A Conversation between Bay Area playwright Sharmon Hilfinger and Katherine Bazak
As I sit across the table talking with Sharmon Hilfinger, I see the embodiment of two different women who are elegant, gracious, and intelligent. One is a wife, a mother, a musician; the other is an artist/writer committed to portraying her view of life and the world around her. As a playwright, she has chosen the theater to tell her truths under the guise of entertainment.
Theater is a tough art form to navigate. One must try to get their play off the page and onto the stage. It is impressive to meet someone with Sharmon’s track record. Her produced plays include three dramas and nine ensemble plays with music in collaboration with composer Joan McMillen. These have been produced by San Francisco Bay Area theatre companies, including The Pear Theatre, TheatreFIRST, Inferno Theatre, Menlo Player’s Guild, BootStrap Theater Foundation, as well as Heartland Theatre Company in Illinois. In 1998, she founded BootStrap Theater Foundation which develops and produces original plays by Bay Area playwrights.
Katherine: Let’s start at the beginning. I know that I saw An Ideal Mother some time in the early 90s. Was that your first play?
Sharmon: Well it was’t the first play I’d written, but it was the first play of mine that was produced. I read somewhere that The Menlo Players, at Burgess Park Theater in Menlo Park, was asking for scripts, so I sent it in. The director, Dean Burgee, called me immediately and it was produced in 1992. Beginner’s luck!
Katherine: Had you written anything before 1992?
Sharmon: I had been writing for a long time. I’m not quite sure how to say this—writing was my consolation prize for failure. I was an actor and I was admitted to the Conservatory program at Carnegie Mellon. It was, and still is, a University degree structured as a conservatory program, very unusual at that time. It was heaven! Theater classes all day, crewing shows at night—24/7 theater. It wasn’t easy to get in, and it wasn’t easy to stay in. They had a policy of accepting a certain number of students and cutting 10% of the class after the first year. It was very rigorous and class attendance was mandatory. I was there in 1970 when the Kent State Vietnam War protest killings happened. I cut classes to march on Washington D.C., which did not help my standing in the department. I’m sure there were other reasons (I was not given any kind of performance review) for why I was cut from the program.
That was traumatic! I was devastated. I came home and finished up my BFA in Drama at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois (my hometown). IWU is one of those gems of a good liberal arts college and had a very strong drama department. I grew up getting my theater education there because I went to all the plays they put on—the Head of the Drama Department was surprisingly avant-garde. I finished my BFA in drama, but I had it in my head that I couldn’t expect to pursue a professional career in acting, I was a failure, this profession was not for me. So I gave up theater! My creativity had to go somewhere, and I started writing instead. I wrote a novel, and a number of short stories over the following years. Whatever my day job was, I would get up at six in the morning and write before I went to work. First thing in the morning is still the best time for me to write.
A few years back, Sam Bower and a few friends would gather every few weeks to think about the future of Bower’s greenmuseum.org. Its funding had come to an end. Was there some meaningful to way to keep it going?
I’d happened into this group about that time and it’s how I met Zach Pine. Although we never managed to come up with a saving strategy, it was always a special pleasure meeting with this group of creative dynamos. Our meetings would begin with a silent meditation and move on to brainstorming as Sam manned a whiteboard, sharpie in hand. After a few hours, we’d share some food. Our meetings went on for three or four years. In the meantime, occasionally I’d run into Zach at Karma Kitchen in Berkeley. Even so, I didn’t know a lot about him. He’d mentioned that he was involved with contact improvisational dance and had also been doing some art activities in nature with groups of people.
One day I began asking questions and soon learned that he’d been a doctor before I met him. I was stunned. It was hard for me to imagine that this open, lively, youthful and entirely unpretentious man had already been a medical doctor and had left the profession. But so it was. Later, I got a good look at his art. The time had come to ask for an interview.
Richard: Let’s start with your journey into medical school and your experience there.
Zach: I went into medical school for a lot of the reasons that I live life the way I do now. I was really interested in caring for people. I was very curious and had a scientific mindset. I wanted to get at real human things, and health and health crises were something I experienced up close as a young man.
Richard: Can you say a little bit about that?
Zach: My girlfriend got quite ill right after I met her in college. Now we’re married. I had a lot of experiences with the medical field because of that. I saw the science and humanity in it and, at that point, I decided to go premed in college. Before that I was an English and Physics major, so I already had diverse interests. My father and my stepfather were both experimental physicists. My mother is a painter, and also went to the High School of Music & Art in New York City, and did a lot of drama work.
Richard: You lived in New York then?
Zach: I did, but not as a child. I actually grew up in California with my mom. My parents divorced when I was two.
Richard: Both your father and stepfather were experimental physicists. What does that mean, exactly?
Zach: In the world of physics, there are two main branches, experimental and theoretical. The experimental physicists are the ones who actually design the experiments to try to find out how things work. My father and stepfather both worked on all the atom smashers here in the U.S.
My youth was spent, in the summers, going wherever my dad was doing experiments. He would go and experiment with something that took months to run. Stanford, Brookhaven National Laboratory, those are places that we went because there were accelerators there. So I was interested in physics and in the humanities in college. I realized that medicine actually combined a lot of the things I was interested in, and I had personal experience with what it felt like to be on the receiving end of medical care. I saw there was so much opportunity for ways of being creative in delivering care and, also, understanding medical problems. That was how I got interested in medicine.
