Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.

Artists are everywhere we look in the San Francisco Bay Area. They wait the café tables where we eat. They staff the markets where we shop. And when their shifts are done, they create. They paint, dance, play music, and make film to nurture their souls, to share with others, and possibly — just possibly — to make money enough to fund more art. Making money may be the hardest part of being an artist in the high-priced Bay Area. Which is why SF Weekly's annual Masterminds competition exists. Every year we give grants to emerging artists. As always, we welcomed scores of submissions. That was the easy part. The hard part? Narrowing them to a bona fide Top 10.

SF Weekly is still deciding which three of these 10 artists will get our Masterminds grants (the winners will be announced at our Artopia event on Feb. 16), but here are our finalists. These are the artists who our judges felt deserved more attention. These are the artists whose work inspired us toward a moment of transfixion. These are the artists who — young in age or young in spirit — are approaching a new point in their careers. Some of these artists are just beginning their professional lives. Others have established themselves but are taking a new direction — a leap of faith whose end is unclear.

If anything unites these 10 artists, it's that their art took a chance, that it dared the world to take notice. On that level, they have already succeeded in a big, big way.

The Icelandic Illustrator:
Baldur Helgason
Portrait of a Man with his Goose by Baldur Helgason

A couple of months ago, Baldur Helgason was watching the British TV show Quite Interesting (otherwise known as QI), a funny quiz spectacle hosted by Stephen Fry, when Helgason was inspired to draw the wry, witty actor as a kind of cigarette-wielding monstrosity. This Stephen Fry has sinking, wrinkly jowls, a nose that looks kicked in, and an oversized hand that splays toward the viewer. "I accidentally drew him a lot older and creepier," Helgason announced on his Tumblr blog, where he regularly posts his elaborate drawings. Helgason's Tumblr elicits a regular stream of positive responses from visitors who share his love of visual exaggeration.

An Iceland native who graduated last year from San Francisco's Academy of Art University's MFA Illustration program, Helgason frequently populates his illustrations with people who are older and bulbous. A pencil-thin umbrella-holder would fit into nicely in a film like Yellow Submarine or a book like The Phantom Tollbooth. Helgason says his aesthetic stems from his upbringing in Iceland, where stories of trolls are still common enough to dominate a young person's imagination.

"Troll folktales got stuck in me, and that's where the old people come into it," says Helgason, 27, who studied graphic design at the Iceland Academy of Arts in Reykjavík before moving to San Francisco four years ago. "When I went to illustration school here, the American way of illustrating is more clean, with kind of Superman-eseque things," he says. "But take the Icelandic mentality — it's more distorted and rough. As an 8-year-old boy, I was reading stories about beheadings in front of trolls. These kinds of twisted stories are brutal. They definitely influence Icelandic arts."

The Destination Artist:
Laurie Halsey Brown
A mixed-media triptych by Laurie Halsey Brown

In the Netherlands, interdisciplinary artist Laurie Halsey Brown created a webcast and poster project to explore that nation's controversies over the legality of squatting. In New York City, she made a video installation that let viewers gaze down from the World Trade Center towers destroyed on 9/11. (She had taken the footage just the day before the terrorist attacks.) And in Japan — Brown's latest art-project destination — she crisscrossed the country to take photos and gather found objects. Wherever she goes, Brown is conscious of what she calls "a sense of place" — which is basically anything (a building, a person in the street, a scrap of paper, even a feeling) that gives meaning to her destination.

In a triptych from Brown's series, "Honoring Japan's 'sense of place,'" she juxtaposes two photographs of pedestrians scurrying through a crowded Japanese intersection with an intoxicating multi-patterned textile. The blueish pavement, white-striped crosswalks, and patterns of people in the photographs complement the textile's blues, whites, and grids. In another triptych, Brown reverses the photo/non-photo order: Two watercolors with sea-blue blotches segue into an image of two people sitting over a canal. By juxtaposing disparate scenes, Brown — who graduated with an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1990 and lives in San Francisco — lets viewers delve deeper into her subjects. Each "Japan" work is titled with a haiku. "When I'm in a place," she says, "it's not just seeing one thing — it's a layering of different things, with lots of different elements."

