Back Story

A resurgence of the arts and artists in North Beach

From reading my monthly column, Sketches from a North Beach Journal, one might get the impression that poet, painter, and free-range radical Lawrence Ferlinghetti so dominates the area that it’s necessary for me to write about him each month. And that may be true. He’s a powerful “brand” and, as I said in that column this month (see page 1), he’s a mover and shaker. Ferlinghetti is so intellectually restless and inventive that he looms over North Beach like a wise old eagle and sounds off on his concerns about the neighborhood’s cultural and environmental focus. Frequently he leaves me dumbfounded by his vision.

What’s this 95-year-old, sharp-as-a-tack dreamer up to now? As you may have read a while back, art galleries appear to be the latest casualty in San Francisco’s commercial real estate boom. Leading galleries have occupied space at 77 Geary Street for many years but have been ousted by the expansion plans of a tech company also in the building that has deeper pockets than the gallery operators. Similarly, several art galleries have been forced out of an adjacent building at 49 Geary Street. Among those evicted from 77 Geary was the George Krevsky Gallery, which has for many years shown Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s paintings.

GALLERY RENAISSANCE

Over lunch recently Ferlinghetti said, “I’ve got an interesting story for you.” I listened. “The angle is the resurgence of the arts and artists in North Beach as a result of the gallery closings downtown.” Then he expounded on North Beach creativity and what the arts community here calls First Fridays (www.firstfridays.org) — an open house program the first Friday of each month to support the visual arts in this quarter of the city. He suggested I get out and look around. So recently I’ve been visiting North Beach galleries and talking to those who operate them.

EMERALD TABLET

First stop was the Emerald Tablet, 80 Fresno Street (emtab.org), just around the corner of Upper Grant where The Saloon is located. The Emerald Tablet — the name refers to an ancient hermetic text on the evolution of man — calls itself a “creativity salon.” Its co-proprietors are Della Heywood and Lapo Guzzini. Heywood, an engaging artist and visionary herself, told me she considers Emerald Tablet a “nutrient source” for the artistic focus in the neighborhood. Not only does Emerald Tablet feature visual artists in one-person showings, but it also conducts various drawing and painting classes, and holds events such as jazz performances, poetry readings and the like. If you wish, you can rent the place and hold your own art event.

LA RAMBLA ON COLUMBUS

Heywood and I got to talking about Ferlinghetti’s notion that North Beach is ripe for a resurgence of artistic interest. She buys onto that and injected another Ferlinghetti dream: “Lawrence envisions Columbus Avenue as a promenade or rambla.”

Barcelona’s La Rambla is the historic pedestrian walkway bordered by craft shops, galleries, flower stalls, and one of the greatest public markets in the world, La Boqueria.

FOCUS GALLERY

I paid a visit to John Perino, proprietor of the Focus Gallery, 1534 Grant Avenue (focus

gallerysf.org). Perino is widely admired for his devotion to the arts and the artists of North Beach. His view of the arts future in the neighborhood is that the arts and the art galleries they support have undergone a significant change — not necessarily for the better. “Galleries now have become an adjunct to popular arts events held on their premises.” In other words, the events have become an excuse to party. “As this trend continues in North Beach or elsewhere, art and the artists who create it become less relevant, while rents climb,” he told me. Yet, even Perino’s Focus Galley has been the site for various “happenings” to use the now out-of-fashion term for these events. It should be noted that galleries operate on a small mark-up and most rely on the extra income from turning their artsy premises over to event sponsors and coordinators. That doesn’t make them bad folks, just realistic entrepreneurs. Perino, a fine photo-essayist, features a heady potpourri of art at Focus Gallery. Paintings, lithographs, prints by Ferlinghetti and other artists, rare books, memorabilia, and his own photographs.

LIVE WORMS

Painter Kevin Brown’s Live Worms, 1345 Grant Avenue, (sflivewormsgallery.com), is a gallery of significant importance in North Beach. Brown is a likeable guy, a former 747 airline captain as I have written before, and a working artist whose paintings — abstract oils and acrylics that he calls “old fashioned modernism” sell frequently for lively, but always fair, prices. Brown has become an important benefactor in North Beach. He offers his gallery space for modest fees to aspiring artists to hang their work, but doesn’t dip into their pockets for a commission when they sell their work.

PICCOLO PRESS

Laura Sample-Mattos is the force behind this small gallery and shop, 703 Columbus Avenue (piccolo-press.com). Besides housing an antique platen hand press on which she will print your custom-designed notepaper or business cards, Laura exhibits the work of a variety of notable artists, some who operate in a realistic mode, and others whose work is joyfully abstract. I am drawn also to the work of Laura’s spouse, John Mattos, the award-winning designer and poster artist.

Yes, there are other galleries in North Beach or close by, including Modern Eden (moderneden.com), I Heart North Beach (iheartnorthbeach.com) and The Gallery on Telegraph Hill (telegraphhillgallery.com). As I write this, news comes that yet another — Naivasha Studio & Gallery (naivashasf.com) — expects to open at 1499 Grant Avenue early this month. Also, I have heard rumors of a gallery opening on Green Street close to the fabled saloon, Gino & Carlo. Because of space limitations, I’ll have to report on these another time.

The resurgence of the arts and artists in North Beach could contribute greatly to Ferlinghetti’s concept of Columbus Avenue as La Rambla — a place where the rubber doesn’t hit the road and sandals replace the internal combustion engine. Wouldn’t that be something?

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