A studio by the park

February 17, 2020 § 2 Comments


John Payne | The Park (1959)

JOHN PAYNE had no desire to settle in California until he visited San Francisco. He immediately fell under the city’s charms and uniqueness.

There was no doubt that in the 1950s it was the place to be. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had just opened City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and the free-spirited culture of the Beat generation appealed to the young painter. The hills, the Victorian houses and the liberal politics were irresistible. Best of all, his allergies disappeared like magic in the gray fog.

In 1956, after three years at Art Center in Los Angeles, he packed his paints, brushes and easel into his car and headed to the Bay Area. If he couldn’t have Paris, he could always have San Francisco.

With the unlikely luck of finding an ample flat at 2775 Clay Street, directly across from Alta Plaza Park, John eagerly set up his studio. An elderly woman owned the house and she rented only to women boarders, all of them retired domestic workers. They had considerable savings and were living quite comfortably, if frugally, in the elegant Pacific Heights neighborhood.

He never quite understood why the landlady accepted him into this matronly community, but neither did he need to know. For $10 a week, he had the entire top floor of the old Victorian. The solicitous landlady took him under her wing, cleaning his room as well as frequently cooking dinner for him in the evening. In turn, John became the surrogate son for her and the other women boarders. He ran errands, assisted them when they needed a ride to the doctor, and even helped with funeral arrangements for those without close relatives.


John Payne | The Park (1959)

The space was ideal for painting, and he immediately began preparing for his first show at the Tillman Place Gallery owned by Frank Ashley. Alta Plaza Park became a favorite spot for setting up his easel. His camera, a trusted ally, was slung around his neck and helped him capture scenes that would eventually flow from his palette.

In 1959, John’s first major exhibition was ready. With a fantastic stroke of fortune, it was shown in the number one gallery in the city, Maxwell’s. “San Francisco Sits for Her Portrait” was a huge success, selling out almost all of the paintings. Fred Maxwell was so impressed with John’s work that he sent him to France for six months to do a similar show on Paris.

With camera and sketchbook as his constant companions, and the curiosity of a child, he charted his own way through the City of Lights. He made his own the famous words of Hemingway in A Moveable Feast: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

He returned to San Francisco six months later with drawings, photographs and experiences to inspire paintings for his next show and memories to last a lifetime. His second show was also a huge success and for the next three and a half years he stayed with Maxwell, who always welcomed his paintings. After the gallery owner’s death in the mid-60s, his nephew Mark Hoffman inherited the business. John’s relationship with the gallery continued as before. But by the late 1960s, the popularity of abstract and psychedelic art overshadowed the art world and there was little interest in his style of painting. His work became more difficult to sell.


John Payne | Clay Street Studio (1961)

As one point, John became so disillusioned with the art trends in San Francisco that he abruptly left the city and drove cross-country to New York, hoping to find a better market there. He arrived in Manhattan in the middle of a brutal heat wave and his allergies returned with a vengeance. Without testing the waters, he turned around and headed back to San Francisco. In later years, he recalled the thrill of crossing the Bay Bridge and seeing his city with her jewels sparkling in the night. Breathing in the clean, cool air, he resolved never to leave her again.

He drove directly to Pacific Heights to visit his landlady to see if he had any mail. To his surprise, as she had done when he was in Paris, she kept his room vacant — “because,” she said, “I knew you would return.” She was also holding a check that had come for him while he was away and it was just enough to pay the week’s rent. The very next morning he set up his easel and mixed his oils.

John was at the peak of his work at this time. He was overflowing with ideas and had the freedom, the heart and the enthusiasm of a young painter. His subjects were storefronts, cityscapes, restaurant fronts, bookstands and ordinary scenes from the city. Often he painted a little old lady on the street, carrying a shopping bag or a large purse. It was a characteristic of many of his early paintings. Once he commented: “A psychoanalyst could probably have a field day analyzing that one. But I really don’t know where she came from.”

For nearly a decade he lived on Clay Street and painted with no real distractions or worries.

— From The Life & Art of John Payne, by Frances R. Payne (Xlibris © 2014).


§ 2 Responses to A studio by the park

  • Hilda Chen says:

    Lovely painting of the neighborhood. I noticed the cable car, which was still in operation till the mid-1950s. And the park bench is still there.

  • Jerome Tarshis says:

    The chronology strikes me as a little confused. Fred Maxwell didn’t die in the middle 1960s. He was thriving and prospering when I moved to San Francisco in 1968. Middle 1970s is more like it; the timeline of Maxwell Galleries is that Mark Hoffman inherited the gallery in 1973.

    About the popularity of abstract and psychedelic art, I should say from being there at the time that there was very little interest in those kinds of art among the kind of people who would have bought from either Fred or his nephew, Mark Hoffman. What may in fact be true is that John Payne was selling less well, though not because his clientele had taken up early Frank Stella. People’s lives and careers are always changing, and this article offers a fascinating look at one such changing life.

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