The Biblical Artist:
Jon Kuzmich
Song of Solomon by Jon Kuzmich

In the past few years, the Bible has enjoyed renewed scrutiny from a bevy of artists and writers. Esquire scribe A.J. Jacobs headed the parade with his book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, a comical look at religious adherence in a modern age of Starbucks, tempting sex, and widespread snark. Now comes Jon Kuzmich's "Logos," which reduces the Holy Book to a series of dot patterns. Born in Kentucky and raised in Kansas in what he describes as a "very religious Southern Baptist" home, Kuzmich, 34, graduated last year with an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and almost immediately plunged ahead with his deconstruction of the religious text he grew up with.

As Kuzmich puts it, he's "painting all 4.3 million characters of the King James Bible," including "consonants, vowels, spaces, symbols and numbers," as dots onto 66 plastic panels. Framed this way, the Bible is morphed into an abstract belief system, to be studied like any other system. Kuzmich has also applied his critical dot-art to the history of capitalism. He says that his "Logos" project doesn't try to explicitly blame or praise religion. Still, the San Francisco resident proclaims, "I always had many doubts.... I'm very much interested in delusion and the mechanics of mass delusion, and I'm very interested in how as human beings we can be ensnared by the very system and structure that we create."

The Photographer Who Paints Herself:
Lisa Alonzo
White Russian by Lisa Alonzo

The swirls, curves, and patchwork of dots that comprise Lisa Alonzo's The Amuse Bouche 2.0 turn Alonzo's body into an illuminating road map of art history. Alonzo's arms, calves, and thighs — intensely speckled with burgundies, reds, and magentas — harken back to the pointillism of Georges Seurat. Her side is replete with sharp spirals that would easily fit into the psychedelic poster art of the 1960s. And the title? That's straight from the 21st century, a nod to the artistic ethos that says you can borrow from across disciplines — in this case food and technology — to create your own new language. It's art as a melting pot of ideas. It's art that comments on the artist and society at large. And it's art whose composition — it started as a photographic self-portrait, then was manipulated by photo software, then was painted with acrylic — prompts you to ask, "Who else is doing work like this?"

The Amuse Bouche 2.0 isn't a one-off. All of Alonzo's pieces from "The Narcissist" series, which include The Amuse Bouche 2.0, incorporate that same fresh synthesis, with Alonzo in different poses, covered in different states of paint. To get the specks just right, she squeezes the acrylic with a pastry tip, so that the surface resembles delectable cake frosting. In images that include her face, Alonzo avoids smiling. There's nothing "come hither" or effervescent in her manner, which disconnects these images from the kind of smiley "Facebook Narcissism" that Alonzo is partly digging at. "I'm poking fun at the number of people who are flaunting what's going on in their lives and turning a blind eye to what else is going on in the world," says Alonzo, 27, who graduated with a BFA in painting from San Francisco's Academy of Art University in 2008 and now lives in Alameda. "It's certainly different from 10 years ago."

The Eclectic Singer:
Meklit Hadero
Meklit Hadero

It's not just the voice, which is both soothing and rapturous. It's not just the guitar-playing, which can veer from folksy to swingy to everything in between. It's also the sentiment and the lyrics that pour out of Meklit Hadero's songs — words that narrate gorgeously transportive thoughts like this from her tune "Walk Up": "And you suddenly think of the kings/ And the poets in the past/ And how they must have felt just like this/ On a day like this." "Walk Up" comes from her 2010 release, On a Day Like This ..., an album that ascended many critics' music lists, including those at NPR and the Huffington Post.

Hearing it for the first time, some people will swear they hear echoes of Joni Mitchell in Hadero's voice. Others will swear they hear the vocal stylings of Beth Orton. And still others will swear they hear the legacy of Nina Simone. All these references bear some truth, as Hadero's influences include jazz, soul, hip-hop, art-rock, folk, and music from her native Ethiopia. "Multiplicity is at the core of everything you hear," says the 31-year-old Hadero. "When you look at anyone's iPod and iTunes, it's not just the one era that's crossing. We're not the generation that's listening to one thing. We shouldn't be the generation that makes one thing."

