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San Francisco chronicles, part 1


In and out of the studio with Anna Conti
When we drove to San Francisco from Pacific Grove on Aug. 2, the day was to be my art day. I was meeting Anna Conti, artist and blogger, at her home studio. And then, icing on the cake, the two of us would check out what was in the SF galleries, including a group show, “San Francisco Cityscapes,” at Newmark Gallery in which she had ten paintings.

I’m a big fan of Conti’s writing — it’s warm and enthusiastic, focused on the local scene and on all the raging issue working artists who are also intellectuals are interested in. Conti’s plugged in to the community, does some teaching, participates in open studio events and is a sought after speaker at public panels about the artist’s practice. She’s a dynamo and if you read her blog you know it.

I’m a big fan of her paintings, too, especially the cityscapes which show San Francisco from the insider’s point of view — no Golden Gate bridge or Telegraph Hill, but loving portrayals of parking ramps, rooftop scenes, and table top scenes inside a coffee shop — no people, just a plastic bag and a soda bottle interacting like two characters in an Ionesco play. Everything’s distilled down to funny angles and overlooked moments that are peripheral vision brought to the forefront. I was excited to be able to see the works in person. (here’s a group of works hung salon-style in her house, right, and left below a shot of a painting in progress of a parking ramp — bigger here.)

After Stella and Steve dropped me off and went on their way for the day, Conti and I had a free-ranging chat about art, blogging, San Francisco, art magazines and more. She’s a generous person and the all-day conversation was energizing. And one of the things I found most excellent was that Conti said she makes her living from her art. She’s one of the few people I know who can say that.

Brief background

Conti moved to San Francisco in 1987 from upstate New York. Going back farther, she’s got a Philadelphia connection. As a teen living in Delaware she used to come to Philadelphia in the summers to take classes at Philadelphia College of Art (now UArts). Talented and interested, Conti got a scholarship to attend PCA after high school but she didn’t go ultimately because she got married. If you were 18 and married in Delaware at that time you didn’t go to college, she said.

“I wanted to be an artist since I was a little girl,” she said. “I have a soft spot for Philly.”

Conti lived and worked many places before settling in San Francisco. She worked in graphic arts in Dover, DE, then again in Boston and later in upstate New York. “Then my mom died of cancer. It was a long and painful death.” And Conti had an existential moment where she wondered if art was doing anything to make a difference in the world. She decided to change courses and enrolled in nursing school and got an RN degree. She worked for 18 years as an RN.


Then, after all that nursing and because this is the way it is sometimes, Conti decided that being an RN wasn’t really saving the world. And when by chance she was visiting San Francisco on vacation, it hit her. “This is where I should be” she thought. And art is what she should be doing.

“I went home and sold my house and drove across the country and I’ve been here now longest of any place,” she said. Conti lives in a house in a section of town called “the Avenues.” It’s near enough to the bay so that it gets that ocean weather –lots of clouds and fog. And because it’s near the ocean, we heard the tsunami alarm go off while we were talking. “Every Tuesday at noon,” it goes off she said. Conti’s house is 85 ft. above sea level and she’s not too worried. (image shows a painting on Conti’s living room mantle. It’s a symbolic portrait of a woman friend of hers who died recently, someone she nursed in her final hours.)

The studio
Conti’s studio is in her house and her paintings are placed salon style on walls everywhere. the house is visually rich and homey — and you could imagine a salon meeting here to discuss art. Her studio is a nice-sized room that does double duty as an office and computer station. The painting takes place on one side of the large window and blogging takes place on the other side. It’s just that intertwined. (that’s Conti in front of the in process portrait of Virginia Tichenor. bigger here. )

There’s a reading chair in her studio. It’s all cozy and inviting looking but she’s never in it. Conti calls it her husband’s chair. It’s where he sits when he’s waiting for her to be finished enough with blogging or painting so that they can go do something. As we all know, blogging and painting are never “finished” but sometimes they are finished enough to leave them for a bit. (top image is the chair)

Conti was working on a portrait of ragtime pianist Virginia Tichenor when I was there. She’s friends with the sitter, a local musician, whom she’s painted before. More on Tichenor here. And in a follow-up email Conti told me this:

…and here’s another trivia tidbit: her (Tichenor’s) album covers are done by Chris Ware (another Ragtime fan and friend of Virginia’s) -he’s a well known artist and cartoonist, best-known for a series of comics called the “Acme Novelty Library”, and a graphic novel, “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth”. Here’s a bio on Ware that mentions Virginia.