Cynthia Sears is a creativity explorer and the founder of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. She is known for her extensive support of artists, writers and cultural entities. Her collections include paintings and sculptures; antique and finely bound books; and some 1800 artist’s books, which comprise the Cynthia Sears Artist’s Books Collection at BIMA.
A pioneer in cultural support, Sears has collected and donated numerous works of regional artists to BIMA, creating a rich legacy of Pacific Northwest artistic production. Her wide ranging appreciation of the arts is demonstrated in BIMA’s community-centered mission and diverse programming which includes musical and theatrical performance; hands on educational activities; lectures, tours, and a wide array of community outreach events including an online series Artist’s Books Unshelved. This year BIMA is launching four generous biennial awards to support both regional artists and an artist making books. These BRAVA Awards (BIMA Recognizes Achievement in the Visual Arts) are in celebration of the tenth anniversary of BIMA in 2023, and a further expression of Sears’ belief in the value of the arts to human existence.
We conversed via zoom over a span of four months, discussing a range of subjects which touch on aspects of Cynthia’s life and thinking, including her work in radio and film, social and environmental issues, collecting and philanthropy, education and the arts.
Nanette: What is your background: growing up, education, early careers?
Cynthia: I spent my childhood in Beverly Hills. I went to public school through eighth grade and then to a girls’ boarding school in Virginia, Chatham Hall. I was actually relieved that I wasn’t going to Beverly High because the girls that I knew in 7th and 8th grade who were going there were so much more sophisticated than I was. They were very concerned with boyfriends and convertibles and cashmere sweaters. . . they were already like late teenagers. I wasn’t ready for any of that. The idea of going off to a place where you had lessons in the morning and then rode horses in the afternoon was heaven. My older sister went to Chatham first. I couldn’t wait to go because I met many of her friends, whom she would bring home during vacations. They were great, interesting girls, so I couldn’t wait to go. Going to that boarding school was one of the great experiences of my life.
Then, I went to college at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, also a small institution. The entire student body was only 750 girls. It was out in the country and beautiful. I just loved it. It looked like a medieval fortress—towering gray stone buildings which were built out of mica schist which catches the light so that it sparkles in the sun (I learned in my geography class).
I studied English Literature and Latin. I was sure I was going to be a writer. Well, that didn’t happen, but I was convinced of it when I was in college. I had a wonderful experience with terrific people.
Nanette: What happened after college?
Cynthia: After college I got a wonderful job teaching in the Bronx. I was a teacher at the Hoffman School. It was a school for kids who didn’t exactly fit other places, either because the child was super intelligent and could get bored in a regular classroom, or kids who had physical or mental challenges. They were all mixed together in the classes and it really worked. It was extraordinary.
I was hired as a Latin teacher. I taught Latin to second through sixth grades. We made Latin books and grammar books. They would say things like, “If the verb goes at the very end, how do you know who is doing what to whom? Maybe you make sounds so that you know this is the person who is doing the throwing and this is the thing being thrown.” They basically invented the accusative case.
A Tale of Two Remarkable Women: Interview with the author of The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience by Helen Gibbons
Bay Area native Kathleen Canrinus wrote The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience to honor her mother, Dorothy. When Kathleen was 15, her mother suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. After three months in a coma, Dorothy emerged partially paralyzed and cognitively impaired, upending the life of her family.
Kathleen’s memoir focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter, particularly its evolution during the 54 years between Dorothy’s accident and her death at age 99. There were plenty of challenges, but also lots of laughter and, oh, so much love. It’s a story I will enjoy reading again and again, finding some new insight or well-crafted sentence to relish each time.
I met Kathleen in 2006 when we both joined the World Harmony Chorus in Mountain View, California, and our conversations over the years have focused mostly on music. I wanted to learn more about Kathleen’s writing life and in particular The Lady with the Crown. We exchanged some emails and then sat down to talk. Our conversation is edited and condensed.
Helen: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?
Kathleen: I came to writing late in life, that is, after I retired from teaching elementary school. When I signed up for my first writing class, I had in mind writing stories from my life and wanted to tell them well. Even though I have now written a book that was published, and numerous personal essays too, I still hesitate to introduce myself to a stranger as a writer. But as far as thinking of myself as a writer, that came in the first few years of writing seriously, when I discovered that I was a person who noticed and remembered things, that I could write an occasional beautiful sentence, that I had a sense of how to shape a story, and most importantly, that finding words to match experience brought with it a thrill like nothing else. Writing lends meaning and purpose to my life. I like the Joan Didion quote: “I write to find out what I’m thinking.”
Helen: How did The Lady with the Crown come to be?
Kathleen: The Lady with the Crown evolved from stories I wrote about my mother over a decade in various writing workshops and classes. My mother had a remarkable attitude about life in spite of epic reversals. She was funny too—good material. I was never writing about her for family alone but for people like my classmates and possible future readers who didn’t know her. I intended to honor her and others who live small lives with dignity and courage. Although I wrote about other topics like friendship, marriage, and aging, the response to the mother stories was the most positive. I planned to string them together in a book and had finished most of them when the editor at a small press offered me a contract.