Hadero came to San Francisco by way of New York, Iowa, and Florida (where she was raised); New Haven, Conn. (where she attended Yale); and Ethiopia (where she was born). The last three years have been dizzying for her. In 2009, Hadero was named a TED Global Fellow and an artist-in-residence at the de Young Museum. Last year, she was named an artist-in-residence at New York University and a TED Senior Fellow for 2012. Touring is now a regular part of her life, along with releasing more albums. Her next one — a collaboration with other Ethiopian-American artists — is scheduled for later this year, and this one is much more groove-oriented, showing yet another side of her musical abilities.

The Outdoor Dance Troupe:
detour dance
detour dance’s Pedestrian Crossing

Some people stare in disbelief. Whether it's the beginning of the dance, the middle, or the end, they just keep staring, amazed that two young dancers — Eric Garcia and Kat Cole — are performing on the streets of San Francisco. Cole says staring is as great a reaction as applause. "People usually just stop and watch and wonder what the heck is going on," she says. "That's the reaction you want to elicit."

Cole, 23, and Garcia, 22, are the artistic directors of detour dance, a company they founded after meeting as students at the University of San Francisco. Together the two have chemistry and perfect comic timing — a combination that's rare in the world of dance. In their work-in-progress video "Pedestrian Crossing," Garcia and Cole sit at a table they put in the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, where they employ arm gestures and other maneuvers to dance with each other and wrestle with a teapot.

At one point, Garcia is at the corner of Fell and Baker waiting for the light to change. Bikes, taxis, and trucks pass by. We see a homeless person pushing a shopping cart. Yet the show continues, as Garcia and a troupe of pedestrians around her dance in unison and opposition.

Whether it's the park or the beach or some other venue, Garcia and Cole say getting out in public environs turns those spaces into venues akin to Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. "We're trying," Cole says, "to explore spaces that you pass by every day."

The Landscape Painter:
Michelle Tholen
Curving Rier #5 by Michelle Tholen

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau waxes eloquent about the lure of nature, including the inspiration he got from light, writing of a moment when the woods "were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead, if they had been slumbering in their graves, as some suppose. There needs no stronger proof of immortality. All things must live in such a light." It's that sort of natural light that Michelle Tholen captures in her paintings, a light that inspires even as it is presented without sentiment. In the wrong artistic hands, sunsets and waning moments of daylight can become cliché and mawkish. (See the work of Thomas Kinkade. Or try not to.) Tholen's landscapes are timeless riffs that almost abstract the horizon — a mix between reflection and refraction.

Her work speaks to the deep connection between sky and physical earth, as in Smooth River, where a winding waterway is bathed in the falling sun that peeks from above. The division of sky and ground give Tholen's landscape paintings an ethereal feeling and a balanced symmetry. Surprisingly, Tholen is self-taught. A San Francisco resident, she graduated with a degree in accounting in 1997 and worked as an accountant for three years before embracing painting. She found a niche in landscapes one day in 2002, after she finished a climb at Samuel P. Taylor Park in West Marin, peered at the sky, and was taken by the sheen it made on nearby water. Before that day, Tholen said she was feeling "lost" in her life. Her first landscape painting was a chance to recreate "a moment I fell in love with." The subsequent paintings seem to capture that same momentous feeling.

The Evocative Dancer:
Dohee Lee
Dohee Lee in GaNADa

A hat made of suitcases that open up. A giant mask of a woman's face with cheeks that bulge out like balloons. Dance moves that stampede across the stage but also decelerates to a pace that seems like slow motion. When Dohee Lee performs these dances inspired by Korean and Western traditions, it's impossible to take your eyes off her. Even people who know nothing about Korea's music and dance traditions are taken in by the unique visual touches, music, and movement that Lee creates. Her dance is cinematic. It's also shamanic — an homage to spirits and past lives that come alive in her hand gestures, costumes, and leaps from one spot to the next. This blend of modern and ancient, of West and East, inspires much of the Oakland resident's work, including her series called "Mago," named for a mother-goddess of Korean mythology but steeped in Lee's personal story.

