Lawyers turned artists

February 12, 1996 § 1 Comment

San Francisco Chronicle

It’s a common curse of being a lawyer: the nagging urge to be something else. Though most ignore it, many succumb, often by trying to become the next John Grisham.

But four former Bay Area attorneys are taking a different tack. They’ve become artists, and they’re showing their work at San Francisco’s Thomas Reynolds Gallery — and Reynolds, it turns out, is also a recovering lawyer.

Here’s the surprising news: All four artists are really good.

Not that they weren’t good lawyers, too. Mary Dunlap was one of San Francisco’s most prominent civil rights attorneys. But in 1991, after finishing a high-profile discrimination case against the San Francisco Fire Department, she was exhausted. “I was a workaholic,” she says, “and it got to the point where I needed to do other things that had really been neglected.” She’s still a legal consultant on public interest cases, but most of her time is spent creating colorful monoprints of birds and fish and self-portraits.

Sarita Waite | Bear Cubs, Marin Circle Fountain, Berkeley

Sarita Waite | Bear Cubs, Marin Circle Fountain, Berkeley

Her colleague, Sarita Camille Waite, practiced family law in Berkeley for 17 years until 1987, when she turned to sculpture. Much of her work is small bronze figures, but she’s working now on a fountain for Marin Circle in North Berkeley.

A third artist, Jerome Carlin, founded the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation in 1966. But for the past 25 years, he has painted California landscapes, some of which hang in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Jerome Carlin | Rand's View, 1994

Jerome Carlin | Rand’s View, 1994

The fourth in the group is Jody Joseph, former head of the San Francisco Bar Association’s legal services program. Now she paints portraits, landscapes and still lifes in a cubist style.

All but Carlin say they loved practicing law, but for various reasons had to get out. “I had no alternative,” says Joseph. “Otherwise it would have been a half-lived life.”

She’s in good company. Reynolds says a lot of famous artists left the law, including the French post-Impressionist master Paul Cezanne. What made him make the move? Maybe it was the advice from his friend, novelist Emile Zola: “One thing or the other — really be a lawyer, or else be an artist, but do not remain a creature without a name, wearing a toga dirtied by paint.”

Read more: Jerome Carlin: The two sides of my brain

§ One Response to Lawyers turned artists

  • That’s because Practing Law is so … I wouldn’t say empty, rather void … all these aggressions … People engage lawyers, judges, state attorneys and all the rest to go to war against someone or because they are at war with somebody. And at the end they are all dead anyway and nothing is won … or the legal war just goes on with other participants. And all the papers that you fill with legal terms and justifications: once the case is closed, they will be – at least after a few years – be deleted and destroyed forever. Legal work is not substantial in the sense that it does not really last. I myself filled hundreds of pages during almost 14 years as a lawyer and I don’t remember most of them, the papers don’t exist any more, some of the clients are engaged in new battles with new enemies, the happier of them don’t know any more what it was all about … I sold some photos I took, recently a kind of patchwork of different objects, took part in jam sessions … At least it made or I think I saw somebody smiling and it might have helped people to distract from all the difficulties they might have or have had in their lives, for a minute; including their legal warfares. As a Lawyer, Judge, whatsoever – you are just part of these warfares, which are in fact not yours at all … That’s somehow exhausting after a few years and fundamentally VOID

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