Nathan Richard Phelps’ Street Art Is Whatever You Want It to Be

1625 Shattuck Ave. (by Virginia Street) in Berkeley looks like a city plan to some people, an apartment complex to others.

Whether in a small notebook or the wall of a three-story building, Nathan Richard Phelps starts with a simple artistic shape — a line, say, or a curve or a square — then draws another one. And another. And then another. The shapes will create a larger pattern of shapes as they expand outward, and as Phelps tweaks any of his new smaller shapes. Newer patterns emerge atop the old ones. Phelps doesn’t plan the finished work. It just emerges from the repetition — like a journey into the unknown that creates a known.

“When I’m doing the work that I do, I’m often thinking along the lines of how to be able to express emotions visually, without obvious visual reference,” Phelps tells SF Weekly. “I like the idea of not representing a work with any objects of scenes or depictions of a reality that you can easily refer to.”

Phelps named 1625 Shattuck after the address of the building whose owners (a real estate firm called Cohen Rojas Capital Partners) commissioned the work. Some of the building planners who work at 1625 Shattuck Ave. say they see 1625 Shattuck as an architectural study. Not to be too existential about it, but Phelps says that 1625 Shattuck is whatever people think it is. The work gets a lot of traffic because of its high-traffic location on one of Berkeley’s most central corridors.

As Phelps was finishing it in early October, “The building planners came out and said, ‘Oh, this is so cool that you did an abstraction off of a city plan.’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh, that’s not what I was thinking at all, but that’s cool it happened to work out that way,’ ” Phelps says. “And there’s another real estate firm there and they said, ‘Oh, this looks like a layout for apartment complexes.’ However people want to relate to it is perfectly fine with me.”  

Phelps, who’s 41 and lives in San Francisco, has been making art for 20 years, but it’s been the last year or so that his art has been in high demand, with commissions and other projects around the Bay Area and internationally. Among his other work is a wall of curved lines at 247 South Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco whose inner density and outer splays create an arresting labyrinth, as if it were some kind of psychedelic eclipse. Phelps doesn’t have a formal background in art or mysticism. But his works seem to combine the two practices.  

“I find that when I really restrict myself to something really intensely, it forces my attention to really go deeply into the creative process — and within that experience, an emotion comes out that does relate to some sort of transcendent order that’s not obvious at all,” he says. “And that’s something you really see in the Shattuck piece. There’s this ascension toward some sort of higher realm. It’s weird because I don’t have these ideas consciously. I am very mystically oriented. I do have a deep obsession with the mystical traditions from all the different cultures. How that comes out in these patterns of shapes is interesting, but I don’t know why or how or what the process is, which is part of the exploration that keeps it interesting for me.”

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