Helen: What a great opportunity! What happened next?
Kathleen: Next I spent nine months finishing a manuscript. Everything I had already written needed to be revised and new chapters added to complete the story. My editor made a lot of suggestions that improved the book.
Helen: Can you share examples?
Kathleen: When I originally thought about doing a book, I thought I would take the stories I had written about my mother and link them very loosely, like the stories in Olive Kitteridge [a novel by Elizabeth Strout that is a collection of interrelated stories]. I thought that approach would make my task easy. But when I told the editor, she said, “No, no, no! Make it one story. And whether you like it or not,” she added, “you’re the main character. You need to put yourself into this story; you’re not just the witness.”
Elizabeth Gómez is a Redwood City based artist and children’s book illustrator. Part of Gómez’s practice involves designing and managing community participatory murals in both paint and mosaic.
I first met Elizabeth during her July 2021 Redwood City Art Kiosk exhibition. Her installation, Naturaleza Muerta, was striking in the manner it pulled the audience in and then held their attention with an edgy softness: A lifesize deer and mountain lion hang upside down in the center of the kiosk. They are accompanied by a squirrel and a crow. These hand sewn creatures are made from pale, low contrast fabrics. Scatterings of thin red cloth trail from each body. The kiosk floor is covered with pink quilting and a spare grid of deep red, fabric roses. There is a feeling of being in a child’s bedroom. These layers of symbolism reveal a multi-dimensional philosophy about the relationship of humans to other animals, to profound effect. In this work Gómez brings together a blend of Louise Bourgeois construction with Sue Coe content to make her own statement about real life events involving wild animals in our suburban neighborhoods.
Gómez has an MFA in Pictorial Art from San Jose State University. She has shown at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco; the Oakland Museum of California; MACLA in San Jose, California; and at the Mohr Gallery in Mountain View, California.
This week Gómez’s most recent mural, created with the help of many from our community, will be unveiled at the Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City. We spoke during the last weeks of mosaic tile making under the redwoods and oaks on the back patio at Red Morton Park, the mural’s home.
Whirligig: Let’s talk about your background. You went to San José State?
Elizabeth: I did most of my college in Mexico City where I am from. I did three years at the San Francisco Art Institute and then I did my masters in painting at San Jose State. I had great professors like Erin Goodwin-Guerrero and Rupert Garcia. It was an excellent program, lots of support, really nice.
Whirligig: How long have you been working in mosaic?
Elizabeth: I have been doing small things here and there but I am really a painter. I have been working with Redwood City for many years. I have done murals in the schools and parks. The city knows me as an artist that can create and facilitate public works with volunteers, with the help of the community. That is why they asked me to do this mosaic mural. I have learned a lot doing this.
Whirligig: What are the dimensions?
Elizabeth: It is gigantic. It has more than 700 square feet of tile.
Whirligig: You did the design?
Elizabeth: I did the design and many workshops. For example, here in Red Morton Park during the pandemic we were outdoors and indoors and outdoors again and then we couldn’t do it at all. Then, I had to transport boxes of materials to the volunteers, house to house, I would bring a new box and take competed work away. I did that for many months. It was a lot of work. Then we were allowed to work here outside again, almost a year and a half after we started. The hardest thing about this project has been the management. We have had more than 750 volunteers on this mural. Everybody is welcome. I have taught the class on how to make mosaic shapes hundreds of times now. I will be happy to see it on the wall.
Whirligig: You plan to install next week. . .
Elizabeth: We have two walls and a tunnel. We are hiring professional tile installers because it is so big and heavy. I will be there as support. I don’t know what problems we will encounter, but we will have problems. We already fixed a few things–the walls were uneven and there was an anti-grafitti sealant on one wall that would not allow the tiles to adhere, so we had to remove that.
Whirligig: Tell me about your painting work.
Elizabeth: My work belongs to the Mexican tradition. I like surrealism. I like animals and nature. I like a lot of handmade patterns and decoration. I have been working on a collection called Madre Tierra (Mother Earth). They are women with the face of an animal. Very surreal. They represent the need to care for the environment. The most recent is Mother Earth Crow. She is signaling with her wings the end of the wilderness, saying “From here to here is wilderness, so you don’t build. And from here to here is for humans, so stay on the human side.” They almost look religious. They are big animals with dresses, in nature. One is Vindictive Mother Earth. She has humans in a cage. Bird Mother Earth is teaching little birds how to protect themselves against us. But all very beautiful and colorful, filled with flowers. Mother Earth Wolf is planting flowers on the pavement in Mexico City. She is taking care of them with a watering can, a nurturing Mother Earth.
Whirligig: Those are in acrylic, oil?
Elizabeth: I love to paint old style, oil on wood, because with painting in glazes it becomes very jewel like and medieval. You can touch the colors.
I’ve also illustrated many children’s books. I just finished a book on El Salvador, ABC El Salvador.
Whirligig: Are there specific artists you are inspired by or look too?
