Know Your Street Art: Unhoused Men Paint ‘Plein Air’ at BART Station

Untitled, 1 Montgomery St.

Jonathan Knowell and his friend Jaz. (Photo by Jonathan Curiel)

On a recent Wednesday, as the sky was turning to dusk and people were rushing along Market Street to get home, Jonathan Knowell and his friend Jaz painted a canvas they’d placed on an overhang of BART’s Montgomery Street station. Knowell and Jaz were using the kind of paint brushes and paints that every good artist uses, but their canvas was entirely different: They’d made it from the sides of cardboard boxes, which they’d stitched together with tape. Knowell and Jaz have used similar boxes to sleep in. Both men have suffered through bouts of homelessness. Both men are artists.

The painting they were finishing that Wednesday evening was pretty damn good — a combination of graffiti-influenced calligraphic lettering, waves of undulating horizontal columns, and colorful circles and swirls. The impromptu painting — both abstract and figurative — was street art at its best. Passersby would ask Knowell and Jaz about their approach, and both men gladly interrupted their work to gab.

“People inspire me, especially down here, because I live here,” Knowell told SF Weekly as he took a break from painting with Jaz.

Knowell said he and Jaz were fortunate to make art in the open. They are also fortunate to be alive. Jaz, who was a shoe-shine worker at the corner of Market and Sutter streets, was seriously injured a year ago when a cab plowed into his shoeshine stand and crashed into him and the stand’s co-owner, Saleem Bey. Jaz is still recovering, and art is one of his outlets. Ditto for Knowell, who says he’s 52 and sleeps in Downtown San Francisco doorways most nights. He’s had a rough life, and has tried to commit suicide three times, he says. Each day can be a struggle, but on that Wednesday evening, he was excited about the painting, and excited to converse with strangers who were interested in their art. They posed for photos.

“For Jaz, it’s a form of therapy,” Knowell said. “And for me, too. Him after the car accident. And me after I tried to kill myself.”

“I live in a doorway,” Knowell said, adding that Jaz has found housing. “The whole Earth is my turf. We met after his accident. I started doing shoe-shines next. We’ve known each other about a year.”

For 10 minutes, Knowell spoke to SF Weekly, and then he went back to the BART entrance to do his collaborative art piece. Knowell and Jaz’s paint tubes and canisters lined the top of the BART overhang. They kneeled on the street as they painted their cardboard piece. They also stood at times. In traditional art terms, Knowell and Jaz were doing “plein air” painting, just like Monet and Renoir and scores of other artists whose works are now in venerable museums. But these other artists’ works are in permanent collections. At some point that night, Knowell and Jaz took down their cardboard painting. Or maybe BART officials asked them to remove it. Whatever the reason, their canvas was gone by the next morning, and it has not reappeared since. Knowell says he Jaz will paint at different locations, including Golden Gate Park.

“It depends,” he says. “We look for little areas that might inspire one of us. There’s nothing solid or concrete that will cause us to choose a place.”

Asked about the work’s title and its style, Knowell says, “I wouldn’t know how to label it, because I’ve never studied art. If you ask me what ‘abstract’ is, I’d have to Google it.”  

Jaz is actually color-blind, but his condition doesn’t prevent him from doing colorful art, Knowell says: “If he starts off with a yellow, I make sure he’s not off. If he goes in a certain direction, I’ll put a color in his hand. And I’ll make sure he stays on that line. Basically I’m his eyes sometimes.

“He was depressed after that accident,” Knowell adds, but, “I told him, ‘You can do anything, man.’ ”

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