Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Work of Art

YBCA film curator Joel Shepard's recent blog post about writing a list of things he hates inspired me to compile a list of nonprofit vocabulary words that annoy me. I know I'm not the only person who cringes a bit at hackneyed speech- at a grant retreat, friend and Youth Speaks director James Kass got our small group in on a little joke. After a week of intense conversations, every time someone said "an a-ha moment" in our seminar, our small group stood up. The gesture really brought the overuse to everyone's attention and added some much-appreciated levity.

Anyway, my list includes:

leverage
immersive
download/post-mortem
experiential
kudos
challenge
opportunity
circle back
touch base
skill set
cutting edge
tweak
point person
"it's a pilot"
innovation
synergy

Feel free to add your own. Oddly, though, it was the last word "synergy" that popped into my head after completing the last of two lunches, the most recent one with Zoetrope Magazine editor Michael Ray and the one previous with artist Brett Cook. So maybe, like Joel, I should forgive the triteness of some of these words in favor of their usefulness. These two meetings ended up as a complement to each other, a way to explore the idea of collaboration from the perspective of an independent practicing artist and someone whose collaboration is part of a business model. As I'm learning about these kinds of meetings, both conversations spiraled into other interesting threads that won't all be covered here.

Part 1
A few weeks ago, Michael and I met up on a sunny afternoon on the back patio of Radius. I've been a subscriber of Zoetrope: All-Story at least 6 years but it wasn't until I met Michael's wife working on an event at Southern Exposure did I get to put a face to the publication. (Besides that of Francis Ford Coppola, who counts the magazine amongst his businesses including a winery, a couple cafes, and his obvious film work). In addition to working as the editor of of the magazine, Michael writes film adaptations and was truly gracious to my comment that there are some books I never want to see in film. (Not because I don't think they would translate. More because I love the images I created in my head while I read them. Most recently, I put Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann in that category. I do suggest watching Man on a Wire for related content.) Unfortunately, my digital recorder had run out of batteries but I did my best to take notes and enjoy talking to someone whose business is in finding the most appropriate words to express yourself.

I was attracted aesthetically at first to Zoetrope because each issue of short stories has a different designer- people like Tom Waits, Chip Kidd, The Clayton Brothers, Kara Walker, Mike Mills. As time went by, I was more intrigued by the business model of a magazine dedicated to being in print only and curious how each new designer fit into the process. Ultimately, I think FFC (Michael calls him Francis, but since we've never met I'm not terribly comfortable with the familiar) provides the magazine a unique position. As the primary backer, he affords the magazine the ability to come to the business model in slightly different ways. Michael shared that they have redefined what constitutes successes for them. Instead of just measuring conversions to subscribers, they're looking at smaller advantages like positive emails from patrons, blog references, and awards (Zoetrope won the National Magazine Award for best fiction in 2001). They have a 5-year outlook on breaking even instead of a traditional year-over-year analysis. Finances of course come into play in decision-making, but this longer view encourages creative risk-taking. 

Since they work off a FFC-approved list of designers, there's a pretty free reign in terms of layout. There is one rule- the design can't interfere with the stories. When I asked if he's ever run into problems in that area of collaboration, Michael smartly said that in those rare cases, he encourages an objective look for a solution that neither parties have thought of rather than trying to find concessions. (Words to remember). I really enjoy the sometimes surprising featured guest, but it is apparently rewarding in more ways than just to subscribers. After PJ Harvey did one issue, it seemed to restart her interest in painting and drawing. Michael said that whether it was her experience working on the issue or something else, he's happy to be able to provide these artists, musicians, directors and personalities with an alternate creative output.