Elizabeth: Sometimes I am a bit sad that the person most known here is Frida Kahlo. When you see Frida’s work it’s not only Frida’s style, but it is Frida’s style on top of the Mexican tradition. Her work makes a lot of sense within Mexican art. When she was painting there were a lot of women painting. For example Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. There was a magical group of women painters that had this surreal, folksy, decorated, colorful work. I really like their work. Because I grew up in Mexico City it was normal for me to visit Frida’s house or see a show of Remedios Varo and other artists from that time. I don’t try to do what they do, but I like the visual language they were using. My own work is always about nature and the environment.
Whirligig: Would you say that you are mostly inspired by female artists?
Elizabeth: I would say that I really like their quality. I don’t want to generalize, but with Mexican women artists there is something that is, to use a trite word, feminine–care taking, nurturing and smaller–that I like. The famous male Mexican artists are very grandiose, “Industrialism came to save us! The workers will save us!” Full of big ideas, but with little heart. I like works with more heart. I am not saying that men cannot do this, just historically in Mexico it has been the case that women pay attention to heart.
Whirligig: You exhibited sculpture in your Art Kiosk show.
Elizabeth: I do a little bit of everything. I have created three installations with ideas of nature and animals. At the Oakland museum for the Day of the Dead I showed dead animals. I made a coal circle . . . where it is clean the animals are alive and flying. Where it is dirty the animals are dead.Â
Whirligig: What is it about working with animal symbolism that you hope to communicate?
Elizabeth: I sometimes feel that we humans do not believe that animals have the same right as us to be here. That we are more than they are. That we own this place. After all of the facts telling us this is not the case, global warming. . . I want to be a voice for animals, even if it is a small one, saying â€œWe are here. We belong. This is also our earth.”
Whirligig: So you grew up in Mexico City . . .
Elizabeth: Yes. I did most of my formative years in Mexico. I came here after I got married. I have been many years now here in California.
Whirligig: How is it to be an immigrant here in California?
Elizabeth: Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not so much. Especially if you are from Mexico. My husband is from Argentina and he does not cross too many people with stereotypes about what an Argentinian is. Maybe they know about the tango. . . But if you are from Mexico the stereotypes are very, very, very strong. Sometimes when I encounter someone who knows only that I am from Mexico and nothing else about me, I feel discriminated against. For example, people who don’t know me immediately assume that I am not educated. They talk to me as if I didn’t know things. This actually happens a lot. I am not saying that everybody needs to be educated, but oh my gosh, they speak to me in such a way that I want to say, You know I have a graduate degree you don’t have to talk to me as if I don’t understand things.
Whirligig: Because of your accent?
Elizabeth: My accent for sure, and then they ask me, Where are you from? And I say, Mexico. In my life in California I have been hired at least three times as a babysitter. I would be with my children and they [some stranger in public] would assume I was a nanny. It was hard for me to convince these moms that I was also a mom and not the nanny. They would ask questions like, “The children speak Spanish to you?” And I would say, Yes. Then they would say, “That’s wonderful. Other nannies I know speak Spanish to the children but the children do not speak Spanish back. Do you have a driver’s license? How much do you charge?” They would be so surprised to find out I was the mother and not the nanny. Some assumptions are stronger than you think. In daily life doors can close easily because people have very strong stereotypes about what a Mexican is. I moved to a new neighborhood and the next door neighbor told me, “I don’t want to be discouraging but Mexicans are moving here. . .” Things like that happen here and there and everywhere. It always surprises me because most people are nice and good. But those who are rude and not nice. . . they don’t know me, I don’t know them. . .
Whirligig: Part of it is being a woman. . .
Elizabeth: Yes. But why don’t they just ask me what I think rather than thinking I don’t know anything? Sometimes people start sentences like, “Here in California, we. . . ” immediately making me the other. I’ve been here 30 years. I can say, We in California. . .
I like so many things about Northern California, but when I face those discriminating people I don’t like it.
Whirligig: I’m sorry that is here.
Naturaleza Muerta, at the Redwood City Art Kiosk
Elizabeth: People don’t know that if you have an accent you are asked a lot, Where are you from? How long are you staying? If it were a neutral question . . . but when you are asked that on a weekly basis it makes you feel as if you don’t belong, you don’t belong, you don’t belong. It makes you feel there is a wall around you everywhere you go. Now when they ask me, I ask them, And where are you from? Tell me about. . . We all are from somewhere, even if we didn’t cross a border. I try to be light about it but I wish it wasn’t the case.
Whirligig: You’ve been working on a two plus year project. What will you do after?
Elizabeth: The park has asked me to make some individual animals. It will be only me in my studio. I will have control of everything. I am looking forward to that. Then I will paint. I have loved doing this, but it was a lot of heavy lifting.
Whirligig: It’s an important project.
Elizabeth: I love that we have so many community members taking part, and also, if someone came to a workshop and made a piece of the mural, it is included. I didn’t get rid of anything the volunteers created. I kept my promise, that “if you learn to do it, you are a part of the mural.”
Whirligig: Do you think there was anything in your upbringing that made you particularly tune into non-human animals?
