Feral Artists and Eccentric Habitats


Large, textured oil painting of a red, black and silver thistle in a burnt-looking landscape
‘Thistle’, oil on canvas, 48″x 56″, 2004 by Stephanie Lee Jackson

The San Francisco Art Institute, bastion of feral artists and a checker on my career, won’t be admitting students next fall. Like my classmate Stephanie Syjuco, I have mixed feelings about that.

Despite the glowing eulogies that will be written, SFAI was also a product of its time, and that included the active presence of misogyny, sexism, racism, and harassment. It wasn’t a utopia, and there could be a bravado that went hand-in-hand with experimental attitudes, leading to acute forms of imbalance and skewed power dynamics that were just left to fester. Wild places could have wild effects, and I could see some of it actively damaging people.

Stephanie Syjuco, Artnet News, April 1, 2020

Back in 2001, I wrote an essay about my radicalization at SFAI, which Delicious Line just republished. (It’s long and the formatting will hurt your eyes, which is oddly appropriate.) The two things that stood out about SFAI were that it provided no formal education and no practical support, either during your tenure there or upon graduation. Students were simply thrown into a mud pit and encouraged to rend one another.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything. With three decades of hindsight, my assessment of my fellow reprobates is less arrogant and much sadder. Many of those ‘mean and stupid’ artists were clearly suffering from untreated mental illness, PTSD, and drug addiction, which the institute was ill-equipped to address. I can trace much of my fascination with psycho-pathology and neuroscience to those days of festering tension and dire intensity.

Students were simply thrown into a mud pit and encouraged to rend one another.

The other thing I learned was that if you want something to happen, go and MAKE IT HAPPEN. Don’t ask for permission, approval, funding or advice. (Since then I have reconsidered the ‘advice and funding’ part of that ethos.) When nobody is offering opportunities, invent your own.

This attitude led me to Mexico, to Brooklyn, to blogging, alternative healthcare, entrepreneurship, and eventually to creating my own niche interior design business. Through trial and error, I developed a passion for holistic problem solving–creating systems which address physical, emotional, psychological, aesthetic and economic imbalances–with elegance and creativity.

Often the hardest part is identifying what the problem ACTUALLY IS, and convincing others to LOOK at it. As our current state of pandemic, economic collapse, polarization and isolation attests, humans are really good at denial. We will endure any amount of cognitive dissonance to maintain an unsustainable status quo.

Oil painting of a black thorn patch at the bottom, with a thin wisp of ivy climbing up a thorn and falling back to earth, with bright light behind it.
‘Thorns and Ivy,’ oil on linen, 36″x 48″, 2005 by Stephanie Lee Jackson

Thanks in part to my SFAI ‘education,’ I radically failed at maintaining any status quo. Every time I encountered petty tyranny–cruel bosses, incompetent CEOs, bullying administrators, abusive partners, lying politicians, rigged systems–I found myself standing up, walking out, writing letters, starting movements, getting fired, breaking up, breaking down, starting over.

None of this was easy, comfortable, or particularly successful. But it gives me insight into how to help people in ways that go beyond your living room. It starts with accepting how deeply broken things are, and finding unexpected possibility–and joy–in that reality.

‘Cathedral,’ oil in linen, 36″x 48″, 2007 by Stephanie Lee Jackson