy a copy, both to read at leisure and to share with his girlfriend, who wasn’t amenable to reading a whole book on a computer. Proof positive of this new marketing concept! I like the idea of people reading it at work; somone else had already emailed me that they’d done this. Perfect for those days when all you’re really doing is serving time at your desk.
Sunday afternoon people were still coming in: tourists, North Beach artists, old students, friends. And at the last minute we even got a few celebs. Ron Turner, owner of SF comix publisher Last Gasp turned up (in the right on the picture), accompanied by George and Peggy DiCaprio (in the center), parents of the movie star Leonardo DiCaprio .
The guy on the left is a North Beach local that I just herded into the picture. He had a heavy Italian accent. I liked him because he reminded me of Richard Arneson, the offbeat sculptor who made monumental ceramic pieces, often depicting himself.
I always liked Arneson’s California Artist, I saw it right after moving out here twenty-one years ago. The sunglasses lenses are empty holes giving onto the void inside the artist’s head. The pedestal is decorated with a beer can, a pot plant, and a nut. “Yeah, we’re different in California. You could learn from us.”
Someone asked me what my painting style is called. I’d never thought about this, but I think my term Transrealism for much of my writing could apply to my painting as well. It’s about taking everyday reality and adding something.
I can still hardly believe that I had an art show in San Francisco. I’m lucky.