I remarked on the reddish underpainting, which reminded me of Rebecca Westcott‘s method of doing the initial drawing and painting in red for her portraits. Conti who uses Golden acrylic paint — likes napthol maroon and magenta at this stage which she calls her ink drawing stage.

She uses a style of painting that involves a lot of glazing over underlying layers and she likes the way the underpainting’s colors peek through. (The glazing gives the paintings the depth of oil paintings.)

The artist works on several paintings at a time and over time she’s worked up several series — one of San Francisco cityscapes; one of narrative paintings — ambitious figure paintings for which she hires models, poses them, takes photographs and then paints a series of works, like the Trickster series and a still life series.

She loves working on narrative paintings and is starting to think about the next series which will have time as its theme and will involve three models, a young man, a young woman and an old woman. “The narrative is a relationship story taking off from Charles Bukowski‘s book “Pulp.”

Speaking of books, when I asked a passing question about what she liked to read (the house is full of books). Non-fiction she said. She likes Lawrence Weschler‘s “Vermeer in Bosnia,” Bill Bryson‘s “Short History of Everything.” And because her new narrative series involves time, she’s reading up on physics. By the way, Conti told me she gave up all her art magazine subscriptions, getting her art news and reviews like many of us online now.


The still lifes are based on set-ups photos of objects from a collection of dolls, toys and other miniature objects she collects. She has one in process at the moment and I took a shot of the three stages of the work, from photo set up to gridded drawing to painting in progress.

The cabinet of curios was a happy place, full of all the little goodies. It sits in the dining roo

(image right is the cabinet with objects — bigger here, and below is the photo setup, working drawing and initial stage of the painting — bigger here.)

Above Conti’s easel is an abstract grid painting that I asked about because it’s so different from the rest of her works. “It’s a reverse calendar,” she said, explaining that it’s a reminder of how short life is. She started it in March 2004 and based it on the insurance chart predicting life expectancy. Hers — 80 years. How many days left was that? She divided the canvas into that number of squares and paints a new square each day. She imposed a design of a yin/yang and divided the two color ranges into red and blue if memory serves (no picture, sorry). The only rule is that each day’s square must touch one of the other existing squares. It’s amazingly beautiful.

I asked Conti about her parking ramp series with paintings that ask you to find beauty where there is none and force you to come to grips with architecture that’s domineering.

“I paint a lot of cars. Cars reflect the eras; the myth of independence, wealth and class. I’m fascinated with them. Parking ramps are visually so interesting. They’re like cathedrals for cars. When I first started painting I was in my cave mode — thinking philosopher’s cave. All the views were to the outside. Now, it’s the last one — with the exit sign.”

“The view from the top of the garages in any city is great. I see a garage and I want to go in and go up to the top. I have shots from the tops of almost every garage in San Francisco. You see buildings but it’s midway up. In North Beach there’s one where you see Alcatraz, the Trans America building, the Golden Gate Bridge.”

And guess what? She doesn’t have a car!

The blog

I wanted to know how Conti started her blog, Big Crow. Being a kind of following edge techno-know nothing (or near nothing) I am always interested in how others get around in the tech arena. Conti is self-taught and she’s as good as a pro! Before the world wide web, Conti was using clui (command line user interface) to connect, program and get around the internet. “There was a black screen with green letters she said and you dialed up a separate phone number for each site. It was pre-graphical.” Who can imagine a visual person dealing with that? (image is Conti at Big Crow central — bigger here.)

Anyway, turns out that Conti’s website and blog and designed by her and she does the whole thing herself. Her big wish for the future — she said she’d like to get RSS for feeds, something she doesn’t have at the moment. Also, she’s excited about her Olympus digital voice recorder which holds 5 hours of audio and which is far better for her artist interviews than the old fashioned tape recording/playback method. “I stick it in this (computer) port,” she said, “and it uploads and goes to my itunes. It’s an mp3 file.”

And why all this reaching out anyway? “Having the blog gets me out there to see stuff,” she said, adding “Not that I need that.”

“When I started my intent was to speak to my collectors. And for people who aren’t collectors, I wanted to make them comfortable with art and give them a little more. But most of the audience is artists — from the Bay area, Northern Europe and Canada and Australia and Japan,” she said.

By the way bloggers, Conti uses a dial-up modem for her blog posts. Imagine.

Next post I’ll tell you about the great stuff Conti and I saw at Newmark Gallery, Catharine Clark Gallery and elsewhere … how jealous I got of the obviously rich and New York like scene I saw.