Born on Jeju Island in South Korea, where shamanic tradition is popular, Lee has danced professionally since 1996. She has a master's in Korean traditional music and dance from Korea's Yong-in University. "It's about interconnectedness," Lee says of "Mago." "It's about birth, self-discovery, confrontation, action, and re-birth." At Lee's performances, the music that she composes — full of beautifully dissonant notes (think Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass) — is enough to draw in audiences. In fact, Lee has sung with the Kronos Quartet. She has also presented her work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Carnegie Hall in New York, and has received grants from such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts. "I always think I'm emerging as an artist," she says. "I'm always developing work that I can do much better."

The Experimental Photographer-Filmmaker:
Eliane Lima
Movie still from Eliane Lima‘s Djinn

There's something hard to place when you see an Eliane Lima photo or film. Where exactly did she take that image of the young girls on the street — the one where one is playing contentedly with a hoop while another looks like she's going to cry in pain? And what exactly is that film about — the one called Djinn that shows a mysterious series of mannequins that seem as alive as the people who stand there in the night air? We aren't really told. And that's how Lima prefers it. She wants the audience to bring their own interpretations, their own feelings, to her imagery. "When the artist does not give work to us as a finished statement with explanations," Lima, 45, a Brazilian native, has said, "a different kind of relationship is created between the images and the audience, switching it from recognition to engagement with the piece."

There are certainly clues in Lima's work that advertise her philosophy. In the opening of Djinn, Lima quotes the existentialist musings of French experimental filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet — about how a well-rehearsed first scene can be suddenly followed by emptiness, then repeated again with the first scene, which forces a viewer to ask about the purpose of the scene itself. Get it? It works when you see Djinn, which Lima made in 2008, before her current enrollment in the MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute. The photo of the girls, one of whom is Lima's daughter, is from a series called "Alexys Project," which takes viewers to a low-income housing project where single-mother Lima lived. Shot in black and white, the photos capture scenes that are universal to every class and culture — children and families getting on with their lives as best they can. Living in the same complex with her subjects gives Lima's photos an intimacy that is instantly recognizable.

The Wine Photographer:
Eric Cohen
Making of Shoe Wine #1 by Eric Cohen

At the dawn of the 20th century, black-and-white photographs of wine and winemaking tended to be predictable, often just images of happy people holding up wine glasses. Eric Cohen's work is a radical bookend to those early photos. Under his lens, the processes of harvesting, fermentation, and bottling are turned into cosmological panoramas. Wine gurgles to the surface like volcanic bubbles about to explode. Swirls of vino turn into clouds of pinks that resemble the aurora borealis. Even grape fields are blurred and re-imagined as dreamy landscapes.

It's proximity that lets Cohen get so close to his subject: He's the owner and winemaker of the micro-winery called Shoe Shine Wine, based in the Mission District. Winemaking has been Cohen's occupation since 2003. Two decades earlier, at age 13, he started taking images with a camera that his uncle gave him. "Photography and winemaking share the same intersection of art and science, and I have been consumed by both for a long time," he says. "Both are expressions of ethereal moments that can never be repeated in the same way again."

Cohen's artistry extends to his bottles, which were included in SFMOMA's recent "How Wine Became Modern" exhibit. Instead of the industry-standard bottle-tops, Cohen uses "fabric capsules" — coverings that are distinct wraps of fabric. The timing seems right for Cohen, 43, to enter a new artistic phase in his life. Before submitting his portfolio to SF Weekly, Cohen — a single father of a 5-year-old boy — had never seriously shown his full body of work to anyone. "I was taking pictures of winemaking to document the process for people and allow people to get some sort of sense when I was making wine, and it largely grew into something just for me," he says. "I never even printed them. It's been 10 years in the making."

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It is hard to compare these artists, given the difference in their media. The most exciting, as far as I can tell from these photos, are performancers Doho Lee, the dancers, one of which is a wheelchair and the singer/guitarist Hadero. But I am influenced by the beauty of the photographs: that of those two dancers - Wow!, and the photo and description of the performance of Doho Lee is great. And the singer/guitarist Hadero looks like she is terrific.

Elaine Starkman
Elaine Starkman

Grand. Despite all the difficulties of our time, here is guy who has done somethingwith himself. Thanks for running this. Elaine

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