If you like to paint outdoors and you visit San Francisco, I imagine you’ll pick a spot in Golden Gate Park, maybe in front of the Conservatory of Flowers, or someplace along the revamped Embarcadero, with its views of Alcatraz and the Bay, or on a bench in Washington Square Park, in North Beach, or maybe on the grass of the Marina Green, either toward the Fort Mason end or down under the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll have plenty of choices! San Francisco may not have the warmest weather but it has brilliant artistic traditions and countless outdoor painting haunts.
Here is one of its brilliant artistic traditions. Pop Demarest, a San Francisco character, owned some Russian Hill cottages that he rented out on the cheap to writers and artists. By all accounts Demarest was the perfect landlord, charging little, spending his evenings lubricated and dancing naked outdoors to the accompaniment of tinny gramophone music, and often forgetting to collect the rent. What more could you want from your landlord?
Here are some other excellent San Francisco traditions: it bawdiness, its fierce liberalism, and its sexual equality. Hear how Rudyard Kipling described his experience of passing through San Francisco in 1889: “I am hopelessly in love with about eight American maidens—all perfectly delightful till the next one comes into the room. The girls of America are clever; they can talk; yea, it is said that they think. Certainly they have an appearance of so doing.” More than an appearance!
And this is also earthquake country, a great metaphor for the artist’s life. Jack London, a San Francisco reporter at the time of the Great Quake, described the quake’s aftermath: “I sat on the steps of a small restaurant on Nob Hill. To the east and south, at right angles, were advancing two mighty walls of flames. I went inside and the owner of the house said, ‘Yesterday morning I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes.”
Artists love this place. They love the fog as it pours in; they love the sun when the fog pours out. The rest of California is Beach Boys country but San Francisco has this moody thing going, those blue notes wrapped in moisture, an atmosphere that tempers California dreaming and makes life more real. Maybe an artist can’t say what he loves—maybe it is just a feeling in his heart. There is a bohemian international highway whose rest stops are separated by long distances—the distance from San Francisco to Greenwich Village to Paris and to places beyond—and artists feel that in their bones.
This tradition goes back a long time. Nancy Peters explained, “A bohemian community developed in the 1880s and 1890s around the intersections of Pacific, Washington, Jackson, and Montgomery Streets. When the Montgomery Block building emptied out, artists and writers moved in. Over the years, more than 2000 of them have lived there, among them Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Frank Norris, Margaret Anderson and Kenneth Rexroth.” 2000 writers and artists on one block! No wonder San Francisco has little shortage of artist ghosts. Come paint here.
Come write in London in May!