Right now they're committed to the idea of only existing in print. Sure, there's a Facebook page, but the full layout and content is only available in the physical issue. Some people might say that could be detrimental to reaching more subscribers. But part of my attraction to the magazine is that each issue becomes almost a collector's item, although still fragile in its existence. (Michael commented that he liked the idea of collecting them at the same time that he liked the idea that they don't last and could be faded in the sun or crammed into a tiny mailbox). FFC's impresses the idea to the staff to remain who you are, and keep the magazine true to the original idea- and so, he doesn't want technology to make a facsimile of the magazine. The idea of mindfulness, however spiritual it sounds, replayed from my previous lunch with Brett described below. I think it is a valuable notion both for me as a person and for me working towards the mission of an organization.

Part 2
Before meeting up with Michael, I had lunch at the studio of Brett Cook, an artist, educator, spiritualist and all-around incredible human being. If I had to make a short introduction, I guess I would say that his work is rooted in social practice. But ultimately, I'd say that description is fairly reductive and I'll tell you why. The first time I met Brett, it was at a BBQ at Guerrero Gallery where we'd taken some donors on a gallery tour of the Mission. What threw me for a loop was the big hug I got as a hello from a total stranger and his chuckle when I asked later in the conversation "And what do you do?" Now, I'm happy to call him a friend and looking forward to that next bear hug. It's easier for me to understand that it's not what he does but who he is, that his art is the practice of his life. The laugh and roundabout answer I got makes a lot more sense - can you sum up your life and philosophies in a few sentences? Me neither.

There's a few things about our 3 hour lunch that sticks out in my mind. (The tasty vegan tamales from Flacos are surely one. The fact that we talked so long, I was left without anything else to say is another.) For starters, I'm constantly checking myself against his statement on collaboration to make sure I'm coming to it with the idea of making something together. [Brett said] "I used to think that collaboration meant I have an idea, you'll help me do it, we'll call it a collaboration. And from my own practice I've come to understand that collaboration means we all have different expertise, every person regardless of their age or class or social status, so a skillfully built collaboration is about integrating people's expertise in a way to make something together."

For me, there's also an understated fear about working collaboratively, since you must trust your partners with work you hold dear and ultimately your reputation that you've now tied together. I asked him how he manages expectations and outcomes, since it's not only important in the world of nonprofits and grant-funding but also in creating that sense of trust. Brett said his work has become less about the outcome and more about the process, and the relationships in that process that require care to build and maintain. These relationships then inform expectations about how people work and the expertise they have to offer. It's not that there isn't assessment, or standards, or points for reflection, but his collaborations are an ongoing practice. They don't end with a winner or a finite success. 

A lot of art-making and businesses run in those kinds of constructs, and in my experience at YBCA, we are responsible to concretely report to its stakeholders in limited time periods and create assessments for ongoing work. So we're going to have to synthesize a model that incorporates both hard data and the relationships we're building while still maintaining an overarching goal. When you're working, breathless, with your head down, it's not easy to keep your eye on the horizon. In a somewhat new construct, due in a large part to the democratizing effect of technology and the evolving expectations of arts participants on their cultural institutions, it will require the staff to consider our peers as part of the collaboration (not just helpers with the ideas of our choosing). I'm not sure how that works when we're not coming to the table on equal footing, where my job and livelihood is dependent on our work where others might not have such a responsibility to see it through. Something to think about, though.

Brett and I met at a time when I found myself busier than I've ever been and doing so willingly. I'd reflected that I had always wanted a position that I cared about and translated into my life outside of work. Although I wasn't resisting that collision of personal and professional, blurring that line brings its own set of challenges. In and outside of work, I am trying to maintain my identity by reflecting my own standards in an area where sometimes it puts me in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable position. I have to be mindful of where I'm coming from and what I want to stay faithful to. Brett approaches his collaborations modeling the behavior and life he practices. Yet key to that practice is being able to get away from the expectations he has for other people and the ability to be compassionate when he can't stand up to his own expectations. It's a deeply humanist perspective and one I quite identify with as I negotiate my life and work becoming interconnected.

As I left his studio, I wandered through archives of past work and memorable quotes on the wall. This one below by Thich Nhat Hanh, a buddhist monk and peace activist, represents how I see Brett and Michael's work and something I strive to incorporate into my own. Wouldn't it be amazing if we all considered our life a work of art?