Elizabeth: My grandfather was a farmer. He could barely sell his cows because he loved them. He named them and the chickens and the pigs. When buyers came to take them, he had so much trouble. They followed him like dogs. He was a bad farmer in that sense. I think growing up with him I fell in love with the animals just like he did. Growing up in Mexico City, nature was so devastated by pollution, 20 million people in one city.
One day, everywhere I went, there were dead birds. Something was happening in the air or poison. Walking to school that day was one of the most important days of my life. I realized it was not a normal day. This was human induced. I think I became an environmentalist that day. Later we heard it was a paper factory that did not have proper air filters. They polluted the air. The birds died. . . It really welded a before and after for me.
Whirligig: Do you have a spirit animal? Is there a particular animal you are closest to?
Elizabeth: Not really. I strongly believe the earth would be better off without us. We are the extra animal.
Magical Bridge Playground mural, 2021
Elizabeth: Even sharks and insects have a right to be here. I’m a little bit of Buddhist in that sense. Everything that is living has a right to be here.
What makes me really happy is that I have found many paths to follow and they have taken me to incredible places that I never thought I could go or do. My parents were very sad when I told them I wanted to be an artist. But I am so happy that I am. A perfect day for me has art and nature. I have lived my life like that. And Northern California is a beautiful place and people respect nature here. People are also more open. I know that the Bay Area is the right place for me. Here I can blend in. California has a very nice collection of Asian art and Latino art and Californian art and good food.
Whirligig: How are you feeling now that the mural is up and complete?
Elizabeth: It was a tremendous amount of work. I am exhausted. I am happy.
Minoosh Zomorodinia is an Iranian-born interdisciplinary artist and curator working in time, space and the natural world. Her current art practice involves nature walks which are documented via smart phone app. The resultant maps are then made tangible via a variety of both old and new technologies. There is an edgy, accessible humor in much of her work, this she calls “the abstract absurd.” actuality, Zomorodinia uses all aspects of her making to parse and comment on current critical issues including borders and territories, colonialism, immigration, culture and identity, stereotyping, relations of the self to the environment, the power of technology, and the art world itself. Her work is both layered and engaging—smart, funny, and often visually exquisite.
Zomorodinia earned an MFA in New Genres from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). She has a Masters in Graphic Design and a BA in Photography from Azad University in Tehran. She is the recipient of a Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure Award, a California Arts Council grant, and a Kala Media Fellowship Award. She has received residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts, Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency in Michigan, I-park Foundation in Connecticut, Local Language Residency in Oakland, Santa Fe Art Institute Residency, Djerassi Residency in Woodside, and Recology in South San Francisco. Zomorodinia has exhibited locally and internationally. She volunteers for Southern Exposure Gallery’s Curatorial Council and is a board member of Women Eco Artists Dialog. Zomorodinia currently lives and works in the Bay Area.
We spoke in the studio at Recology, where Minoosh is resuming an artist residency interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Integration with Nature, 2010
Whirligig: A great deal of your work has a focus on the body in nature—often your own body which is shrouded, wrapped, blanketed, responding to external elements. Why the body? Why your own body?
Minoosh: There are different reasons to use the body in my work. First, I want to acknowledge that my friend, Tara Goudarzi, generously accepted to be a model for the Destruction of Nature, Destruction of The Human Being as we were traveling together.
One reason to use the body is expressing self. I spend a lot of time in nature, it’s an extraordinary experience and inspiration for my practice. My mind opens and I see things when I’m in nature. I search for spirituality in nature and some sort of psychology for finding positive energy. I have been wanting to illustrate this feeling in different ways.
Another reason is to dematerialize and use my body as a signifier to lived experience as well as illustrate identity. I believe using my body offers a variety of contexts and perceptions. Employing my body in my work somehow represents time and space, especially in my performance installations. I consider my body as a sculpture—I make myself vulnerable to challenge the perception of the female body, and represent culture and religion. I want to emphasize a political perception from a Muslim woman’s body and how it’s been interpreted in the world.
Whirligig: Are you thinking of specific interpretations of a Muslim woman’s body? Can you explain?
Jan Rindfleisch is an artist, educator, writer, curator and cultural worker. She was the executive director of the Euphrat Museum at De Anza College in Cupertino for 32 years. During that time Rindfleisch laid the groundwork for an engaged and inclusive museum environment by continuously tapping the diverse local voices of Silicon Valley. Rindfleisch continues her work as a community builder with Roots and Offshoots: Silicon Valley’s Arts Community, a history of the art of the greater South Bay area from the post-Mission era artifacts of our First Nation peoples to the artists and activists that have made the western/southern half of the Bay Area the rich and vibrant scene it is today.
Rindfleisch has a BA in Physics from Purdue University and an MFA from San José State University. Her awards include: Silicon Valley Business Journal Women of Influence (2014); San José City Hall Exhibits Committee (2006–2013); The ABBY Awards (2010); Silicon Valley Arts & Business Awards; Arts Leadership Award; Santa Clara County Woman of Achievement, (1989); Leadership Vision Award in the Arts, Sunnyvale Chamber of Commerce (1993); Civic Service Award, City of Cupertino, Cultural Arts, and the Asian Heritage Council Arts Award (1988).
Whirligig: What was the impetus for you to write this book?
