[Originally written in 2001.]
Spring semester 1992 was the year of the riots. By day I repaired books at the Oakland Public Library in my sleep; up at 6:59 sharp, stumble onto the 71 Haight bus, switch to BART at Civic Center, off at Lake Merritt, negotiate four blocks in an indeterminate direction to the library (I still do not understand the geography of Oakland), be at my wooden table by 7:59 so Vi does not chop off my head. Take a brush, dip it in the glue, making sure not to wipe it on the sides of the container since that is WASTEFUL, says Vi, glue the spines of forty-nine copies of “G is for Gumshoe” back together, put them in the press, take them out of the press, wrap the covers in mylar. Get hamburger and fries at corner diner for lunch. Take public transit back to the Art Institute, where my real day begins.
I never did figure out how to cheat the system so that I was paying less than ninety-six dollars a month for transportation. I had to have a Fastpass for taking buses around SF, thirty-two a month, but had to buy separate tickets for BART at two-fifteen each way. I could get into the BART station in SF with the Fastpass, but could not get out again in Oakland without paying. My wage at Oakland Public was eleven dollars an hour, which was a lot for me, but the job was only nineteen hours per week. I took rolls of toilet paper from public restrooms home in my backpack, I got half my calories from extra cream at the coffee station, I Xeroxed five-dollar bills and put them into change machines. Sometimes it worked; it was like playing slot machines. I got ten dollars out of the laundromat across the street and ate off it for a week. Once I found a better job I never did it again.
Back at the Art Institute I would get a bagel with cream cheese and tomato and a large coffee for dinner, and be up painting until three or four in the morning. There was a group of us in Studio 104 who more or less lived there. As far as I can recall there were Kristin Calabrese, mercurial and histrionic with a psycho-pathology I did not understand until long afterwards; her husband Phil, a handsome poet who was not enrolled in school but might as well have been; Dave Arnn, a crusading vegan graffiti artist who painted sad-eyed grey dogs on walls all over town; Donna Han, who flipped her lid sometime around March and began hanging her used tampons on the wall, achieving rapid notoriety; Ruut, a beautiful exchange student who had his entire education, art supplies and living expenses paid for by the Dutch government; Yari Ostovany, an intelligent Persian man who was under chronic assault by the SFAI collective faculty ego; and Paula, stunning and scary, who laughed mirthlessly at inscrutable causes and had a tattoo on her hand that she acquired at twelve. Paula was always borrowing my tube of cerulean blue. And there was a young guy named Zack who got stumbling drunk a lot and painted naked Jesus Christ self-portraits with huge nails coming out of them. Most guys paint Jesus Christ self-portraits sooner or later.
The San Francisco Art Institute in 1992 was a tense and hostile place. The “in” crowd was mean and kind of stupid. They stared at you sullenly in the halls morning, noon and night and never said hello. They held most of the student jobs, which meant that you couldn’t get away from them; they sold you your bagel in the cafeteria, checked out your hammer in the rack room, and curated the student gallery exhibitions, which meant that only their cronies got shows.
They mostly clustered around Colin, a fabulously talented and royally screwed up kid who painted like Michelangelo and had a child with one of his groupies before he turned twenty-one. Colin was pretty sweet; most of the girls got crushes on him their first semester. After a few months they all wised up. Colin always needed money and a lot of us gave it to him. One night I backed him into a corner and lectured him on the need to nurture one’s health and one’s talent for the greater good of mankind. This unfortunately did not prevent him from smoking too much pot and then crack and then disappearing completely. I don't know what became of him.
At any rate, Studio 104 became the main bastion of the counter-clique, with the exception of Dave, whom everybody loved because he loved everybody. We would put on Dead Can Dance at around 10 PM and go into a synchronous painting trance for hours, stop for intense and esoteric discussions, then go into the trance again. None of us ever seemed to sleep.
I was almost completely unconscious of my co-workers at Oakland Public. I came, I glued, I left again. The first day my boss, Vi, belligerently declared that I would be out on my ear if I dared show up at 8:01 or later, so I was scrupulously punctual. A mousy coworker, Cynthia, once asked me to lunch out of pity for my temporary-employee state. She lived with her parents and had never been on a date. I did not dare to let on that I pitied her, too.
