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Photographer of the Fillmore

IT TOOK A FEW YEARS for David Johnson’s photographs of Fillmore Street during its jazz heyday as the Harlem of the West to be appreciated. Quite a few.

But it happened half a century later with the premiere of the highly acclaimed public television documentary in 1999, called simply “The Fillmore,” and the book that followed. And it’s continuing still, with an exhibition of 65 photographs from Johnson’s vast archive — now in the collection of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley — at San Francisco’s majestic City Hall.

A reception on May 25 from 5 to 7 p.m. launches “David Johnson: In the Zone (1945-1965).” The photographer, now 95, will be on the scene, as he has been for most of the last century. The exhibition continues through January 6, 2023.

EARLIER: “David Johnson in the New Fillmore

Neri first exhibited on Fillmore

Manuel Neri (left), with roommate and fellow artist Henry Villierme, during their student days.

ART | JEROME TARSHIS

Manuel Neri, one of America’s leading figurative sculptors, died a couple of months ago. It was no great surprise: He was 91 years old and had been in poor health for a long time. But I felt a particular twinge, because when I moved to San Francisco, in 1968, I found Neri to be an easy, welcoming presence.

Neri was exhibiting at Ruth Braunstein’s Quay Gallery, one of the most respected in the city. Three years earlier he had been appointed to the art faculty of UC Davis, where his colleagues were such Northern California superstars as William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson and Wayne Thiebaud. As a relatively major Bay Area artist, he had definitely arrived.

His earliest work had been in cheap and almost pointedly unpretentious materials: cardboard, newspaper, cloth and plaster. As his career and reputation grew, he moved on to bronze and marble, which are considered noble materials. Eventually he bought a studio in Carrara, around the corner from Michelangelo’s house, where he could work with marble from quarries that dated back to ancient Roman times.

Today his work is in the permanent collections of major museums in the United States and elsewhere in the western world. But his career had humble beginnings, and his earliest exhibitions were in the resolutely noncommercial galleries that made Fillmore Street a major center of artistic innovation during the 1950s and ’60s. When Bruce Conner founded his deliberately odd artists’ group, the Rat Bastards Protective Association, sometime in late 1957 or early 1958, Neri was one of its first members.

He lived on Fillmore Street for a short time. In 1959, when the painter Bill Brown separated from his wife, fellow painter Joan Brown, and moved out of their studio at 2322 Fillmore, the legendary Painterland, Neri moved in with her. But they soon relocated to North Beach, where they eventually married.

It was almost an accident that he became an artist at all. He was born in Sanger, an agricultural community, in 1930. He and his parents, immigrants from Mexico, found themselves employed as migrant farm workers after two of his father’s business ventures failed. In 1939, after his father’s death, his mother got a good job in Oakland and the family was back on its feet.

He decided to become an engineer and enrolled for preliminary courses at City College of San Francisco in 1950. Hoping for an easy A — or at least that’s the story he told — he took a course in ceramics and found himself fascinated by the possibilities of art. Although he went on to study engineering at Berkeley, his eyes had been opened to other possibilities. In 1952 he transferred to California College of Arts and Crafts. In 1957, after military service in Korea, he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

Neri’s first exhibition, while he was still a student, was a two-person show at the Six Gallery, at 3119 Fillmore, in 1956. In 1959 he had a one-person exhibition at the Spatsa Gallery, on Filbert Street off Fillmore, followed by another in 1960 at the Dilexi Gallery, then located at 1858 Union Street, between Octavia and Laguna.

From the beginning of his career, Neri was in the right places and attracted the right kind of notice. Reviewing his very first sculpture show, Alfred Frankenstein, then the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, spoke favorably of the work and also discussed the philosophy that seemed to inform the Six Gallery in general and this show in particular: “The group that runs this institution commits itself to exhibiting not only the successes and matured achievements but the half-steps, blunders and fumblings by the way.” Frankenstein had mixed feelings about that. “This emphasis on process, on the doing rather than the thing done, is displayed in an extreme form in the 6 Gallery’s current show. The whole thing is both fascinating and a little appalling.” 

More than 60 years later, I am happy to add that even when Neri was working in marble and his sculpture was both carefully composed and informed by long study of the European figurative tradition, he managed to retain something of the air of youthful spontaneity that characterized so much art made on Fillmore Street in the 1950s.

As I might have imagined from seeing his work, Neri in person had nothing of the presence of a major art world figure, although by the late 1960s he was well on his way to becoming one. I would look at him, he would look at me, and it felt like a naked soul looking at a naked soul.