 
True to his educator background and the theory of multiple intelligences, Brett always ends his emails with recent pictures of family or art-making highlights, and I love it. So, I'll end with some photos I took that afternoon in his studio.


These are part of Brett's Live is Living project.



Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Shorts

It's finally sunny and (somewhat) warm in San Francisco. Time for shorts:

  • Courtesy of Alan Bamberger over at ArtBusiness.com, apparently the Government wants its WPA art back. I'm all for the idea of identifying and cataloging the results of what I think was one of the best federal programs ever (pay an artist a living wage? who'd have thunk it?!) But non-Federal repositories in possession of WPA art are being advised that it belongs to the Government. Alan makes a good point that although they're not aggressively tracking down these privately-held works, such a stance seems to jeopardize the effort of creating such a knowledge base on WPA works by penalizing the people who currently have them in their possession.
  • 5 questions to chart impact. Although this is geared toward organizations' progress towards a goal, I'm seriously considering using it for my life in general. Think about how useful it would be for something like a job interview.
  • 30 Second MBA is a video archive of advice from business professionals via Fast Company. Love the concept- kinda wish they'd expand it beyond the bounds of "business". 
  • Doris Duke Foundation's Ben Cameron on the power of the performing arts at a TED talk. Get past him calling Kirk Franklin a gangsta rap artist and listen to some interesting statistics, how culture is being democratized and the affect it has on arts institutions, and the power of the arts in our future world.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tempus Fugit

As I’ve said before, I’ve been working both as the Membership Manager and Major Gifts Manager since the end of February. It’s been a lot of fun to expand my duties. I love the variety of work I get to do and I’m feeling capable in both roles. However, the past few months have been busier than I’ve ever been. I have to apologize for not returning emails, or the 1 day a week I sleep a lot and do nothing. I’m sorry to say this blog has been suffering but I definitely have a lot of writing ideas. 

To start, let me fill you in on the event I planned and executed last Sunday. The Oliver Ranch, a 100-acre property in Sonoma County features 18 site-specific installations by artists including Bill Fontana, Ann Hamilton, Martin Puryear, and Richard Serra, among others. Purchased by Steve and Nancy Oliver in 1981, the property has evolved from sheep quarters to a world-renowned sculpture ranch representing the Olivers' longstanding passion for art and deep connection to the land (watch this KQED video for a deeper look). In 2009, they created the Oliver Ranch Foundation, which essentially gifted the ranch to Sonoma County and assures that the Olivers’ vision for the ranch continues into perpetuity by leaving the ranch in local hands.

These days, the ranch provides unique fundraising opportunities for nonprofits. Tours, led by Steve himself, are offered as an auction item or as a ticketed event designed to raise money for the organization. Original performance works in Ann Hamilton’s tower by groups like Kronos Quartet, Joanna Haigood, and Pauline Oliveros are also used as ticketed fundraisers. The eight-story cylindrical tower, composed of over one million pounds of concrete is 86 feet high and approximately 30 feet in diameter. The Tower goes almost as far in the earth as it does into the air, with concrete piers driven deep into the ground and a large, thick concrete pad for the tower to rest upon. The Tower is open to the sky at the top, with a water cistern at the base. There are two separate concrete staircases within the tower, each shrinking in width with a custom stainless steel railing. Intended to be a private musical experimentation and performance space, the Tower's two staircases form a double helix, with one staircase for the audience and the other for the performers (description from the website).
Me, descending one of the double-helix stairs of the tower. Photo by Ryan Mason.
Our group approaches Ann Hamilton's Tower. The tower is Hamilton's first permanent installation anywhere in the world. It took 3-1/2 years to complete, after 14 years of discussion and design. Photo by Jan Hobbel.

Tower Interior. Photo by Wren Coe.

Looking down from the top of the Tower to the cistern below. Photo by Wren Coe.

