Masterminds 2011: SF Weekly Recognizes Local Artists

Now in its fourth year, SF Weekly's Artopia is continuing its efforts to spotlight Bay Area artists who deserve more attention. Vying for three $1,500 grants, more than 300 people — a record number — submitted entries.

Our judges looked at paintings, posters, films, sculptures, photographs, cards, calligraphy, books, dances, fashion designs, installations, and other artwork — all of which moved us in one way or another. Though it was difficult to make a decision, make one we did. For now, there are 10 finalists, each of whom wants to be the next artist to make it big.

The Bay Area has always been an incubator of acclaimed art. Ansel Adams, Richard Diebenkorn, Raymond Saunders, and Ruth Asawa are just a few who have been deemed masters of their craft. “Masterminds” is what we call the Artopia winners.

This year's Artopia is being celebrated at Public Works, whose building at 161 Erie St. (near 14th and Mission streets) has a painted tree and bird courtesy of Banksy. Other street artists followed Banksy to the same spot, adding giant ants, perennials, and more. Art inspiring other art. These Artopia finalists can cite influences from far and wide, but their vision is uniquely their own. Painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and a quilter — a heavy-metal quilter, at that — are in our Top 10. All their art will be displayed at Public Works, where the three top winners will be announced to fanfare and, we know, a great deal of applause.

Your Masterminds finalists:


A photo from Mindo Cikanavicius “Lost In Daydreams” series.

In a series of Mindo Cikanavicius' photographs titled “Lost in Daydreams,” people seem to be hovering in air — whether it's on the street, in their apartments, or in some other enclosed spaces. In a follow-up series, people are also doing unusual things, such as reading while standing in the middle of an ocean, or wearing a large dunce cap while walking by an industrial building.

“The idea is to convey being lost in thought and being lost in surroundings,” says Cikanavicius, whose photos are staged using a combination of professional actors and first-time volunteers. Cikanavicius, who graduated last year with an MFA in photography from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, says cinema — particularly the films of David Lynch “and his moods and atmospheres” — influenced his style. He also cites fashion and fine-art photography as influences.

“Lost in Daydreams” was his thesis project at the Academy of Art. Each photo features the same person in three different poses or states of being. To make his subjects appear to float, Cikanavicius had them jump up and fall on a mattress; he captured the jumps in midair, and then digitally excised the mattress from the photos. He would do multiple exposures. He wanted, he says, “to show the person being in three different positions: mind, body, and soul. After that project, I decided to use one person in one image, or a couple of people in one image, but to use props.”

Cikanavicius, 34, grew up in Lithuania and now lives in San Francisco. He was trained in traditional photography, though he was first pushed into painting: “When I was a kid, I tried to draw but I didn't get any good results,” he says. “I studied photography when I was a teen, and at that time, it was more documenting friends and places — basically snap-shooting. I had a passion for it. But over the years, I noticed how I can create staged things to convey a creative idea.” Cikanavicius would like to get into filmmaking, but his photography already has movie-making elements. As he puts it, “Everything is now directed in my photographs. [What type of] cameras I use is not as important. It's more about ideas.”


Still from Jeremy Rourke’s stop-motion animated short film, Out to See.

In the stop-motion film Out to See, a cutout of a man in a trench coat flies along the streets of San Francisco, Superman style, as folky guitar plays in the background, along with these lyrics: “My lady, she pulls those aching shoes from my feet; this city walked all over me, it walked all over me, it walked all over me.” Seconds later, the man morphs into a cutout of an old schooner as the lyrics mention “barges pushing out to sea.” Illustrations of owls, fish, a 19th-century bicyclist, top-hatted men, and other assorted figures mix with scenes of modern San Francisco that fold into other scenes. Jeremy Rourke made the three-minute movie in December — four years after he wrote the song of the same name. The marriage of music and stop-motion has become his new artistic mission. “It seems like a nice way to share the music,” says the 33-year-old San Franciscan, who has been writing and playing music since he was 18. “It makes it easier.”

Since getting into stop-motion films a year ago, Rourke has made six of them from his songs, including Eyes Hearing Stars, whose whimsical scenes include a cutout of an old-time bicyclist riding atop the Golden Gate Bridge. The year before his foray began, he was doing lots of stencil drawings. “I feel like they all fall into the same creative art form,” says Rourke, who grew up in Connecticut and majored in English at Northeastern University in Boston. “They're all art.”

Rourke has never been formally trained in art, although he remembers making flipbooks as a child, and did illustrations in college. He learned how to do stop-motion films with a computer program. Each movie takes about two weeks to make. At music gigs at El Rio and other Bay Area venues, Rourke has been projecting his films as he performs. He was initially inspired to do stop-motion when he saw another musician, banjo player Laura Goldhamer, perform songs with her own stop-motion films: “If I had just heard the music, it wouldn't have had the same effect of these two images together,” he says. “It showed me the power of these two art forms together.”



