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The Outer Sunset Has No Idea How Cool It Is

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Ocean Beach wants to make sweet love to your nervous system. The unwinding begins slowly as you make your way toward the Outer Sunset and it’s steady and wild companion, the ocean. You move down smooth, straight streets that get quieter by the block. Aren’t you always saying you want to get to the ocean more? Doesn’t it rearrange your ions and electrons or something? There is so much space for everything, air, parking, thoughts and ideas, unlike other parts of the city where everything is constantly ramming into each other. You start to notice things you normally wouldn’t: bright orange poppies pushing up through cracks in the sidewalk, an azul house wrapped in bright yellow trim, some red lobsters painted on the sidewalk. Your mind and heart slow down just a bit. When you get to the beach you don’t even mind the sand in your shoes. It will be a souvenir later you think, to remember this big, beachy peaceful feeling.

Known mostly for its fog and long rows of matching houses the Outer Sunset has never been much of a destination. Even the name is a little sleepy and evocative of a 1950’s funeral home. Most people think of it as a boring place with good Chinese food. Boxed in between Sunset Boulevard, Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach and Sloat Boulevard, the Outer Sunset is one of San Francisco’s largest neighborhoods. It rather romantically started out as Carville by the Sea, where poor families and hobo’s lived in abandoned cable cars and trains nestled into the sand dunes. Later it became known as Outside Lands, because it was so far from the “happening” parts of the city.

But something magical is happening in the fog of this frontier neighborhood. A quiet but steady creative movement led by a committed group of people who love this part of town. Lately galleries and creative spaces have been popping up like wildflowers in these peaceful parts, each a unique vision of its owner, but also sharing a Sunset aesthetic, grounded in community, enough space for everyone and authenticity. John Lindsey owner of The Great Highway Gallery said it best, “There’s a bunch of stuff, but yet there’s nothing.”

A Pre-pre-pretentious scene

The galleries and creative spaces on the western frontier of the city are influenced by the beach and surf culture that is their constant companion. Perhaps the best example of art and beach being BFF’s is The Great Highway Gallery on Lawton near 42nd. Owner John Lindsey is a most days surfer who is as committed to taking care of the beaches he loves as he is to sharing the art that it inspires. A recent exhibit by Georgia Hodges explored nature as the ultimate problem solver using organic materials and evokes a combination of fine art and playing in the sand with a pail and shovel. My favorite piece looked like a blue gumdrop made for a jolly sand monster. Georgia lives three blocks away and walked in one day to show Lindsey her stuff. Its these kind of heart to art connections that make the Sunset scene so sweet. When asked to describe the Outer Sunset art scene Lindsey and most people I spoke to deferred. I came to the conclusion that this place, and the art it inspires, has not yet figured out how to be pretentious and therefore self-reflective and congratulating. They would never think to call themselves Ousu.

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Maybe it’s partly shyness, but Outer Sunsetters also constantly mention what a supportive community they were lucky to be a part of and how everyone comes out to each other’s events. During our interview Lindsey was teaching a teenage intern how to apply tape to a print and handing recycling he had saved for a neighborhood collector, all while calling himself a grumpy old man. I didn’t buy it, though I sure as hell would not want to litter on the beach in front of him. Like most gallery owners out here, Lindsey does his own thing too including photography and photo montage, “I’m a digitally based artists which is not a cool thing but I don’t care. I like to take images and turn them into a different conversation.” Okay, maybe he’s a little grumpy. The current exhibit by Ted Lincoln uses natural wood and mother of pearl to evoke nostalgic nautical themes that will make you want to sing sea shanties and try to read Moby Dick one more time. Don’t let it sail away before you see it.

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Art and community sitting on the beach

The Irving Street Projects is small storefront space near 43rd Avenue, dedicated to supporting artists doing hyper-local work. Irving Street offers 3-month residencies to allow them the time, space and support to deep dive into their projects. “San Francisco is a notoriously difficult place to be an artist. The Outer Sunset is one of the last places in the city where you can do something like this,” said artist Kelly Inouye, who manages, supports and also works out of the collaborative space. She looks particularly for artists who want to explore and interact with the local geography and community. “I want people to have the time and space to explore and for the community to see what’s going on and be involved in the process.” Past examples of this community minded spirit include past exhibitions like the Keepsake Project where artist Lisa Solomon invited neighbors to make appointments to bring in a treasure keepsake, which which she documented through photography, paint and words. Color master Leah Rosenberg took a color from the neighborhood each day for 50 days and repainted the studio with it, creating an mega rainbow of Outer Sunset hues.

The community was out in force on a recent Sunday afternoon to pack the house and spend two hours discussing recent artist resident Alicia Escott’s environmental exhibition and about how to better take care of the planet in general and Ocean Beach in particular. For her exhibition Scott drew images of the local flora and fauna on to the clear plastic Amazon packing puffs and grew local plants in plastic bags. Her most potent puff featured the threatened snowy plover, an adorable diminutive native shore bird that dances in flocks on the shores of nearby Ocean Beach, running around on speedy match stick legs. The artist told me that one of the reasons the plovers aren’t doing so well is because they can’t fatten themselves up properly for their mating season, due to off leash dogs chasing them around.

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For me the snoplo definitely fits the description of an underdog: tiny, native and fun to chase. Maybe I had such a visceral reaction because it’s a pretty good metaphor for all the creative people being chased out of the city by big, bumbling dogs that don’t even realize what they’re doing most of the time. Scott said that when she was researching the local flora and fauna for her project she realized that stuff she thought was native wasn’t and vice versa. All of a sudden she had to give crows a second chance, even though they have mean looking faces, because they’re from here. The ice grass she had wanted to protect, turned out to be from somewhere else too. It got me to wondering how long do you have to be a part of the San Francisco landscape before you’re considered a native? Are all invasive species/people bad? And how can we get this hot mess of a city eco system back in balance?