EARLIER: “For a time, Fillmore was home to a circle of artists

Sunrise at Alta Plaza

Photograph by Robert Starkey

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

While most of his neighbors are still asleep, Robert Starkey can be found roaming Alta Plaza Park, searching for new angles to photograph the dawn.

“Walking to Alta Plaza to photograph the sunrise I get exercise, connection with nature, the unconditional love of dogs — and a feeling of accomplishment,” he says. He shares his photographs of the sunrise on Flickr with those who slept through it.

The sunrise photography project began in January after Starkey moved from Sonoma County back to San Francisco. It was occasioned by the darkest period of his life. 

“My entire body collapsed with Stage 4 bone cancer,” he says. “I was in hospitals, nursing homes and care facilities for a year and a half, and lost everything.” When he finally recovered, he was offered a place to live in a friend’s home near Alta Plaza.

“One of the most important aspects of my healing is to find purpose in each day,” he says. Shooting the sunrise and sharing the photographs helps provide that purpose.

Photograph by Robert Starkey

Photography has been a lifelong passion for the committed globetrotter. Sunrise at Alta Plaza is only the latest of his photographic obsessions. His work in series began in earnest when he moved to the Oakmont community in Sonoma County. 

“I found myself in the middle of 12,000 acres of protected land, with wildlife everywhere to photograph,” he says. “Also at Oakmont there is a polo field, where I found I could photograph beautiful sunrises.”

Now he is inspired by the sunrise at Alta Plaza.

“This morning it was clear, with beautiful blue skies when I left home,” he says. “But about the time I got to the park, the fog had rolled in and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees.” Still, he managed a few great photos of the fog-infused sunrise before heading back home to warm up.

“I keep thinking I’ll run out of new perspectives,” Starkey says, “but that hasn’t happened yet.”

Photograph by Robert Starkey

MORE: Robert Starkey’s photographs on Flickr

Farewell to the Artists Inn

The Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street, near Fillmore.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Even during the first weeks of the virus lockdown in early April, the Artists Inn at 2231 Pine Street was at full occupancy, brimming with love and laughter. But it was a bittersweet time.

Beloved owner Denise Shields had recently returned from her second home in Mexico with an ache that turned out to be pancreatic cancer. The cozy little blue house half a block from Fillmore, behind a white picket fence, quickly filled with her two sons, Will and Jason, daughter-in-law Lily and five granddaughters. Will’s partner Elisabeth was home in San Diego awaiting the birth of grandchild No. 6. “We’re sort of hoping for a boy,” Denise said during a brief break from a family Parcheesi game, “but we’ll be delighted with any healthy baby.”

Two months later, on June 6, the family welcomed a sixth granddaughter into the world. Three days after that, Denise died.

Now the Artists Inn, in one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, is ending an era as a center of warmth and hospitality for guests from around the globe. Following the death of their mother on June 9, Denise’s sons reluctantly decided to permanently close the four-room inn. They will host a garage sale — masked and socially distanced — from August 14 to 16.

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Frank Lloyd Wright tiles created here

ARCHITECT Aaron Green, who lived in a neighborhood apartment overlooking Lafayette Park for many years, helped Frank Lloyd Wright establish a San Francisco office in 1951 at 319 Grant Avenue.

Green’s mother-in-law, Jeannette Pauson Haber, lived at 2510 Jackson Street, on Alta Plaza Park, with her sister, Rose Pauson, who was a former client of Wright’s. In 1940 she had built the Pauson House in Arizona, which had been destroyed by fire in 1943. 

Rose was a painter, and Jeannette a ceramicist. When Wright decided to create red tiles, inscribed with his initials, to be affixed to a select number of his buildings, he asked Jeannette to fabricate them. Wright provided a drawing of what he wanted; Jeannette formed the tiles; Aaron Green inscribed the initials — FLLW — into each one; and Jeannette produced the “Taliesin red” glazed surface that Wright specified. 

Among the Bay Area buildings that Wright designated as worthy of bearing the tiles were the V.C. Morris shop on Maiden Lane — his only building in San Francisco and a precursor to the circular Guggenheim Museum in New York — and the Marin County Civic Center, which was completed by Aaron Green after Wright’s death.

— From Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco, by Paul V. Turner, published by Yale University Press.

Honoring Japantown’s founders

The new Zen garden at Cottage Row and Sutter Street.

NEARLY FOUR YEARS after it was first proposed, a new garden honoring the founders of Japantown will be dedicated this weekend at the foot of Cottage Row, near Fillmore and Sutter.

It began as a celebration of the creation of Japantown in 1906 after the earthquake and fire. Cottage Row was occupied primarily by the first, or Issei, generation of Japanese-Americans in the early 20th century, making it an apt location. But some neighbors objected, and the garden became the topic of contentious community meetings.

