Art and life and death

August 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

I’D HAD COFFEE with Kelly Johnson — or at least said hello — almost every day for many years. He was a regular at Peet’s on Fillmore, our neighborhood gathering place, with tales to tell from his colorful artistic life as a childhood vaudeville star who later created a modern dance studio on Fillmore Street, helped put the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra on the map, and was himself a dancer and a concert pianist. One day in April he called and asked me to come by his third-floor flat, less than half a block from our usually sunny coffee corner.

We’d talked a few times about my interest in hand-hammered copperwork from the Arts & Crafts era. He’d told me he knew Armenac Hairenian, a noted coppersmith whose shop was just across the street from his flat. He had a pair of copper candelabras Hairenian made for him half a century ago as a birthday gift. He’d promised to invite me over and show them to me, and I was looking forward to it.

I climbed the stairs to his flat and found Kelly sitting on the red couch in his round-bayed living room overlooking the heart of Fillmore Street. It was a beautiful old rambling Victorian flat he’d called home since 1969. His daughter was visiting, and she brought in the candelabras. “I want you to have these,” he said. As he was telling their story and recalling the many dinner parties on which they cast their glow, I pulled out my iPhone to record his recollection of this important but little-known coppersmith. Kelly was one of the few people left who remembered him.

THEN HE DROPPED A BOMBSHELL. I knew Kelly was not well, and that it was increasingly difficult for him to leave his apartment, even to go to Peet’s. He said he was giving away a few choice possessions, and that his daughter had come home to help him die. He had decided to end his life on May 7 under the procedure authorized by California’s new End of Life Option Act.

Moved and shaken, I went back to my office and put together a short video about the candelabras. It was a bittersweet project that would also save a memory of Kelly in his final days. But I knew I was not telling the most important story I had heard that day. So I asked Kelly if I could come back and make another video, this one about him and his decision to end his life.

Kelly was game. He’d been a performer all his life, and he had a message he wanted to share. The video turned into a much more elaborate production capturing Kelly’s final two weeks and the end of his life. It was an intense project created with a talented young journalist, photographer and filmmaker fate brought along at just the right time. A Dance With Death premieres at 7 p.m. on August 15 — three months after Kelly died — at our century-old neighborhood theater, located on the same block where Kelly lived for half of its history.

— Thomas Reynolds

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Feasting with the Staprans

April 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Ilona and Raimonds Staprans with his biographer, Paul Karlstrom, at left.

I FOUND MYSELF in the lucky seat between Ilona and Raimonds Staprans at an intimate and artsy dinner party down the peninsula the other night. They are two fascinating people. She’s a scientist at UCSF. He’s one of California’s preeminent painters, still going strong in his 90s, and an eminent playwright in their native Latvia, where they spend a part of every year.

Raimonds Staprans is getting some of the recognition he richly deserves, with an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art through May 20 called “Full Spectrum.” It was seen last fall at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, which organized the exhibition and published a beautiful catalog. Even if you’ve seen his paintings, you may be surprised by the breadth of his work over the past six decades. And the paint and light and color are luscious.

In a talk in San Jose, he described how his work flows out of his daydreams.

Precisionism at the deYoung

March 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

A WALK THROUGH “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art” with curator Emma Acker. The exhibition continues at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco from March 24 to August 12, 2018.

Russian River, 3 p.m.

May 10, 2017 § 2 Comments

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Mary Robertson | Three Canoes

THIS IS, OF COURSE, the Russian River the casual tourist never sees. He’s in the middle of the damn painting, for one thing. For another, he’s got his eyes closed, soaking up the pure, unreflected heat. He’s too preoccupied, meditating, suspended weightless between water and sky. If he wasn’t on his day off, he’d probably notice the atmosphere is positively luminescent. Pass the Stroh’s, willya?

This is the world as seen by Mary Robertson. “For me, it’s always three in the afternoon, summer,” says Robertson. “No evenings, no mornings.”

Working from photographs, she paints the vacationers and their accoutrements as they float past her vantage point. “It seems to me as though the same swimmers, the same summer people, are always there,” says Robertson, who works with oil on linen and Masonite, not trying to capture the glow of the smogless afternoons but capturing it just the same. This is no small achievement; her work has been compared to Winslow Homer’s, Edward Hopper’s and especially, in its understanding of light, water and timeless human presence, to the Charles River paintings of Thomas Eakins.

“After my first show, somebody pointed that out to me, so I studied him,” says the artist. “It was a little embarrassing, really, for I hadn’t made the connection. To tell you the truth, I just paint what I see.”

The river itself is changing. “Last year,” she says, “They started releasing water upstream. The water is getting clearer. It’s also getting harder to paint. You can see the bottom — it’s like painting gin instead of pea soup. I’m afraid that what Gordon Cook [the painter] said about me is true — that I have a marvelous feel for algae.”

— MELVIN MARCUS

Artists and influences

April 24, 2017 § Leave a comment

BAY AREA ARTISTS Kim Frohsin and Sandy Ostrau discuss the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition, the Bay Area Figurative Movement and other influences on their work, in conversation with the Smithsonian Institution’s Paul Karlstrom.

In the studio with Kim Frohsin

February 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Q & A | KIM FROHSIN

What is the creative process like for you?
To date it’s one in which one series or interest will somehow, in a deeply intuitive and subliminal way, lead naturally into the next work. To me, it seems like an innate flow and natural transition typifies my modus operandi over the last 29 years. There have certainly been times when my art is directly influenced by life circumstances or my reaction to those circumstances. Life on a personally intimate scale or on a large scale — for example, the death of my dog, or my reaction to 9/11. The art can serve sometimes as documentation, therapy or an emotional necessity for self-expression; the art simply emerges, life translated into imagery.

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Christo calls it off

January 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Drawings of Christo’s “Over the River” in the shrine to his work in Valley Ford.

CHRISTO HAS CALLED OFF “Over the River,” a project long in the works for a pastoral stretch of Colorado, as a protest against the new national landlord. But preparatory drawings already hang in the pantheon of Christo’s work in a small and unlikely museum: the off-the-path country post office in Valley Ford, California.

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