Original art orphanage

In general opening an art gallery is an act of hope against reality. Donut stores, artisanal coffee shops and ice cream joints are way more likely to make it than art galleries. Sugar and caffeine deliver consistent comfort and stimulation, while art can be a little more mysterious and demanding. Anne Herbst took a leap anyway and opened Far Out Gallery (FOG) a fine art space snuggled in between Asian restaurants  in the deep Outer Sunset. She started her place after her parents passed away as a way of creating more family and community, “I needed to do something super bold in my life so that why I did this.”  

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An artist herself Herbst really wants to help unpack the pretentious baggage that keeps people from connecting with original art. Though she doesn’t use pom poms she is an exceptional cheerleader for the value of living with original art. You can often find her standing beside a painting she loves, talking about what makes it unique and exceptional with her face lit up like a Christmas tree. In the Outer Sunset there is time and space to talk about the value of art and the creative process and it turns out Herbst is no stranger to the creative struggle. One afternoon while I sipped a snowy plover from next door Andytown Roasters, she told me how she broke through one of her most wretched creative blocks.

Painting after painting looked wrong and she kept covering over all of it. This went on for months until one day she felt the urge to reach out and touch one of her paintings. She wanted to feel the art as much as look at it, much ike a kid who’s about to get yelled at in a museum. Thanks goodness nobody yelled at her and the newly found intimacy and sensuality of using her hands helped her approach the work in a different way. Soon she was exploring fine art  finger painting and tracing her hands in various ways and using her finger pads to create mystical and mysterious creatures. Creative block busted!

Now Herbst uses her hands in her art regularly and it’s fun to look for her signature prints hiding in plain sight in her work especially in her masterwork, an epic 4-headed turtle (Which is hanging in the back of the gallery and should not be missed). Anne thinks we should all sing more and invites everyone to join her and Peter for songs every Thursday from 5 to 6. All abilities and hairstyles are welcome.

The island of misfits and print makers
Eric Rewitzer and Annie Galvin are project sexuals who were drawn together by their shared passions for art and creativity. Their a combination of Midwestern (him) and Irish (her) background basically make them warm and fuzzy human teddy bears. This is the husband and wife team behind the iconic “I love you California” bear, probably the coolest art you can buy at the airport. They own 3 Fish studios a print shop, gallery, art making space, gallery and community hub on Irving and 47th right near the beach. If you ask nicely they will show you their art, offer you a beer, make a bad pun and probably give you a hug. By the end of my first visit I wanted them to adopt me. Don’t we all need art parents to love and support us in this cold cruel world?

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Though Anne is locally famous for creating the huggy bear, the election of Trump inspired Eric to carve a new image that’s about as cuddly as a bag of wet cats. “Trump poked the bear,” says Eric. The image was picked up by Time magazine to help describe our magnificent progressive bubble, aka: California. This pissed-off bear does a good job of demonstrating how most of us felt on November 9th: angry, confused and not having a good fur/hair day. Art in action people!

Even after 20 years together Eric still gets a little googly eyed talking about Anne, “She’s my girl. I knew it from the moment we met.The day she quit her job to make art full time in our studio was one of the happiest days of my life.” And things can get a little sexy at 3 Fish when Eric and Anne start talking about each other’s drawing and painting lines. Anne appreciates that Eric’s are rough and a little tortured, “I like his lines. They’re not delicate.” He enjoys her confidence and how she never seems to run out of ideas, “I love seeing what comes out of her brush.” Her art is approachable, whimsical, smart.”

What began as “an experiment to see if we could make a living doing art work,” per Eric is now a well known and successful gallery. Eric was happy to share what he believes to be the secret. “Get to know the people in your neighborhood. Be nice to them. Engage with them about the practice of making art.” 3 Fish studios is super dedicated to their community and to giving back, especially to kids who might not otherwise have creative opportunities. They have kids from all over the city come to their studio and see that being a working artist is a possibility. If you want to get in on the creative fun check out their weekly print making workshops held on Tuesday nights.

How to get your outer on 

After you’ve checked out the galleries, walked around looking for Carville houses and jacked yourself up on Andytown coffee it’s time to hit the beach. This is the original muse for the local art scene, creating a sweet loop of inspiration and ocean spray. Don’t be shy about scrambling over the dunes, wearing their yellow and green sea grass mohawks. If you are willing to get some sand in your shoes you can dig around and find one that acts as a bleacher, allowing you to sink into the warm sand while the parade of walkers, runners, dogs, birds, surfers, cargo ships and waves passes below. You can let your mind wander to the sand dollar graveyard and wonder why they all decide to die right there. You can contemplate crafts you could make with their dead, stoney, little bodies. You can watch the surfers who appear ageless from your perch. You could wonder about which of the plants and animals are native and which hitchhiked from some other place. You can look for the windmills in Golden Gate Park and name them (I like Hans). You might notice that even though the ocean is supposed to be calming, most people can’t sit still. They moving around in every direction like two legged ants, as restless as the waves. You’ll also notice that Ocean Beach has no life guards. It’s guard your own.

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Heather Robinson - Artisanal Trouble Maker

Heather Robinson - Artisanal Trouble Maker

Heather Robinson has been doing stupid stuff in San Francisco for almost 10 years. She loves dive bars, typewriters, and creative people. Buy her a beer and she'll solve all your problems.