My work changed radically that semester. The ghosts of all the pent-up tensions and dramas of the school found their way onto my canvases. I started out small, tight, and surreal, and got bigger and bigger and looser and looser. By mid-semester I was working six by six feet, with swirling, writhing figures tangled up in grand pianos, writing cryptic and angst-written poems on the sides and bottoms of the canvas. By the end of the semester my penury and out-of-control inspiration caused me to paint on any material which came to hand, mostly burlap and construction palettes weighing 30 pounds apiece. My output was roughly four times that of the average student, and there was a regular stream of people passing my wall space to gawp.
In fact we all spied on each other; the instructors were pale nonentities that came in during daylight hours and made tentatively obvious observations. We learned our technique by sneaking into each other’s studios late at night, observing methods of glazing, layering, texturing, rendering, and scrubbing down.
Some people, like Colette, meticulously applied layers of translucent glaze in formidable detail, to create Bosch-like images of mystical import. Others, like Dave, painted fast and furious in housepaint with great wide brushes. Ruut was clinically abstract; he would lay down a broad, forthright stroke, survey it critically, go over it with a roller, light a cigarette, and discuss the matter for half an hour with whomever was at hand. He said he didn’t think he was a real artist, but wanted to paint one original stroke before quitting.
Kristin was all over the map; realistic and tightly rendered one moment, collage of garbage and shopping lists the next. Halfway through the semester she discovered oil paint and sold all of her acrylics to Zack. She would make a painting, declare that it was the best painting ever created, and then paint something entirely different on top of it.
We all painted heavily abstracted portraits of one another, left small collages and poems as gifts in each other’s spaces, and knew that each of us was great. By the end of the spring we were so tightly interwoven that every person’s gesture was fraught with import to everyone else. I would drape a piece of burlap over some scrap wood and cover it with acrylic medium; Yari would say, “that’s very powerful” and attach a stick to his canvas in consequence. It was intense and unsustainable, like a heroin high.
(In fact the members of the in-clique all decided to become heroin addicts for a few months, because that’s what artists do. They made a 16 mm film of themselves shooting up. Our counter-clique rejected this as passé--Kristin and Paula had been there and done that, while the rest of us were classically content with binge drinking. We couldn’t have afforded heroin anyway.)
The streets of San Francisco became our mystical jungle. Dave would disappear around 1 A.M. with his skateboard and housepaint, and new dogs would appear on fences and in tunnels the next morning. Kristin, Phil and I trolled around in alleyways and peered in every dumpster, to discover bizarre and fascinating things and people. One night we were walking downtown at around 3 A.M. when we heard a horrible sound, like a horde of aliens devouring a suspension bridge, repeated to the echoing street. We sought the source, and came upon a crowd of black-clothed people working frenetically in silence, except for the garbling of the aliens. None of the people looked at us or spoke, though we were standing in the middle of them wondering loudly what was going on.
“It’s either a theatre production or an art project,” I declared.
“Maybe it’s SRL,” speculated Kristin. SRL is Survival Research Laboratories, a “controversial” association of international notoriety, which builds Mad Max type machines and fights them to the death. The main attraction of their shows is the ever-present threat of bodily harm; real artists think that safety is for wimps.
“They must be artists, they aren’t talking,” said Kristin. There was a profound truth to her statement. Both artists and actors crave attention, but an actor will garrulously demand it while an artist will pretend you don’t exist. The artist is intensely aware of the audience at all times, however.
“Yeah, SRL,” muttered the nearest figure, hurrying off again like the White Rabbit. Nary another word of explanation could be obtained; none was needed. In fact the show was for the groundbreaking of the new SF MOMA, which none of us attended. We read about it in the paper. There were a few explosions, but it was relatively tame.
Meanwhile I continued to glue my books, somnambulantly, at Oakland Public. Through my haze I noticed that Vi was becoming chattier; she even smiled now and then. My desk mate, Michelle, told stories about getting beaten up in the classroom every day at an Oakland public high school, while the teacher did nothing, so she stopped going to class. The principal would notify her parents and march her back in. She would get up and leave again as soon as he had gone. She was bright and I thought it was heinous that she couldn’t get a high school degree because of violence and institutional stupidity.
School politics at SFAI were heinous and stupid for entirely different reasons. It was private and hideously expensive; also mismanaged, so that the facilities were inadequate for their purpose, having been designed by a stoned fool. The drainage system was literally medieval. The sinks opened directly into an open channel on the floor, which became clogged with clay by the fifth week of classes, squelched when stepped on and stank like New Orleans. There was no money for janitorial service; the studios were only cleaned between semesters, when they painted over the accumulated gunk on the walls and floors, and chiseled a new drainage hole in each sink. People walking down the ramp to the sculpture studios had a bird’s-eye view of the entire area, which gave the sculpture students agoraphobia. It was like working in a minimum-security prison. The ramp had supposedly been designed for the transport of large sculptures, but the ceiling came down too low at the top, and the support underneath was inadequate to hold a moving crane.