My first visit to the ranch was last year, when Kronos Quartet performed the tower. We were then offered a date in May 2011 for a private tour with Steve Oliver. There are a few things to know in planning an event there—tours are for a maximum of 45 people and no private cars are allowed on the property, so the group must gather at a park and ride in Geyserville before heading to the ranch. We offered a shuttle for those who wanted to be bused, and the rest to meet in the North Bay.  Major Stressor #1 came when I realized that May 15, 2011 was also the annual Bay to Breakers Race, meaning that only two routes were available for anyone trying to cross the race line. We moved the shuttle departure to the Marina, since leaving from YBCA would have been near impossible. And, I forewarned guests as much as possible to leave plenty of time for the routes available. Major Stressor #2 came in the form of unseasonable rainstorms in May. We drove through a few rainclouds on the way up, but amazingly we lucked out with mostly clear skies for the outdoor portion of the day.

All of my troubles aside, it’s hard to worry about anything while being completely delighted by the spectacular sculptures and interesting tidbits shared along the tour. The next day I found myself thinking of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he tries to identify some of what makes certain people exceptional (in being successful, smart, rich or famous and who operate on the extreme outer edge of what is statistically possible). Steve Oliver has a unique position to have the expertise of an engineer, the financial capabilities to make the artworks happen, and incredible persistence in the face of a challenge. What impresses me most is his willingness and I assume enthusiasm for seemingly impossible projects at the scale to which they are completed; the way nothing, not red tape, cost or sheer size of these works prevents a solution to the site-specific imagination of an artist. Furthermore, to me Steve is the model for creative appreciation. The drive to continue the work of the ranch is not the collector value of the pieces, or touting their deeper meaning (although the tours certainly give incredible context, you don't have to "get it" to appreciate it), but instead a passion for artistic experiences and the unique position the Olivers have to provide the space and expertise necessary to bring this type of work into existence. 

Feel free to browse the photos taken by friends and colleagues here, here, and here. The rest of this post will be just a few images they took of an opportunity I feel very lucky to have experienced as part of my job.

Judith Shea, "Shepherd's Muse", 1985-198

Roger Berry, "Darwin", 1988-89. The upper arch tracks the winter path of the sun and the lower arch tracks the summer path of the sun. On the summer and winter solstices, the shadow cast on the ground is only from its respective arch. On the spring and autumnal equinoxes, the shadow cast is exactly split by a strip of light that comes down through the center of the arch. The accuracy of this shadow split by the light is within one millimeter. 


Terry Allen, "humanature", 1991-1992

Bruce Nauman, "Untitled", 1998-99

Ursula von Rydingsvard, "Iggy's Pride", 1990-91 (The remains of 40,000 pieces of cedar beams carved by the artist over a 13-month period)

Martin Puryear, "Untitled", 1994-1995. Apparently the Olivers had 1 week to access and have dinner in the interior before Puryear had it sealed. The theme of denial appears in the artist's work often, forcing imagination on the part of the viewer. 

Richard Serra, "Snake Eyes and Boxcars", 1990-1993. The 12 hyper-dense corten steel blocks were made in a Seattle mill with the largest forging jaws in the United States. The forms were heated to 2,300 degrees and pounded with a 145-ton hammer. Oliver had to reinforce the roads to truck the 250-ton work from Seattle to Geyserville, in a convoy that was two and half miles long. The story he tells about this work involves maximum weight limits of the US Highway system, the CIA at Jorgenson Forge, and dressing up as Caltrans workers (allegedly, of course).

A closer look at one of the Serra forms. They are so dense that they radiate cold or heat depending on the weather. Apparently the sheep that used to live on the ranch would cozy up to it in cold weather.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Deal-A-Day

I have to say I'm totally fascinated with deal-a-day sites and their glitzier cousins for online shopping like Gilt Groupe, Ideeli and BirchBox. I've bought a bunch of deals, mostly for food-related things like dinners or Foodzie's tasting box, but also for store coupons, massage, etc. I'm subscribed to quite a few, and we've even used them to sell memberships and tickets at YBCA. I'll talk more about the work-related deals I've done when I have a bit more time to talk about the kind of ways technology has jumpstarted marketing and fundraising in the sector (have I mentioned that I'm working two jobs?)