California Rangers by Pablo Cristi.

In Pablo Cristi's painting California Rangers, the actor Erik Estrada is dressed in the uniform that made him a TV star: that of the California Highway Patrol. To Estrada's right is the Lone Ranger on a majestic white horse; to Estrada's left is a tree, from a branch of which dangles a pair of legs. The lynched Mexican laborer adds a disturbing coda to an otherwise colorful tableau of authoritative figures. Pablo Cristi's art frequently mixes pop-culture references with more serious allusions. The works, which combine elements of abstraction, are heavily influenced by the aesthetics of Mexican and Californian mural art, which Cristi has studied and has taught.

Cristi, 34, was born and raised in Los Angeles by parents who fled Chile's military regime of Augusto Pinochet. He received his MFA from the California College of the Arts and lives in Berkeley. He describes his works as “small, tightly refined and rendered figurative areas in these very large abstracted psychological landscapes. … A lot of what I do has to do with tension between low culture and high culture.”

The hanging in California Rangers refers to the lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans by state rangers in the mid-to-late-19th century. The Lone Ranger was based on the Texas Rangers who patrolled America's border with Mexico. Estrada is a Puerto Rican-American whose character worked for the CHP, which derives from the state rangers, so all three figures relate to each other. Still, Cristi doesn't announce these facts in public showings, nor does he give the long backstories of his other paintings and sculpture, preferring that audiences interpret the works with their own sensibilities and knowledge of history and pop culture. His sculpture work includes a series of porcelain burritos.

“I like to leave ambiguity,” says Cristi, who was active in graffiti writing in his teenage years. “I try my hardest not to be didactic or preach anything in my work. … The topics can be a little serious, so for most of my work I try to put a little humor into it, so it's more palatable.”


Buddha Baby by Christina Mazza is a 5-foot-tall painting.

Whether it's sea grass drawn in astonishingly intricate detail with a ballpoint pen or a young girl sketched on a vintage wooden shipping crate with gouache and colored pencil, Christina Mazza's artwork incorporates materials that are taken from unlikely sources.

“The root of what I'm doing is taking things that are normally discarded or overlooked by us, and bringing them to the foreground so that we look at them and appreciate and see the beauty in them,” says Mazza, who lives in Burlingame. “To reinforce that message, I'm drawn to everyday materials. Initially, my ballpoint pen drawings were done with Paper Mate pens — an everyday tool that people use to sign in and out of a doctor's office.”

In the last three years, Mazza has received wider recognition, with such honors as a one-month artist-in-residence at the de Young Museum, and a three-month artist-in-residence at Recology San Francisco. She has exhibited at galleries and art spaces around the Bay Area for six years, but her art career is still in its infancy, because for a decade she worked in advertising (after getting her bachelor's in fine art from the Kendall School of Design in Michigan) and then focused on raising a family. A single parent of two sons, Mazza says her maturity (she's 50) and her upbringing and ethnicity (she's half Chinese and half white, and was adopted at birth) infuse her work with ideas that are highly personal. At the de Young, she worked on a 5-foot-tall painting called Buddha Baby, based on a real-life half-Asian, half-white boy who was born with a hole in his heart. Surgery repaired it and left him with a chest scar. The painting, which has sacred flowers on the boy's feet, is still in progress, but it connected with many de Young visitors, bringing some to tears, even though Mazza had one particular theme in mind. Its message, she says, “is that no matter where people are in life, and no matter how rough the road is that they've journeyed, they can still find their purpose, and to focus on it and explore it. It's never too late. I was born as an artist late in life. No matter when you discover what your path is, you should follow it.”


Living Room by Laurel Shear.

In 2008 and 2009, when Laurel Shear's father, Glenn, was sick with cancer, she would take photographs of him using her cellphone camera. The photos were imperfect — often with pixelated lines extending from top to bottom — but they were precious. After she realized that phones had become a popular way to transmit photographs — of family members, celebrities, crowd scenes and the like — and that the photos were often technically flawed, she drew a series of paintings that conveyed the same hazy imagery. The lines, drips and scrapes in her paintings, including Father's Day, which shows Shear with her dad, help give the works an abstractness she finds illuminating. The works look almost like mirages of original scenes. “My interest was in cellphone camera technology and how that's changing our visual language and our culture,” says Shear, 26, who graduated from San Francisco State University in 2008 with an emphasis on painting. “It's the immediacy of private moments that become very public.”

Shear's paintings depict Saddam Hussein being readied for hanging, model Kate Moss preparing to snort cocaine, Britain's Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform, and other moments that brought scrutiny to people who may have been unaware they were being captured for digital posterity. Shear took some photos of her father without his knowledge. He didn't want to be seen in a state of illness, but she felt their time together might be limited, and these images could be the last she took of him. Glenn Shear died soon after at age 58. “My dad was my biggest supporter of my art work,” she says. “He was constantly encouraging me to paint.”