Jan: I am one of those people that love to question boundaries. I started thinking: How did we get past the exclusion in the art world in the monochromatic 1970s, which didn’t reflect the breakthroughs of the 1960s, such as women’s rights and civil rights? How did we take that early cultural landscape, break new ground, and build new forms for the future? After decades as an arts museum director and a lifetime career as an artist, author, community advocate, and educator with an earlier background in the sciences, I decided to put some of the explorations and findings together.
My book and project Roots and Offshoots: Silicon Valley’s Arts Community begins with an essay entitled The Blossoming of Silicon Valley’s Arts Community and a profile of artist/activist Ruth Tunstall Grant. A Spiral Through Time follows threads between the ancestral Muwekma Ohlone, Juana Briones in the 1800s, Marjorie Eaton and her arts colony in the 1900s, and artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood today. Over a period of years of research and writing, the book grew to about twenty profiles and two additional guest essays; one by Maribel Alvarez about MACLA, Doing that Latino Art Thing, and the other by Raj Jayadev about Silicon Valley De-Bug, The Anatomy of an ‘Un- Organization.
There are people in Silicon Valley connected with incredible history, but their story isn’t being told. Their experiences tell a different story of who we are. Origins of organizations are often forgotten or rewritten, and the originators erased. How can one or a few names stand for an organization/period/idea and the rest be forgotten? How does this erasure affect our view of ourselves as creators and as being worthy of judging or promoting art, or taking a larger role in our community? I wanted to add some of these missing pieces that contribute to a richer story of Silicon Valley’s art scene. Frustration with systems can be a motivating force. Another big personal motivation was gratitude. This book is a way to thank so many people who paved the way and with whom I worked.
Whirligig: The Bay Area is deeply rich in terms of cultural diversity and creative output. How did you determine which groups to represent, likely knowing that you could not include them all? Who was left out? Will there be a second volume?
Jan: The book is not a survey of the South Bay Area scene. I wanted to tell the story of the trailblazers who truly made a difference in Silicon Valley, and to provide broader historical context for their experience. A major/shared motivator was to share with the reader how the artists/activists in this book enrich us personally. The artists/activists open us to the art of daily life, and to the artist within each of us. They get us to examine ourselves, to question our lives, and to think freely. They inspire us to dream and imagine and effectuate change—to build connections (not walls!) and enliven our communities.
C.K. Itamura is an interdisciplinary artist, designer and producer. Her work responds to a wide range of personal and social content; and is realized as richly engaging, metaphorically layered, participatory, conceptual installations. C.K. is Director of Marketing and Events for San Francisco Center for the Book and a board member for Healdsburg Center for the Arts.
Her most recent work s+oryprobl=m is a three part series of exhibitions which may be experienced at: O’Hanlon Center for the Arts, Loft Gallery in Mill Valley (June– July 2017); The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa (April–June 2017), and City Hall Council Chambers also in Santa Rosa (thru May 4, 2017).
We chatted over an early evening cup of tea in mid April.
Whirligig: You are making and exhibiting complex, multi-layered, series of works that are highly metaphorical and cross media distinctions. How would you advise new art audiences to approach and experience your work? What do you hope people will “get” from experiencing your art?
C.K.: I’ll use my piece Ladies (2015) to illustrate your point.
Ladies was inspired by a surreal hours-long conversation I had one afternoon in 2013, with two strangers in an art gallery. One woman was a retired physician with crutches, the other woman was an art patron that I’ve seen at artist receptions but had never spoken with before. Over the course of the afternoon, the retired physician revealed that she wanted to die because her crippled legs prevent her from doing all the things that hold joy for her, such as hiking, swimming and traveling. The art patron revealed that she had lost all of her money and was now living in a van that she had to park in a different place every night to prevent getting into trouble with the police. After the conversation concluded when the gallery closed for the day, I wrote down notes that would remind me of this curious encounter. Two years later, the notes evolved into Ladies, a wall mounted sculpture in the style of a mini-dress that Tina Turner wore on stage during a performance with Mick Jagger on the British stage of the Live Aid Concert in 1985.
Ladies is constructed of torn paper grocery bags; it is a bag dress that suggests the phrase “bag ladies,” term recalled from childhood that was used to describe seemingly homeless women who kept all their belonging in bags they carried with them, from place-to-place, at all times. Ladies is symbolic of contrasts: the facades of the retired physician and the art patron vs. a hidden desire to die and destitution; the opulence of Tina Turner’s memorable performance during a come back era of her career vs. the desperation of forgotten “bag ladies.” Excerpts from the notes I wrote after the curious conversation were written on the paper bag sections in pencil then selected words were traced over in permanent marker. In a final nod to another lady, my maternal grandmother, who hung laundry outside, rain or shine, the inside of the piece is filled with wooden clothes pins that are not plainly visible from the outside, as my grandmother was rarely seen away from her home.
Angelica Muro is an integrated artist, curator, and art educator with a strong interest in cultural criticism. Originally from the Central Valley agricultural community of Hopeton, California, Muro grew up on an apple orchard. As a child she became interested in photography, media imagery and popular culture. Muro served as Gallery Coordinator for WORKS/San José for five years, and as Educational Programmer for Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA, San José, California) for three years. She has a B.A. in photography from San José State University, and an MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She is currently Director and Chair of Visual and Public Art at California State University, Monterey where she teaches courses in photography, integrated media and media culture.