Generally, I think most businesses don't have a chance to compete with Groupon's reach. When you ask for a tissue, do you ever say "Hand me a Kleenex?" The brand has become part of modern-day vocabulary, and any description of other deal-a-day sites generally starts with "It's like Groupon..." But I wanted to post that today marks the launch of Facebook deals. I knew this was coming down the line- and you might see YBCA on there soon- as well as Google's bid to get in on the action of an exponentially expanding market.

I can't wait to see what new company will carve a niche out of this market with a differently evolved business model, but CNN's writeup today of Facebook's launch has a couple of interesting points. First, both Facebook and Google are part of the lexicon I mentioned. Their reach is incredible and gives them an edge over Groupon should they be able to leverage their entire networks. (Currently, I think you only see Facebook deals if you are subscribed to it, or any Pages you like offer a deal, though any of your friends who buys a deal will have it on their feed so there will be secondary marketing).

Secondly, Facebook isn't offering the same kind of 50-90% discounts that other deal sites have. According to the article, the Atlanta deals via Facebook range from 13%-75% off. Facebook is hinging on the fact that using these deals is often a social experience so are looking for the socially active discount culture seekers instead of the deep discount customer. They're leveraging the use of Facebook for events listings and social networking with the ability to score coupons while doing it to make their offering a one-stop-shopping experience.

Technology today is marked by an effort to consolidate multiple uses into one gadget or platform. For example, I recently bought a DVD player that can stream Netflix, YouTube, and play music. Sooner or later, it will probably do my taxes. Facebook has made a smart move to combine users interest in social platforms with deal scoring. I'm curious to see how it is adapted. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Let’s Play a Game (Innovation Is The New Black)

YBCA started an organizational shift towards innovation and resilience in 2007 with a grant from The Wallace Foundation to work on broadening our reach with audiences. The evaluations that followed told us that people wanted a more active role in their cultural exposure, curating their own experiences and determining what art they wanted to see and how they wanted to see it. In 2009, YBCA received a grant from EmcArts, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, to participate in the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. Ten staff/board/community members, including myself, were sent to the rolling hills of Virginia to spend a week thinking about major opportunities and challenges to the organization, and how to design and prototype innovative strategies to address them. We came back with a focus on the immersive visitor experience and a plan to prototype new strategies via interdepartmental teams. In January of 2010, YBCA’s Executive Director Ken Foster presented a paper at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters discussing the implications of the economic downturn and suggesting that a transformation in arts management was needed to continue the vitality of the arts field beyond this moment of crisis. He suggested that it was imperative that the sector recognize that the world is shifting under our feet (and in the Bay Area, that even happens literally).

We now live with a new set of rules. There are no more knowns- organizations have to be flexible to respond to change, be it change with the way people engage with you, or change in the revenue streams you once relied on (endowment problems, anyone?) Nothing is permanent, and instead of stasis, organizations need to consistently experiment and refine their practices. We are dealing with a new world and new audience, largely due to technology and the accessibility that comes with it. We must find ways to communicate and build relationships through new channels and, for those people that come to us live and in-person, we need to optimize their experience. Every organization will come up with different tactics, but Ken, and I believe our organization as a whole, have recognized that we need to look for sustainability through diversity, efficiency (though not rigidity under the guise of effectiveness), and developing measures of success.*

To quote Oliver Wyman’s article Strategic Organization Design: An Integrated Approach, “the last remaining source of truly sustainable competitive advantage lies in…the unique ways in which each organization structures its work and motivates its people to achieve clearly articulated objectives.”  I continue to wonder whether we could improve upon our organization’s sustainability by further transforming the ways in which we perform our work.

