Nathaniel Price doesn't know where he's going. But he knows where he's been.
Actually, everyone knows where he's been. Dogs can tell. A spy satellite could tell. It's a bit like tracking a bleeding elephant in the snow.
On an unseasonably sunny San Francisco afternoon recently, Price traversed San Francisco. It was a laborious procession, and, in a city where a man wearing a sarong and beating a conga drum draws nary a second glance, Price soon amassed an entourage. Imagine the Pied Piper — but without any piping.
Those muscling through the crowd of gawkers surrounding Price near the corner of Kearny and Columbus found it challenging, at first, to discern what all the gawking was about. There was a sweaty, 41-year-old bespectacled man wearing a shirt and pants the color of topsoil and grasping something on a rope leash; onlookers obscured the creature.
Bulldogs get a lot of attention in this city — but not this much attention. Perhaps it was a bulldog on a skateboard. Perhaps a French bulldog on a tiny skateboard. It turned out to be something clunky, ungainly, and ungraceful — but no bulldog. At first glance, it appeared to be a block of bone-white concrete the size of a laundry basket; your humble narrator's initial thought was that Price made off with a traffic-control implement and was spiriting it off to parts unknown. Slowly.
Well, not quite. This wasn't concrete. It was a 245-pound hunk of chalk: A mile-long scrawl down the middle of the Kearny Street sidewalk indicated as much. And it wasn't stolen. In fact, Price crafted it himself in a Boston-area studio, eventually shipping an object weighing more than Colin Kaepernick to San Francisco.
Why? So he could do this. What's this?
Well, that's not so easy a question to answer.
A decade ago, Nathaniel Price left his Hunters Point art studio at 4 a.m. Sixteen hours, 26 miles, and 333 Polaroid photos later, he was in prison. Or, rather, he was outside the gates of San Quentin, which was rather far enough. The Polaroids were arranged in chronological order “corresponding with the arc of the journey, which begins in darkness and, as with life, concludes in darkness.”
Life may conclude in darkness, but for Price, it doesn't appear it will conclude in San Francisco. Like so many San Francisco artists — and San Franciscans writ large — he and his wife decamped when faced with the choice of residing in this city or raising a family. They have three young children and live in New England. Now he's back. But only temporarily. His mark on the city will be temporary, too.
Walking backwards through San Francisco and hauling a hunk of chalk on a rope are the ingredients of Price's latest work of art: “Drawn.”
It is, per a gallery description, “literally made from resistance, friction, and struggle. And yet, it can also be interpreted as a piece which brings the elements of a slow, private, destruction in direct contact (via the pavement) with a public creation which can be shared, albeit briefly, with the people on the street who have an opportunity to see the place they walk daily in a new, possibly beautiful, way.”
Naturally, the city's Department of Public Works has a starker description for all this: vandalism. But, it turns out, there are no city laws against drawing on the streets with chalk, whether you're a kid, a viral marketer, or an artist testing his emotional and physical limits. (A homeless man told Price, “Dude! You should just get a shopping cart!” That would make for good advice, but poor art.) Those chalking the city are “expected” to clean up after themselves. But, again, there's no law compelling them to do so.
It's not so easy to figure out what compels Price to do what he does. The brochure description of his work certainly sounds like the kind of thing you could nod at between sips of pinot noir before using similar terms to describe the pinot noir. But, when asked point blank what message he's trying to impart, he admits, “I'm not sure!” He's far more interested in the interpretations of the city residents stumbling across his work. The people who haven't left San Francisco.
At least not yet.
San Francisco doesn't know where it's going. But it knows where it's been.
Each of us leaves a chalk trail of our own. Every day. All our lives. Chalk trails enter San Francisco. Chalk trails exit. More than many cities, ours would look like an airline route map. And we are the hub.
Chalk is impermanent; a few passes with a hose and you'd never know it was there. Our trails overlap the faded remnants of those left in the past. In time, we, too, will be overlapped. There will always be another to take your place.
Granted, the city is undergoing changes. Concrete changes. But most of us are only equipped with chalk. And we will struggle to pull that chalk. Every day. All our lives. Until we can't do it anymore.
Nathaniel Price couldn't do it anymore when he reached Vesuvio's on Columbus. A bartender there wandered out and accosted him for defacing the city streets. It was not a pleasant encounter. But when Price demonstrated how easily chalk cleans up, the bartender's mood lightened. “He invited me in for a beer.” Price weighed his options: keep pulling a massive block of chalk while the day turned cold or head into a warm bar to share a drink with a fellow human being.
He chose the latter.
Price expressed disappointment at the abortive conclusion to his journey. But perhaps he's found new meanings beyond the scope of his intentions. It's nice for San Franciscans to “have an opportunity to see the place they walk daily in a new, possibly beautiful, way.” But it's ever so much more important to have an opportunity to actually relate to the people they live with — in a new, possibly beautiful way. In this city, it feels like this happens less and less.
Perhaps you could say that San Francisco has calcified.