Besides San Francisco State (where she won a scholarship in painting), Shear has formally studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute; Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, Australia; and the Studio Art Center International in Florence, Italy. Growing up in Mill Valley, she knew she wanted to be a professional painter. “When I was little, I was always into drawing and painting,” she says. “For me, it's always been, 'I can do this.'” Combining paintings of personal images with ones reflecting the culture at large, Shear says, “allows me to come closer to an emotional understanding of the truth of my own experience.”


The wooden sculpture (top) opens to reveal Will Cloughley’s book, Red Rock, Black Sun.

The video project Will Cloughley is working on connects back all the way to his Texas childhood in the 1940s, when he took trips with his parents to the deserts and canyons of the American Southwest. Now 72 and residing in San Francisco, he still returns to those natural settings, especially the area around Sedona, Ariz., which inspired him to write and draw the book, Red Rock, Black Sun. Making a video from the work will add a third dimension to the two others that have already been done: a limited printed version, which features fancy graphic-novel images and writing; and an elaborate sculptured version that includes a handcrafted, wooden-covered edition of Red Rock, and a sculpture — essentially a fancy bookshelf — that has walls and ridges resembling those from Arizona's Red Rock area or the Grand Canyon.

The book-sculpture-video phase of Cloughley's career began only a few years ago, but he's as passionate about it as anything he did before, which includes teaching writing at the college level, and producing multi-image shows for concerts and other events. Meetings with two other artists influenced his new direction. “I met sculptor David Dion, who has a studio in the Hunters Point Naval Base, and realized that his wooden sculptures have been inspired by the same kind of formations of Red Rock canyon country, and that's he'd gone to school in Arizona and had done something like 25 solo backpack trips into the Grand Canyon,” he says. “And I had met Howard Munson, who's a veteran book craftsman, and became aware of the artists book scene in San Francisco, and began to learn how to handcraft books.”

Cloughley, who moved to San Francisco in 1969, says all his art has a “metaphysical” edge. He has done photography, graphic design, and art design through his production company, Synapse, which specializes in light shows featuring his designs and those of his partner, Sondra Slade. Cloughley has an MFA in creative writing from Iowa State University. Writing and drawing have always been a cornerstone of his existence, but his Red Rock project — which has been praised by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others — lets him express his love of nature in a different art form.


Running Through the Range by Hugh Leeman.

“Street artist” is one way to describe Hugh Leeman, but so is “T-shirt artist,” since 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, baseball-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 that was 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.”


Ben Venom’s quilt, Am I Demon?


Four years ago, when Ben Venom visited a quilt exhibit at the de Young Museum, he was one of thousands of people who fell in love with the intricate designs and patterns that comprised The Quilts of Gee's Bend.

What happened next surprised Venom and the people who knew him: He combined his lifelong adoration of metal music with his new interest in quilt-making — creating artwork that incorporated pieces of T-shirts that once advertised bands like Metallica, Slayer, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC. His heavy metal quilts are counterintuitive, he says, since the stereotype of quiltmakers (kind, older women) and quilts (used for quiet moments at home) goes against the prevailing image of rock fans, the singers to whom they flock (generally, raucous men) and the type of music played (loud; really, really loud). Still, the quilts are like the music they portray, he says.

“It's a little over the top, but at the same time it's entertaining,” says Venom, 33, who has a master's in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, where he teaches continuing-education classes. Each of his quilts features a design and a name that is comical or, depending on your view, offensive. His first quilt, Listen to Heavy Metal While You Sleep!, is a patchwork of shirts in the shape of a skull with jagged teeth that sits atop what looks like a cross. “A quilt is obviously something soft and not very harmful, but the makeup and imagery on my quilts are very strong and scary and devilish,” says Venom, who grew up in a religious environment in a conservative city outside Atlanta, Ga., and now lives in the Mission. “I see them as opposing forces.”

While he was growing up, Venom recalls, his mother was an active sewer who would mend family members' clothing as it suffered wear and tear; he says he still calls his mom for sewing advice. Listen to Heavy Metal While You Sleep! took three months to finish. Perhaps the hardest part for him is relinquishing his treasured T-shirts, which he'd collected for years. Metal fans who see Venom's quilts often chastise him for using what they consider to be priceless artifacts. Venom says they now have a longer lifespan in his quilts, which appeal, he says, even to people who don't have a clue who Ozzy Osbourne is.


For HATE, James Shefik hand-carved birch into matchsticks.

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 analogue 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 starred 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.”


Still from Aaron D. Guadamuz’s animated short film 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 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 help 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, and teaches experimental animation at the Academy of Art University. He has drawn actively since he was 17, but began focusing seriously on animation just five years ago. He worked at Napster, helping design software script that allowed visually impaired people to use the music-sharing site. And 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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