True Stories: Some of Art's Lighter Moments

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ˇ True Stories: Welcome
ˇ That Awful Orange
ˇ How I Started Painting the Golden Gate Bridge
ˇ Muh-therr!! or The Garden Path
ˇ But Artists Are Supposed to Paint When They're Miserable
ˇ I Thought I Was Discovering a Starving Artist in a Garret

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But Artists Are Supposed to Paint When They're Miserable

I have had a studio at Hunters Point Shipyard since 1984. It was quite a year for me, starting with a dynamite New Year's Eve party. Renting my space at the Navy Yard was a highlight. The shipyard was in flux. Renovating space for artists' studios as well as for small business incubation was a new idea just taking off.

Four graduates of the California Culinary Academy had taken over the Navy kitchen in my building and made it into San Francisco's only timeshare kitchen - a distinction it retains. When the kitchen expanded into a second building I was asked to paint a mural on one wall.

It was great weather in which to work - autumn. San Francisco fog was in retreat. Autumn is our summer. The sky was blue. The doors were open. I mixed paint on the loading dock just off the kitchen. The view was spectacular. Immediately downhill were two of the three largest drydocks on the West Coast. Beyond that, bright deep blue water with indigo highlights. Further away, the East Bay hills. Above the hills, the top cone of Mt. Diablo and a fine, clear sky. I was a happy camper.

One of the chefs was teaching me to match colors of paint by drizzling a newly tinted test sample into a wet sample from a previous batch. When you can't tell the old from the new, it's a match. I'd never done this. I don't usually match colors. If I'm out of one and I need more, I eyeball it, ballpark it, or use some other means of approximation. Two colors almost the same give richness to what I usually do. But this was different. A commission. The chefs wanted each part of the mural to look like the others. One of them said, insightfully, "We learn to make one hundred desserts, or salads, or whatever just like the rest. I think it influences our preferences in art."

It was alright with me. I liked the work. Sitting on the loading dock, I was learning a new technique, feeling the warm sun on my back, enjoying life. As I matched paint I said something about how good I felt. My chef friend who was teaching me to match color was dismayed. He moved back as though I'd literally shocked him. "But artists are supposed to paint when they're miserable! You're not supposed to paint when you're happy!"

Because his astonishment was genuine, I didn't mind it. My first thought was of Lord Kenneth Clark's remark in Civilisation about the Romantic Movement in the nineteenth century, "Of which we are the nearly bankrupt heirs." No cold garret for me! Cold San Francisco flat, yes! But no garret. No solitary walks along the headlands in a black cape for me! My black cape is red and purple inside. I embroidered it with abstract imagery and a quotation from Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale.

"Well, I paint when I'm happy," I told him. "When I'm sad, I cry."

Since then, I've gone on painting and crying, though not at the same time. My chef friend has become a psychiatrist. The timeshare kitchen continues to send fragrances of cooking out into the air of the shipyard. Food cooked in the shipyard goes to all parts of the City from gourmet restaurants at the tops of highrises to Meals on Wheels, bringing food to people who have a difficult time cooking or getting out. And I've painted three more murals.

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