But worst of all were the faculty, who were mediocre artists and egotistical nightmares. They awarded scholarships and preferential studio space to people who followed them around and flattered them. This is, of course, not an uncommon practice, but at the time I found it shocking. For me, great art is a virtue unto itself, and I could not imagine any artist feeling differently. The recognition of genuine talent ought to transcend any ego considerations. But there were drippingly talented students who were repeatedly snubbed by the faculty, while pathetic schmoozes were petted and awarded prizes.
The first time the gallery competition came up I thought “well, of course, no sweat,” applied, and was turned down. I surveyed the low quality of work in the gallery each week with perplexity and suspicion. For the scholarship competition, a list of qualified students was posted in the hall, with the winner’s list posted two weeks later. People started stopping me in the halls. “Gosh, I can’t believe you didn’t get the scholarship,” they said.
At the end of the spring semester came the “honor studio” competition. Space was so limited that not all of the seniors had studios; the faculty got to decide who was worthy. By this time I was famous in the trenches of the painting department. I was overflowing my allotted spaces in the rack room and had appropriated the racks over the doors in the common studios. My wall space was piled floor to ceiling and five feet into the room. Of course, “quality” is a subjective term, and it’s easy to produce a large pile of crap. A lot of what I produced WAS crap. But all of it was earnest crap, and at least some of it was powerful and profound and lovely.
“Of course you’ll get a studio, I mean, how could you not?” said Kristin, and others in the trenches agreed.
When the list of studio winners was posted, there was nearly a small riot. “Where’s Stephanie? Where’s Alicia? Where’s Colin? What’s the matter with this school?” someone wrote on the board, and collective sentiments were restless.
A week or so later, the “school journal” came out. That is, we each found a copy of a nicely printed magazine in our mailboxes on Friday morning. “Featuring the work of the students of the San Francisco Art Institute, paid for by student services fees,” it said. That is, it featured the work of the students who glowered in the cafeteria and the rack room and the halls at midnight; the work of the students whose rich parents purchased the work of the faculty; the work of the students who followed vain, weak-headed professors around and pretended to admire them. Somehow the rest of us hadn’t heard about it.
Late that Friday night, an unidentified group of students hoodwinked the night security guard, pilfered the journals out of the mailboxes, hauled the lot up to the roof and burned them. Some other students took cans of spray paint and graffiti’d the words “Kill the Clique” all over the walls. Occasionally they wrote “Dill the Prick” or “Chill the Flick” or some other permutation thereof; there must have been a poet among them.
“Have you seen? Somebody has been writing ‘Kill the Clique’ on the walls,” someone said at a party on Saturday. “Man, that’s so great, I hate those people.”
“You know, we are a clique, too,” said Ruut, ever the even-tempered Dutchman. And indeed, some of us were also vain, weak-headed, and susceptible to flattery. We live, learn, and grow wise.
That same week there were fires and trashing and looting all down Market street because of the Rodney King verdict. A pack of us marched to Civic Center to participate in an orderly civic protest, but there was no-one orderly around to protest to. So we participated in building barricades and screaming “Rodney King is a Human Being!” into a black woman’s video camera.
After things had settled down a bit I went back to the cafeteria for a bagel. I looked the girl behind the counter in the eye. “Startin’ riots with those looks,” she said.
“I was downtown last week,” I declared.
“I knew someone had to throw the first thing,” she countered.
“No, I just said ‘throw that thing,’ and they DID,” said I. Which was no more than the truth. People just want excuses.
After I had worked at Oakland Public for a few months, the library cancelled funding for book repair. Vi was distraught. “You’re great,” she said. “I finally get a good person in here, and they stop the money.” I had not the slightest bit of ego invested in book repair. My last day at work, I arrived to find an enormous spray of carnations on my desk, a card signed by the entire office, a cake, a punch bowl, and a little gift box with a pair of earrings in it.
“You guys, get a grip, I’m a TEMP,” I said. But it still makes me happy to remember it.
[About the author: Stephanie Lee Jackson owns and operates Practical Sanctuary in Philadelphia.]