-- Happy Noodle Boy
There's not much to distinguish this Victorian from all the others on this modest slope of Potrero Hill except for the metal gate, which is handmade and conspicuously artful amidst the otherwise tatty façades. In San Francisco, this should be hint enough. Beyond the gate, a long dark corridor (known as the "poster hallway" for the collage work that runs overhead and down its length) leads under the main house, to a farm cottage overlooking a small garden. Stepping out of the shadows into the private world of Jaina Davis is not unlike suddenly stumbling into a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale: In this secluded sun-patch, wildflowers and untamed plants stretch their tendrils across the garden path; china-plate mosaics glimmer along the fences; weather-bleached murals adorn the walls; and mounds of polished stones and freshly packed earth mark the budding of fresh idyllic endeavors.
"Lots of people have keys to the house," says Jason Mecier, unlocking the cottage door. "There's always something to do, work to be done. In the house, in the garden, in the garage. This is how Grandma keeps her artist friends employed."
"Grandma Davis" is actually an attractive woman in her early 30s, but the pet name is pleasingly appropriate. Frequently attired in floral dresses and big hats, the self-proclaimed "eccentric heiress" displays no uncertain fondness for baking fresh pies and cookies, which she serves up to those she has occupied with creative projects. Consequently, friends come and go, dropping in to work, to talk, or simply to admire the latest enhancement.
Today, though, Davis is away and the house feels as if it has been deserted by one of Tennessee Williams' crumbling ingénues. Shafts of dusty sunlight creep across the living room floor, imbuing the peculiar jumble of junk-store bargains, graceful antiques, and pop art with the texture of aging newsprint. In one corner of the room, a gleaming Victrola stands forgotten, with its lid raised and its hand crank poised like an invitation; in another corner, a Domino's Pizza box made entirely of sequins offers a sparkling pie, long dried up and ornamented with sequined cheese and sequined pepperoni created by Kate Fenker. Upstairs, rooms reflect the infatuation and whimsy of various artists: a bathroom painted like a piece of 18th-century porcelain; a music room seasoned by opium; an attic room that reflects sunlight like a blood-red gemstone; another inlaid with a river of smooth stones and painted sky blue; a guest room reminiscent of a Victorian orphanage; Davis' own simple bedroom sporting garish carpet from Las Vegas' Circus Circus; and others, all sparsely furnished and in various states of completion. But these rooms are not my destination. Rather, it's the hallway leading to these rooms that I've come to admire, a work that has taken Jason Mecier five years to complete.
Thirty-four-year-old Jason Mecier was born into a crafty California family and duly inspired by his grandmother, whose weavings, stained glass, and driftwood sculptures are displayed throughout the Mission flat he now shares with artist boyfriend Adam Ansell. One of his earliest pieces of work, a tiny mosaic of kidney beans and pinwheel pasta, is nestled discreetly between the mantel and the utility shelves on his side of the home studio, which is designated by a proliferation of hot-glue gun refills, plastic bins, and vintage Hamburger Helper packaging.
"I guess that was the beginning," says Mecier with an unassuming shrug. "I did it with my grandmother when I was 5."
Easily the world's pre-eminent creator of bean-and-noodle art, Jason Mecier is a large man with the smile and temper of a bashful child, and an uncanny knack for capturing pop-culture ephemera through beans, pasta, yarn, candy, and everyday detritus. His celebrity portraits have been a staple of San Francisco's kitschy-art set for more than a decade; his tactile representations of Mary Tyler Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Tammy Faye Bakker, the Golden Girls, the Dukes of Hazzard, Pamela Anderson, Belva Davis, Carol Channing, and Helen Gurley Brown have adorned walls in Glama-Rama, La Luz de Jesus, Adobe Books, Intersection for the Arts, Southern Exposure, ArtRock, San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; commissions include countless concert posters (everyone from the Spice Girls to Willie Nelson), birthday portraits (for Björk et al.), album art (check out the Flying Lizards), and a disturbing vegetable-and-dip platter made to resemble Martha Stewart. And still he is underappreciated.
"It can be a little depressing," says Mecier, speaking of his recent attempt to meet Farrah Fawcett upon completing a 9-by-12-foot reproduction of her famous swimsuit poster, composed completely of original Fawcett merchandise, for a Yerba Buena exhibit. "I scrambled to get the posters ready on time, drove all the way to L.A., hung out at the bookstore all day, stood in line for hours, and they wouldn't even let me show her the poster. You know, if I were famous, like Andy Warhol or something, her people would be contacting me, but as it is I'm just a creepy celebrity stalker. She's still my favorite, though." Other celebrities have been more encouraging. An effusive card from Tammy Faye Bakker expresses interest in Mecier's wish to make a portrait out of Bakker's used makeup containers.