Her newest project, created with Juan Luna-Avin, Club Lido: Wild Eyes & Occasional Dreams opened February 12 at Empire Seven Studios in San José. We chatted over tea in early January, at Angelica’s Japantown (San José) bungalow. Reina Sofía, Angelica’s eight-year-old rescue pup, sat on her lap.
Whirligig: How did you come to be an artist?
Angelica: I’ve been interested in art since I was a child, but I was never really good at making—I suppose my vision never matched my actual skill set, it still doesn’t. I remember always trying to make things such as sculptures and drawings, but never having the dexterity. Photography came into my life very early—my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Dixon, had a pile of National Geographic magazines I was pointed to whenever I finished my assignment early—this was the first time I was truly able to look at images, photographs, people. Since then, it’s become my primary area of interest, socially and culturally.
Whirligig: The first time you were able to look at images or that you became aware of the power of images?
Angelica: Aware of the power, of ways of seeing, of actually looking. We are so visually saturated, so much so that we are not actually seeing. I read recently that the brain is on a need-to-know basis. Our brains store the information in our environment and we don’t actually see it, even as we know it is there.
I very vividly remember looking through these National Geographics and seeing, seeing things that I had never seen before. It was new information. This is why travel is so exciting, it’s overwhelming new information for us that we are absorbing in a completely different way, and we take that absorption as being creative influences.
Whirligig: Much of your work exploits and reveals the tensions between consumer celebrity culture and the realities of working class and immigrant lives in contemporary America, perhaps even specifically California. Who do you see as your audience for this work and what do you hope it achieves?
Angelica: I don’t often think about audience in the traditional sense; although as an educator, I often address ethical concerns involving audience with my students. I happen to live and work in California, so my work deals with the complexities of this eco-system—the spectrum of productivity, exploitation, and the distribution of wealth—and often explores issues of gender, race, and class. I’m interested in social issues, and I find that visual tension inspires me to create.
I think there’s several ways to think about audience—I remember being in graduate school, a time that allowed me to experiment with ideas with a critical, yet limited audience. Suddenly, I had a body of work about being Latina, being a woman, being the daughter of a farmworker, and navigating social constructs. And then my audience became people who where interested in issues of identity. However, my work deals with larger social issues of equalization, socialization, conditioning, and the various codes of gender identification. It’s a dialogue with my community, my artist cohort, scholars, thinkers, curators, and activists who are interested in issues of positionality and privilege. I suppose that in the simplest and most complicated sense, my audience is one interested in issues of difference, otherness, and diasporic culture. I question ideological frameworks of meritocracy, social mobility, and distribution of wealth, because I want to, in small part, be in dialogue with someone, anyone, interested in discourse about the complicated social structure we live in.
Glenna Cole Allee (right) and Victoria Mara HeilweilÂ (left) make up the collaborative curatorial project known as MicroClimate Collective. The exhibitions they produce are thematic (Hypnagogia, Wabi Sabi, Night Light, Chance Operations, Unseen Unsaid, Everything Must Go!, Eidolon, Perfect Place/No Place, X Libris, A.D.D.) with strong considerations for the nuances of layered meanings within the language of the title, and appear to seek unexpected, if not surprising, interpretations across creative genres.
MicroClimate has a focus of interdisciplinary visual and performing arts programming which provides a context for cross-pollination between diverse circles of Bay Area artists. Their mission is to foster experimentation, collaboration, and risk-taking in an atmosphere free of commercial pressures.
Within this entity they have curated eleven multi-disciplinary exhibitions during the last seven years. They are currently preparing their twelfth, Obsidere which opens at Alter Space Gallery (San Francisco) on May 9.
Glenna and Victoria are both exhibiting visual artists, often working with photography. We chatted in late January in Victoria’s Mission District flat.
Whirligig: Individually, how did you come to be an artist?
Victoria: I started off doing film and video work while I was in high school and majored in that in college. While in college I also took quite a few photography classes, which is where I discovered that I loved all media that utilized a frame. I made an experimental film in college, and also did some less than traditional photography. I think I knew then that I wanted to be an artist, but feared that I wouldn’t be able to support myself and so didn’t immediately call myself that, or move in that direction. Out of college I worked first in the feature film industry in editing, and then in the commercial photo industry as a photo assistant and studio manager. While working I was still doing my own personal photography work, and it became apparent that I wasn’t cut out to be a commercial photographer. At that point I committed to getting my MFA and being an artist. I would say that it’s only been the last ten years that I have been really actively showing my work and moving my art career forward.
Glenna: I certainly tried not to. This fact of who we are, as artists, seems to be a wider circle that persistently swallows whatever other circles we draw. I tried to do other things and deny it but it wouldn’t leave, this predicament, “artist.” I have become better at putting parentheses around the resistance and the doubt. Recently I’ve been inhabiting a certain excitement and deep joy in working consistently, as well as a daily sense of appreciation for being able to make, and give time to, my work.
Whirligig: How did you come to be MicroClimate Collective and how do you think of yourselves inside of this entity?