I’m going to give you two scenarios and I want you to tell me which describes an contemporary arts center and which describes a design firm. 

Place 1: Staff works on interdisciplinary project teams, with a flat organizational hierarchy. Communication occurs between project teams, in group lunches and larger meetings and through email, video conferences, and internal shared blogs. They work in a large open room, with "phone booths" available for private calls, and project spaces dedicated to each team to work closely and hang up ideas, posters and timelines. Casual socializing occurs in the open work area, and other opportunities for socializing occur over weekly teatimes, or impromptu staff-organized events.

Place 2: Staff is organized into departments by skills/type of work, including Marketing, Finance, Operations, etc.  Communication occurs mostly via email, shared documents, and one-on-one, department, and staff meetings. They work in cubicles, with the majority of senior staff located in offices around the main work area. Socializing happens informally at desks, in the kitchen/break room, and at endorsed events.
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Did you make your guess? Well, Place 1 is IDEO, a firm that uses human-centered design to help create or improve upon products, services, spaces, and experiences that sustain innovation and launch new ventures.  Place 2 is Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, my second home, a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contemporary arts center committed to artistic innovation, the exploration of ideas, and engaging our community. Although one exists in a for-profit sphere and the other in nonprofit, the organizations have similar driving mechanisms; they attempt to use creativity and the diversity of human experience to champion tools for our society to express themselves and function as a community. 

From Wyman’s perspective, IDEO has succeeded in harnessing its competitive advantage.  It has used design strategies to create a workplace that create an environment that caters to the employees, the clients, and the work that they do. The company further motivates the public to innovate with OpenIDEO, an online community where people can create solutions to some of the world’s challenges.

Under the ideas of innovation and resilience is a question that comes up occasionally for YBCA. Should our internal structure mirror the kind of creativity and experimentation we’re committed to in our programming? We’re certainly not like any Fortune 500 company- workwear includes jeans, home-baked goods are often brought in and shared, sometimes the occasional arm-wrestling match breaks out (think Over the Top meets The Office). But could our workspace and ways of working be improved upon? Looking at IDEO’s Human-Centered Design toolkit, I see some practices we’ve already adopted. Multidisciplinary teams have worked well for us for events to improve communication and tap into the organizational resources. Rough and fast prototypes have been attempted and have led to larger program shifts. With the YBCA:YOU pilot program, we are looking to hear directly from our constituents around their realities when engaging with our Center and it is my hope this will impact membership, community engagement, and even curatorial. 

But what if, say, our goal is to improve and streamline audience engagement. Can we replace departments with interdepartmental teams? Can those teams have dedicated spaces to work in-perhaps even a flat hierarchy and a single budget? Can those teams work independently to plan pilots and measure impact within finite timeframes? Are the needs, barriers and constraints within the organization understood by all involved so that they can be adequately represented on each team? And above all, can we look at these big picture goals while managing all the details it takes to support an 11M budget and produce approximately 10 exhibitions, 17 performance productions, 52 public programs, 170 screenings, and 125 commercial and community rental clients that have 600 events all in the course of one year?

It’s a bit of a radical idea, particularly because I’ve made it sound less complex than it would be in actuality. But after speaking with Alan Ratliff, Experience Manager for IDEO’s San Francisco office over lunch I became even more committed to the idea that YBCA needs to capitalize on its own advantages. As he explained his job, I saw that it touched many points that are segregated in traditional job responsibilities: facilities management, building a culture of community, and using creative prompts to facilitate communication between teams. Although it’s unlikely we’d end up looking exactly like them, the IDEO toolkit says, “wild ideas often create real innovation” and this meeting inspired me to continue to encourage and challenge YBCA to move down the path it started on in 2007.  When I joined YBCA, I did not think that innovation would become the trajectory for sustainability at my organization, so maybe we’re just the kind of place to try it.

Special thanks to Alan and Angelique Illusorio for talking to me about IDEO. Be on the lookout for them again when I talk about communication and audience engagement practices at some point in the future.