The idea prevailed. On August 19, master Japanese gardener Shigeru Namba began arranging a truckload of stones according to traditional Zen principles intended to inspire peace and tranquility.

The garden will be dedicated on September 21 at 6:30 p.m., with neighbors invited to attach multicolored origami cranes — a symbol of peace — to bamboo sticks in the garden.

EARLIER: “Zen garden back on again

Brown Bag broke all the rules

Michael May took the owner’s ideas and turned them into windows.

FLASHBACK | JO MANCUSO

The windows at the Brown Bag, the quirky office supply store long on the corner at 2000 Fillmore Street, were the topic of an item in Image magazine in 1991:

This is the store that breaks all the rules. Its Fillmore Street windows are really shadow boxes, maybe 4 feet square but only about 6 inches deep, so the displays look more like collages. The employees, all collectors of various kinds, bring their own stuff in to use as props. The store itself, which is supposed to be a stationery shop, sells dishes and tiny plastic eyeballs.

“We don’t want to be commercial,” says owner Dawn Christensen. “There’s nothing I won’t buy.” She is considering a “national mammogram week” window this spring using greeting cards with voluptuous Victorian women.

Employee Michael May takes Christensen’s ideas and turns them into windows. A scissors window. A cowboy window. A magnet window. A recent gold window included crowns, swans, pencils, dice, stamp holders and doilies. “It’s a far cry from forming men’s suits,” says May, a former men’s retail display worker.

“We don’t just pull merchandise from the store — we buy things for the windows and then sell them,” says Christensen.

A window sometimes has a hidden message, she says, but “the people who would be offended don’t get it.”

EARLIER: “Practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles

From the ashes of St. Paul’s

Grand Central Market at 2435 California Street shortly after it opened in June 1941.

ARCHITECTURE | BRIDGET MALEY

Since it opened in June 1941, touted as the city’s “newest drive-in market,” the Grand Central Market, now Mollie Stone’s, at 2435 California Street, has been a bustling neighborhood grocery.

The News Call Bulletin declared that “a program of entertainment would signalize its opening.” A photograph appearing with the article showed a gleaming white building with a black tile base and a Streamline Moderne blade sign. There were two entrances on California Street and one facing west toward the parking lot, for customers who took advantage of the readily available parking. This modern grocery was inserted into a block that had once housed a stately Episcopal church.

The south side of the 2400 block of California Street looked drastically different in 1915 when it was mapped by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. At the southwest corner of California and Fillmore Streets was a drugstore with apartments above it. Several other businesses, including a Japanese laundry, were west of the drug store along California Street. Mid-block there were several small single family dwellings and the imposing St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. At the southeast corner of California and Steiner were two additional small-scale store buildings.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s, designed by the architect Samuel Newsom, was a small ecclesiastical building with a steeply pitched main gable and a red stone facade. The church, which was completed in 1896, burned in 1933, and several adjacent residences, also owned by the Episcopal Church, were damaged by the fire. The church was not rebuilt and the land then became available for commercial development.

The architect of the Grand Central Market was Albert W. Burgren, who was at the twilight of his career when he designed this modern grocery. Burgren, who was born in San Francisco in 1876 to Swedish parents, began a prolific partnership with T. Paterson Ross in 1900 that lasted until 1913. Their projects included a number of hotels and apartment buildings built after the 1906 earthquake, as well as the iconic Sing Fat Building in Chinatown. After his split with Ross, Burgren opened his own office, but continued some collaborative work until Ross was severely injured in 1922 at a construction site. Burgren served in Europe during World War I, returning to San Francisco and working mostly in commercial architecture until his death in 1951 after a long and prolific career.

The Grand Central Market included a meat counter run by the Petrini family, which also had counters at the Lick Super, Sunset Market and Manor Market. Petrini’s was established in 1935 by Frank Petrini, who immigrated from Lucca, Italy, at the age of 12, and was known to have the best meats in Northern California. Petrini’s advertisements are remembered for their inspiring quotes, which also appeared on walls and signs throughout the stores. The quotes were published in a collection in 1992 titled The Proverbs of Frank Petrini: Food for Thought.

The Grand Central Market became Mollie Stone’s in 1998, one of nine stores across the Bay Area. When the new owners remodeled the building, Mollie Stone’s kept the Grand Central blade sign, with some modifications.