Victoria: I had a friend who was the Artistic Director for the Climate Theater on 9th and Folsom Street. It was a small theater that had been around a while, but when she took it over she had a vision of it having other programming than just theater. She invited me in to check out a space she thought could work for visual art and asked me to tell her what could be done there. I gave her some suggestions and then she asked if I would run it. I had been doing some curating as part of my teaching at City College of San Francisco, but was definitely interested in doing more curating outside of that arena so I said yes. Very quickly I realized I needed help with this and invited Glenna and another artist to join me.
I knew Glenna from showing her work in the student gallery at City College. There was also a music series and a film series at the theater. The three of us joined forces with the three film series curators to put on one night shows that took over the whole floor. We showed all different media including music, performance and spoken word. It was exciting, but very tiring and eventually the other curators left to go on to other pursuits leaving just Glenna and I. We had decided after a few years that we wanted to start looking for other spaces to curate our thematic shows, and to have them last more than one night. Right about that time the Climate Theater lost their lease and closed, which forced us to move on.
I think of myself as one of the co-founders and primary co-curators of MicroClimate Collective. Glenna and I each have different strengths and wear different hats, although we can switch off if needed.
Glenna: I was just finished with an MFA and there was Victoria, beckoning. The MFA experience I’d just finished had been transformative–the constant company and critique of others who understood art as the main focus, having everything needed right there. I wanted to actively sustain dialogue and community, and this curatorial project seemed like a possible way. It was very interesting, to create a project together to try to foster creative community–the multi-genre shows might become a conversation between artists. That was one main motivation that drew me–the notion that MicroClimate might initiate work, and even collaboration between artists. It’s been a very satisfying thing, that we have inspired others in this way a little bit.
How I think of myself within MicroClimate: as an artist, with all my personal aesthetics and sensibilities, working intentionally to be a creative collaborator. Which entails seeking to meet halfway, and to be receptive/inviting to the third thing in the room, to what would not be created alone.
I often am in the role of filtering our ideas into language, of pushing to articulate our themes, and sometimes raveling them into little knots and back out again. I find this interesting; actually enjoy it.
Beau Beausoleil is a San Francisco-based poet and the proprietor of the Great Overland Book Company, which is located in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood. Beausoleil has written more than ten books of poetry. His most recent collection, Ways to Reach the Open Boat, was published by Barley Books, UK in 2013.
In 2007 Beausoleil read an article in The New York Times about a car bombing on al-Mutanabbi Street, the historic bookseller’s street in Bagdad. This incident inspired the creation of the al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition, a project which currently has five distinct components: 130 letterpress printed broadsides; 260 artists’ books; a publication of poetry and prose titled Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here; the coordination of poetry readings around the world each year on the March 5th anniversary of the bombing; and most recently Absence and Presence, a call to 260 printmakers for the creation of fine art prints.
The project involves hundreds of artists who have created work specifically as a response to the 2007 bombing; and extensive local and international exhibition schedules, much of which Beausoleil coordinates himself. Complete editions of the visual art responses will ultimately be donated to the Iraqi National Library in Bagdad.
We met in early February over a cup of tea at Beau’s kitchen table.
Whirligig: What is poetry?
Beau: What is poetry? At one point in my life I stood on the corner of Powell and Geary, it was real close to Union Square not that far from Macy’s, and I had a little box next to me on the ground that had a sign that read “Support your local poet.” I would give out multiple copies of a poem that I had printed out to anyone who would take them. They didn’t know that they were poetry. My secret hope was that some patron would appear out of nowhere with a wallet, but of course that never happened.
I usually made enough to print out the next batch of poems. Some people would avoid me. They would go out into the street thinking that I was handing out a religious tract or a political tract of one kind or another. Some people would take them. I’d see them read them. I’d see them crumple them up after half a block and throw them away. But every now and then something would happen. I remember this one guy who took a poem. I watched him walk down Powell and I could see that he was reading the poem. He got about three quarters down the block. He turned around and walked back to me and said in this agitated voice, “I don’t know what this means, but this one line, that speaks to my life.” That’s poetry.
One time I was part of a group that was visiting Folsom Prison where there was a writer’s workshop. The visitors would read and then the prisoners would read. During the break this guy came up to me and said, “Are you Beau Beausoleil?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “Did you have a poem in . . .” and he named this small magazine, and I said, “Yes.” He said. “Did it go like this. . .” and he recited my poem back to me. I was pretty stunned. He said, “I just wanted to tell you that that is the poem that started me writing.” That’s poetry.
Lorca, the Spanish poet, tells a story about duende. Duende is the inexpressible in art, in beauty. It’s there and you can feel it. Some people can recognize it. It’s an important part of the life of any artist who is really at that point. He tells a story to illustrate it.
There was a flamenco contest in this basement in Spain. All these young women are assembled. They are all in their 20s and beautiful. They are getting ready to go on the stage to perform before these three judges. Suddenly the door opens. A woman in her late 50s walks in, walks straight up to the stage, throws her arms in the air and the judges declare the contest over because they could see that she had duende. That’s poetry.
Poetry is something that gives you back part of your own life. It allows you to see your own life in another form, another way. That’s what poetry is.