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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Absurdity, Street Art, and Millions of Dots: the Finalists for Three SF Weekly Grants

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge artopia_banner.jpg

SF Weekly's Artopia highlights exceptional Bay Area artists. More than 300 people submitted entries this year for three $1,500 grants that we call "Masterminds." We received a lot of deserving work, and choosing 10 finalists was difficult. Painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and a quilter made our Top 10. Their art will be displayed at Artopia, which takes place tonight at Public Works. The Mastermind winners will be announced to fanfare and, we know, a great deal of applause.

We've posted short items about our finalists every day this week. Here are the final three:

James Shefik

click to enlarge Worship - JAMES SHEFIK
  • James Shefik
  • Worship
At 5:30 a.m. one day, James Shefik was in his car at the Bay Bridge toll plaza, on his way to work, when he saw a 18-wheel truck bearing an ad that announced: "Drink responsibly." He says, "Somehow, 'Hate responsibly' just hit me all of a sudden. I thought, 'This is really good.'" The moment happened in December 2009, prompting the sculptor and mixed-media artist to incorporate those words in a darkly humorous work made out of pieces that look exactly like matchsticks.

For Shefik, inspiration comes from disparate sources, including social affairs. In the wake of 9/11, he made what looks like a bomb that has been mailed. The explosive device, covered with Cesar Chavez postage stamps and a Post Office date stamp, features sharpened pencils sticking out through the brown wrapping. Shefik says this absurdist work was a response to a governmental airport notice that warned passengers not to bring bombs onto planes. In general, he says, "much of my work deals with how easily swayed we are and how fast we're moving (as a society), how we're losing things, like things made by hand, and the ability to think and work in an old analog way."

Shefik, who is about to turn 50, has focused seriously on making art since 2003, but he has worked with paints and wood most of his professional life -- first as a carpenter building stage and theater sets, and for many years now as a "scenic painter" doing work on movie, TV and trade-show sets. He did painting for the set of Milk, which stars Sean Penn. 

"I've been drawing all my life," says Shefik, who was raised in Carmel and lives in Oakland. "I was always good with my hands and good at drawing, but I never had much to say." That changed as Shefik got older, and he has exhibited his work at professional spaces several times in the past year. Hate Responsibly, whose matchsticks are designed to show "how words and emotions can instantly burn into people," has since been sold, along with a similar work that features the word "Worship" on the hull of a battleship. There's more where these pieces came from, says Shefik, who describes himself as a "sensitive, curious pessimist."

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Aaron D. Guadamuz
click to enlarge A still from Yuichi: The Beginning of the End. - AARON D. GUADAMUZ
  • Aaron D. Guadamuz
  • A still from Yuichi: The Beginning of the End.
Dots. Hundreds of thousands of dots. For two years, Aaron D. Guadamuz made each dot by hand, for an animated film about a postnuclear world navigated by an electronics expert wearing an antenna helmet and dark glasses. A man named Yuichi and his dog search for the part that will make his TV work, then he encounters a giant flesh-eating fish and a two-headed oddity with a blowtorch. Yuichi: The Beginning of the End, which takes place in Japan, is set to edgy sounds and music that accentuate the funny, postapocalyptic scenes. The movie is only eight and a half minutes long, but it's an epic length by hand-design animation or stop-motion standards, says Guadamuz, which is why it took two years (and two million dots) to make.

"I stayed indoors, and a lot of people haven't seen me for a couple of years," he says, half-jokingly. "I put everything aside and just knew I had to sit there and do this." His wife is from Japan and has a family member who inspired the title character.

Guadamuz, 36, grew up in San Mateo County and moved to San Francisco in 1998. He teaches experimental animation at Academy of Art University. He has drawn actively since he was 17, but he began focusing seriously on animation five years ago. He worked at Napster, helping design software script that allowed visually impaired people to use the music-sharing site. For several years he worked for animator Bruce Bickford, best known for collaborating with Frank Zappa. It was Los Angeles experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger who told Guadamuz to pursue his dot-drawing film with the utmost seriousness.

Guadamuz, who describes Yuichi as a "sci-fi noir," is looking to have it screened at film festivals. People may not get some of its visual references (including one to a Japanese murder case), but Yuichi has no legible words so the film doesn't need translation. "In the traditional way of doing cartoons and animation, I don't know if I'll be accepted by the animation community," Guadamuz says. "I was just trying to make something for me."

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Hugh Leeman
click to enlarge Benz - HUGH LEEMAN
  • Hugh Leeman
  • Benz
"Street artist" is one way to describe Hugh Leeman, but so is "T-shirt artist," because he runs a program in which at-risk people sell shirts with images of his art. The sellers keep all the profits in the arrangement, which was modeled after San Francisco's Street Sheet program. Leeman's art showcases people who are themselves from the streets -- like Blue, the harmonica player who performs at the Powell Street cable-car turnaround; and Benz, the goateed, Yankees-cap-wearing man who Leeman painted with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Benz passed away a few years ago, but his likeness remains one of Leeman's most popular designs -- whether it's on a T-shirt or the kind of wheatpaste poster he puts up on walls around San Francisco and beyond. Leeman says his work makes his subjects more visible to people who might not think twice about them.

"I've found throughout my life that some of the poorest people I've met are quite frankly the most generous people I've met," says Leeman, who lives in the Tenderloin, where he meets many of his subjects. "There is something altruistic that I'm doing, in giving back to the community and helping people, but I'm definitely getting something out of it, including their friendship."

Increasingly, Leeman's work is appearing in galleries and other art spaces, as at the Artbox Gallery in Indiana (he grew up in the state). Still, street art remains his central passion. Lately, he has been putting matrix bar codes on his street posters, which lets people with smartphones connect to a website that funds the T-shirt project. (For two years, Leeman paid for the program himself.) Last month, attorneys representing the DreamWorks movie studio asked Leeman's permission to include his street posters in a scene of a Meryl Streep movie being filmed in Los Angeles. Leeman has never visited L.A. Someone had downloaded the free poster images from Leeman's website, printed them, and put them up on Melrose Avenue.

"It was cool," says Leeman, who declines to give his age or have his face seen in public photographs. But he will say he has never been formally trained in art, graduating only from high school: "You sit at home and you're designing your web site, and you think, 'Who the hell is going to care?' Well, somebody did." 

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Jonathan Curiel

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