"I'd love all the portraits to be a collaboration between me and the subject," says Mecier, who has produced on average one portrait a month for almost 15 years. "Right now, I just imagine what I might find in their drawers, and choose items accordingly."
In a black-and-blue portrait of Farrah Fawcett as Francine Hughes in The Burning Bed, Mecier includes Skyy Vodka, Ex-Lax, a blue hairdryer, Bufferin, spermicide, Motel 6 matches, Alka-Seltzer, McDonald's Filet-O-Fish wrappers, Secret antiperspirant, a Parliament cigarette box (from his grandmother), and his boyfriend's expired California ID. For one of his more sedate pieces (and my personal favorite), Mecier chooses keys, rusted staplers, old television remotes, straight razors, and light bulbs to perfectly conjure the expression and mien of Rod Serling. His portrait of Sissy Spacek as Carrie -- one of his new monster series, which includes Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil and John Hurt as the Elephant Man -- is unmistakable and very disturbing, even though the garish hue is derived from such innocuous items as Lipton beef flavor noodle soup, Gillette shaving cream, and ketchup packages. Comprised of her own merchandise, Charo practically wiggles and jiggles off the wall, while the all-too-recently-deceased Josh Ryan Evans (Timmy on Passions) is respectfully framed in plastic flowers. Nancy Sinatra has a perfect complexion made of alphabet soup noodles spelling out the lyrics from "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." And Helen Gurley Brown reflects the strange inflexibility of her old age, complete with a leaking hairspray can.
"Yep, a few of them have provided some little surprises," says Mecier, indicating the black portrait of New York City catwoman Jocelyn Wildenstein. "That one started oozing black pumpkin filling when it was on display. Angie Dickinson had weevils. I used to be a purist, but now I empty the packages and reseal them. I don't mind their little tricks, but customers don't always agree."
Mecier opens one of many plastic bins piled on the floor and rifles through gold and black treasures left in garbage bags by friends, found in gutters, or brought home from salvage yards. Inspired by even the most unlikely castoffs, Mecier has an entire drawer filled with used toothbrushes and a pair of burned-up panties that he found in a field.
"I'm not freaked out by ooky stuff," says Mecier, thoughtfully selecting a brass coat hook and holding it up to a picture of Louis Armstrong, seeking out its perfect complement in contour and shadow. "I'll use just about anything."
Except for, maybe, pencils.
Mecier doesn't recall how he and Jaina Davis decided on pencils for the hallway (Davis has, in fact, always preferred pens), but once it was decided, there was no going back. Graphite, rubber, and wood would become the primary media for the walls, banisters, ceiling, doors, and window frames, rising up three stories over the course of five years.
In another town, this could be proudly considered the lifetime work of an office-supply maniac: Faux-flocked bordello "pencilpaper" wall finishing gives way to more respectable green and gold, with white pencil trim. A photo-perfect pencil portrait of Davis in old-lady drag peers over a garden of pencil pinwheels and pencil sunflowers growing out of pencil-sharp grass in the crown molding. Wind chimes made of rulers and fringe made of mechanical pencils hang from a ceiling covered in a kaleidoscope of geometric shapes of varying hues. A cactus forest of compasses sticks out of one corner, near elegant wall sconces made of pencils, for holding pencils and a built-in notepad where a message from Davis is still scribbled. "Jason, whatcha gonna do wit dat windah?" it reads. The window frame emerges, looking like Indian beadwork, light catching the metal rings around the eraser tips. Overhead, a giant yellow arrow demands attention against a motley background. Polka dots and art deco flowers; butterflies and castle turrets; recessed cubbyholes and harlequin wainscoting; doors covered in erasers and running boards decorated with playing-card suits; on and on it goes, until, at the top of the third flight of stairs, we come to a small picture frame holding a children's song written by 19th-century composer E.O. Excell. It's called "The Pencil's Lament."
"No other creature carries/ With it, at all times/ The source of its/ Own negation," go the lyrics.
Mecier chuckles and opens a cardboard box, withdrawing a big handful of pencils.
"Just some last little details," he says with a smile.