Homework:
Ken Foster’s article Thriving in an Uncertain World  

IDEO Human-Centered Design toolkit


*Developing measures of success is another post in itself, but I’ll give you something to think about. To communicate our necessity in the community at large (including funders), we have to be able to talk about the value of art. How do you quantify something that is not easily reduced to numbers?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Life may imitate art, but art just imitates TV

Although this blog was primarily conceived as part of a grant, one of the things I wanted to fold in are my activities as someone with an interest in the arts. More and more, the line between work and play has blurred and my career is inherently part of my identity outside the office. I guess I take it as a good sign even though I struggle with it. After all, I always said I wanted to have a job I could be passionate about.

Speaking of passions, I still hesitate to call myself an art collector but the fact is that artwork lines the wall of my apartment. There’s even a stack of framed and unframed work in the corner of my studio waiting to find a place. The underlying motivation behind the work I buy (outside of the obvious aesthetics) is that there is a story behind each piece. I may know the artist or gallery personally, or it represents the memory of a moment over the last 9 years I’ve lived and been involved in the arts in San Francisco. There’s something about the connection to both the person and the piece that really enhances the value for me. I look around the room and see different points and places in my life represented. Here’s one example.

 RTC, Guerrero Gallery, 2011
Image by Ken Harman of Hi-Fructose

I met Ryan Travis Christian (RTC) on a Thursday. A bunch of us were at Park Life, listening to Tommy Guerrero play as part of the Space Cake show by Kyle Field and Thomas Campbell, and browsing their spectacular book table (at least, I was).  The first thing I noticed was that Ryan had cartoon hands… literally. He was wearing a pair of rubber cartoon hands he brought with him from Chicago to install as part of his solo show Sad Sacks at Guerrero Gallery. But the more I talked to him, the more I found them appropriate. His animated personality came out immediately; he was exuberant and funny, unintentionally waving those hands around while telling a story. I liked him immediately. Friday we all met up again. This time, at Fecal Face Dot Gallery in the Lower Haight to see the show Ryan had curated there of Chicago-based artists called West, Wester, Westest. It’s an early night- a drink at Danny Coyle’s, a sausage at Rosamunde, and a long goodbye to everyone standing on Fillmore Street- before I head home and the folks go back to finalize Ryan’s show at Guerrero.

 The cartoon hands as part of a video installation
Image by Ken Harman of Hi-Fructose

Saturday is the big event. Ryan’s work is in the front- a large mural when you enter, framed pieces around the gallery, and a projection involving the aforementioned cartoon hands (pics here and here and here. I can’t do it justice). In Sound and Shape, Chris Duncan and Jason Michael Leggiere have built a modern harp-like instrument on a mirrored floor that people wander in and through plucking strings that emanate sound through the back room. 

The next few hours spent at the gallery are filled with old friends and new ones. Those of us left at the close head over to JaynBee Club for a few more drinks, some pool and conversation. As the bar closes, no one really seems to want to end the night. There’s the electricity of a successful show and good company. We head back to the gallery for a while until we finally call it a night. Except even then it’s not quite done. After hugs from RTC, I join a caravan of friends getting a ride home. Squeezed into a car with a bike encroaching over the back seat, hilarity continues all the way to my house where I get out, realizing that Daylight Savings Time has now made my bedtime 4:30AM. But it was worth it.

RTC works in graphite which is mind-blowing when you look at his art and realize it’s essentially done in pencil. A mix of sharp comic images within themes of sex, lawn care, parties, dreams, entertainment, petty crimes and cars are composed within abstract lines, patterns and shading. Some parts look erased while others are so darkly colored that it feels like he’s intentionally removing or covering things that may be too personal.  There’s definitely a story behind each piece and although he doesn’t like to explain everything behind the work, RTC promised to send me the details about the inspiration for the piece I was fortunate to purchase. Now, the real question is- where will I put it?

Ryan Travis Christian, "Haydays"
11.5" x15", graphite on paper