‘1,000 Monks’ helped create a community

FIRST PERSON | TRACI TERAOKA

Over the years, many artists asked me to consider showing their work at my shop, Poetica Art & Antiques. One day a woman walked in who was looking for a place to present a special print, which she called “1,000 Monks.” Andrea Speer Hibbard was visiting from her home in Santa Rosa. She had created the original artwork back in 2001, and her son had encouraged her to make prints to make it more widely available.

Little did I know how important that serendipitous encounter would become.

Andrea and I quickly reached an agreement, and soon “1,000 Monks” was for sale in my shop. It has been my best-selling item, and one of the single greatest contributions my small business has made to the community. Andrea has been wonderful to work with, often hand-delivering prints so we can visit.

The giclee prints have been a source of joy and happiness, connection, strength and contemplation since the day they first arrived. Many people stop in their tracks once they make eye contact with “1,000 Monks.” They look, find a monk looking back and soon are transported, looking at different monks. The piece is instantly engaging. And that happens time and time again, day after day. Some people have told me they walk by just by hoping they can visit the monks through the window. 

For many years, the only sales I had on the website for the Poetica shop was the print of “1,000 Monks. “ I don’t sell them by the thousands, but when the bell on my phone sounds, notifying me of a sale coming through, more often than not it’s still for “1,000 Monks.”

Sales are often the result of someone seeing the piece in a friend’s home, creating a little chain reaction. A friend bought one and had it shipped to Jonesboro, Arkansas. That purchase led to several of her friends acquiring the piece in several cities in the South.

Sometimes the piece provides needed comfort. In 2015, three young people went on a murderous rampage beginning at Golden Gate Park after Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Their next stop was Marin, where they shot Steve Carter and his dog Coco multiple times. Coco survived. Steve did not. Steve’s wife, Lokita Carter, suddenly a widow, was also grappling with intense chemo treatments for a rare late-stage cancer. I heard the familiar bell notification on my cell phone that “1,000 Monks” had been ordered. It was Lokita. Andrea and I refunded Lokita’s purchase and gifted it to her. She recently told me the monks continue to be a cornerstone in her life.

Another story: Last fall, I was talking to a neighbor in front of the shop when a man stopped to look in the window and became mesmerized by the framed “1,000 Monks.” He said he was having a difficult and challenging week, and really wanted the piece. As I was processing his sale, he confided he was James Roche — a roommate at Yale of Brett Kavanaugh, then battling for confirmation as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Though raised in an ultra-conservative family — his father owned a MAGA hat — Roche said he had taken a leap of faith and gone public with his belief that Kavanaugh had lied repeatedly under oath and sexually assaulted another woman who was a friend.

There is something in this piece that creates connection, happiness, contentment — and solace.

The giclee print of “1,000 Monks” is $85. It’s in stock at Poetica, at 3461 Sacramento Street.

His greatest creation was his own home

Photograph of bronze lion head fountain in the garden by Mark Evans

WHEN BUSH STREET resident Palmer Sessel still wore a tie and worked in the Financial District, he liked to get out of the office midday and think things over.

One day he walked by the historic Monadnock Building on Market Street and was struck by the cast of notable San Franciscans looking down at him from the trompe l’oeil mural above the marble cornice. The guard told him the artists who created it had a studio upstairs. He went up and engaged them to create a mural of a winged bulldog on the ceiling of the living parlor in his classic Victorian near Cottage Row.

“They tried to dissuade me” on the flying bulldog, Sessel says. But Mark Evans and Charley Brown took the commission, and also painted a Bacchanalian scene for the dining parlor, and nudes above the bed. In the process, they also fell for the neighborhood, and decided they wanted to live here.

“I told them,” Sessel recalls: “You may be in luck. The guy next door to me is dying.”

The 1880s Victorian needed work, and required resisting a committee of bureaucrats from the Redevelopment Agency, but the bones were all there. They managed to buy the house before it went on the market. “We went to Stars restaurant to celebrate,” Evans remembers. “We thought, ‘This is the last good meal we’ll ever eat.’ ”

Over the next three decades, they set about making it their greatest art project, bounteously filled with their own work and layers of treasures from around the world. On the ground level, overlooking a south-facing garden, were studios for both artists. In 1984 they established Evans & Brown, a fount of their ever-expanding creative output: murals, paintings, objets d’art, wall coverings, fabric, carpet and more. They found artistic and commercial success, and an enduring business and personal partnership.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” Evans says. “No one was doing murals and trompe l’oeil on our level. And it was mostly because of Charley’s painting.”

Only days after they returned from a final grand tour of the splendors of Venice and Paris, Robert Charles Brown died of prostate cancer on November 21, 2018, at home on Bush Street. His husband of 41 years, Mark Evans, and their schnauzer, Jack, survive him.

— Thomas Reynolds