The streets of San Francisco became our mystical jungle. Dave would disappear around 1 A.M. with his skateboard and housepaint, and new dogs would appear on fences and in tunnels the next morning. Kristin, Phil and I trolled around in alleyways and peered in every dumpster, to discover bizarre and fascinating things and people.
One night we were walking downtown at around 3 A.M. when we heard a horrible sound, like a horde of aliens devouring a suspension bridge, repeated to the echoing street. We sought the source, and came upon a crowd of black-clothed people working frenetically in silence, except for the garbling of the aliens. None of the people looked at us or spoke, though we were standing in the middle of them wondering loudly what was going on.
“It’s either a theatre production or an art project,” I declared.
“Maybe it’s SRL,” speculated Kristin. SRL is Survival Research Laboratories, a “controversial” association of international notoriety, which builds Mad Max type machines and fights them to the death. The main attraction of their shows is the ever-present threat of bodily harm; real artists think that safety is for wimps.
“They must be artists, they aren’t talking,” said Kristin, acutely. Both artists and actors crave attention, but an actor will garrulously demand it while an artist will pretend you don’t exist. The artist is intensely aware of the audience at all times, however.
“Yeah, SRL,” muttered the nearest figure, hurrying off again like the White Rabbit. Nary another word of explanation could be obtained; none was needed. In fact the show was for the groundbreaking of the new SF MOMA, which none of us attended. We read about it in the paper. There were a few explosions, but it was relatively tame.
Meanwhile I continued to glue my books, somnambulantly, at Oakland Public. Through my haze I noticed that Vi was becoming chattier; she even smiled now and then. My desk mate, Michelle, told stories about getting beaten up in the classroom every day at an Oakland public high school, while the teacher did nothing, so she stopped going to class. The principal would notify her parents and march her back in. She would get up and leave again as soon as he had gone. She was bright and I thought it was heinous that she couldn’t get a high school degree because of violence and institutional stupidity.
Both artists and actors crave attention, but an actor will garrulously demand it while an artist will pretend you don’t exist.
School politics at SFAI were heinous and stupid for entirely different reasons. It was private and hideously expensive; also mismanaged, so that the facilities were inadequate for their purpose, having been designed by a stoned fool. The drainage system was literally medieval. The sinks opened directly into an open channel on the floor, which became clogged with clay by the fifth week of classes, squelched when stepped on and stank like New Orleans. There was no money for janitorial service; the studios were only cleaned between semesters, when they painted over the accumulated gunk on the walls and floors, and chiseled a new drainage hole in each sink. People walking down the ramp to the sculpture studios had a bird’s-eye view of the entire area, which gave the sculpture students agoraphobia. It was like working in a minimum-security prison. The ramp had supposedly been designed for the transport of large sculptures, but the ceiling came down too low at the top, and the support underneath was inadequate to hold a moving crane.
But worst of all were the faculty, who were mediocre artists and egotistical nightmares. They awarded scholarships and preferential studio space to people who followed them around and flattered them. This is, of course, not an uncommon practice, but at the time I found it shocking. For me, great art is a virtue unto itself, and I could not imagine any artist feeling differently. The recognition of genuine talent ought to transcend any ego considerations. But there were drippingly talented students who were repeatedly snubbed by the faculty, while pathetic schmoozes were petted and awarded prizes.
The first time the gallery competition came up I thought “well, of course, no sweat,” applied, and was turned down. I surveyed the low quality of work in the gallery
each week with perplexity and suspicion. For the scholarship competition, a list of qualified students was posted in the hall, with the winner’s list posted two weeks later. People started stopping me in the halls. “Gosh, I can’t believe you didn’t get the scholarship,” they said.
At the end of the spring semester came the “honor studio” competition. Space was so limited that not all of the seniors had studios; the faculty got to decide who was worthy. By this time I was famous in the trenches of the painting department. I was overflowing my allotted spaces in the rack room and had appropriated the racks over the doors in the common studios. My wall space was piled floor to ceiling and five feet into the room. Of course, “quality” is a subjective term, and it’s easy to produce a large pile of crap. A lot of what I produced WAS crap. But all of it was earnest crap, and at least some of it was powerful and profound and lovely.
“Of course you’ll get a studio, I mean, how could you not?” said Kristin, and others in the trenches agreed.
When the list of studio winners was posted, there was nearly a small riot. “Where’s Stephanie? Where’s Alicia? Where’s Colin? What’s the matter with this school?” someone wrote on the board, and collective sentiments were restless.