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From Thailand with talent

Neighborhood artist Veerakeat Tongpaiboon has a new exhibition of his dynamic cityscape paintings this month at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, his longtime artistic home at Pine and Fillmore.

It’s the 16th year he has shown at the gallery. But this time he won’t be shuttling between his art and his day job at his family’s restaurant. Neecha, the admired and affordable Thai spot at the corner of Steiner and Sutter, closed at the beginning of August.

“I’m a full-time painter now,” he says. “It’s about time.”

Veerakeat first came from Thailand to San Francisco in 1988, determined to make his mark as an artist. He had been painting since he was 10 years old. As a teenager, he won high praise for his art and the top prize in three international painting competitions. But his family frowned on his desire to be an artist and pressed him to follow a more practical path. A degree in design gave him opportunities with his brother, a Bangkok architect. But he wanted something more.

He persuaded his mother to let him to come to San Francisco to live and work with her younger sister, who had just opened Neecha, and to further his education. Almost immediately he enrolled in the master’s program at the Academy of Art, pursuing his artistic dreams while waiting tables at the family restaurant. And he found his muse in the streets of San Francisco.

“The streets, the hills, the light — candy-colored houses and everything upside down,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to capture. In Thailand nobody would paint a house pink.”

At his graduate exhibition in 1994 he met Thomas Reynolds, a lawyer-journalist with an interest in art — and in the Fillmore neighborhood. When Reynolds learned the young artist also lived in the neighborhood and featured it in many of his paintings, he rented a small space for six weeks to exhibit Veerakeat’s paintings. That six-week experiment has turned into a successful 16-year partnership between artist and gallery owner.

All the while, Veerakeat continued to work in the family restaurant. His involvement increased after they opened a second location in Oakland. And it increased still more when his aunt was injured in an auto accident. “It’s a family business,” he says. “You can’t get away. If they call, you have to be there.”

When the decision was made to close Neecha, he was excited by the prospect of having more time to paint. “In the past I had to do something fast,” he says. “But now I have more time. Now I don’t have to run to the restaurant anymore. I have all the time I want to paint — every single minute. I have more focus.”

His new exhibition concentrates almost entirely on San Francisco, as his earlier ones have. Yet there is more detail in many of these paintings. And there are more figures, too.

“I’ve come a long way,” he says, “maybe more than half way. But I haven’t really gotten to that point I want to go. Now I have to do something that satisfies me the way I want.”

One thing seems certain: San Francisco will continue to be his primary subject. “I love San Francisco,” he says. “I feel comfortable here. It’s not only about the landscape or the buildings — it’s about the culture, too.” He has traveled to other parts of the country and liked them, but less so. “No matter where I go, I don’t love it like San Francisco,” he says. “In other places, they look at me differently. It seems like everybody’s the same here — that’s what’s special about San Francisco. People live together like one nation — not like other cities.”

The exhibition of Veerakeat Tonpaiboon’s recent paintings continues at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, at 2291 Pine Street, through October 23.