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The Bay’s Legendary Eco-Artist: Bonnie Ora Sherk

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BONNIE ORA SHERK: LIFE FRAMES SINCE 1970 Exhibit at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC)

At 2 pm, on a Saturday in 1971, Bonnie Ora Sherk sat quietly at a dining table with a white linen tablecloth, in a feeding cage at the San Francisco Zoo.  In the cage to her left was a live tiger, to her right, a lion, and at her feet, a small cage containing a rat.  Sherk waited patiently for her lunch and smoked a cigarette as surprised patrons of the zoo gazed through bars at the young artist’s unannounced performance.

It was feeding time. Sherk’s performance was called Public Lunch.

Video: Bonnie eats with tigers

Bonnie’s cage, within a cage, within a cage

Bonnie Ora Sherk is a bit of an ecological art legend in the Bay Area and beyond.  College Students learn about her work in environmental art classes, children practice her ideas at her Living Libraries, San Franciscans enjoy her visions in the green spaces of our city, and marketers should probably study her performance art as a model for garnering positive public attention and support.

Although many of her installations and performances were temporary, her ideas and concepts around reimagining public spaces, have stood the test of time.  Newly transferred film and video as well as rarely seen photographs, collages, works on paper, artist books, printed matter, and ephemera of Sherk’s early performances and site-specific interventions in the 1970s and 1980s are on display at Fort Mason until March 10th, 2024.

Bonnie reimagines San Francisco

Back in the 1970s, San Francisco was still a significant industrial center, with large, heavy industrial plants like American Can, Peterbilt Truck, Ford Motors, AAA Shipyards, Hamm’s Brewery, and assorted iron and steel works just to name a few.

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Her Sitting Still series of images depicts Sherk seated in iconic, destitute, or heavily trafficked urban areas, calmly observing her environment, perhaps questioning its relationship with spaces and the greater community.   The photographs are simultaneously nostalgic, familiar, and thought-provoking.  They ask the viewer to question the use of urban spaces, and perhaps reimagine what could be made of them.

You can see all these gorgeous images in large form at Gallery 308.

Freeway overpasses still ran through the Embarcadero and jutted into Hayes Valley. People hadn’t really thought of transforming empty underpasses and concrete thoroughfares into public gardens and green-filled walkways, yet.

Bonnie transforms her environment with Portable Parks I-III

Mission/Van Ness Off ramp 1971

Sherk captured the public’s attention and garnered the support of those in charge, with tangible works of transforming “urban dead spaces” into public installations.

Her Portable Parks I-III (1970), transformed the former James Lick Freeway that crossed over Market Street; two concrete islands adjacent to the Mission/Van Ness Off ramp; the whole street of Maiden Lane between Stockton and Grant – into green, living environments, complete with sod, palm trees, and live animals. The temporary installations would go on not only to win critical acclaim and lead to the pop-up urbanism movement decades later.

Maiden Lane, transformed in 1970

“Around the world, there is a movement underway to transform urban spaces like parking spaces, freeway on-ramps, and streets themselves into gathering places,” said Mike Buhler, President and CEO of FMCAC. “The seeds of that movement are rooted in Bonnie’s work here in San Francisco.”

Considered Sherk’s best-known projectThe Farm, was a multi-arts center, environmental education farm, and community gathering place located underneath a major freeway interchange in San Francisco at the former location of a dairy farm.

“The Farm was a unique “autonomous zone” that lived under the freeway interchange of Highway 101, (then Army Street), and Bayshore Boulevard/Potrero Avenue. It began in 1974 and ended in a sad eviction in 1987. It was a farm with farm animals, gardens, a theater, a school, an art gallery, communal kitchen, a punk rock club, and a challenge to the prevailing values in the city. Their effort spawned a 4.5-acre park, which became today’s La Raza Park. It was a place occupied by a spontaneous, grassroots, independent, autonomous collective organization that created itself.” – , Chris Carlsson

Inspired by Sherk’s work, San Francisco ultimately transformed the site into a permanent park, Potrero del Sol, better known as “La Raza”.

The Farm’s beginnings, prior to any construction of La Raza Park next door, c. 1974. Photo: Jack Wickert FoundSF

“The Farm was an eruption of nature in the middle of the concrete jungle . . . proving that life could still exist there.” —Joan Holden, SF Mime Troupe

Teaching the next generation to grow food in the most unlikely place, beneath the freeway! Photo: Vicky Pollack via FoundSF

Today, Sherk’s bicoastal nonprofit A Living Library (ALL), established in 1981, continues her vision for community-oriented, environmental projects located on Roosevelt Island, NYC, and the Bernal Heights, and OMI/Excelsior neighborhoods in San Francisco. ALL brings community members and youth together to restore native habitats, create educational gardens, plant trees, and daylight San Francisco’s Islais Creek watershed.

The new exhibit at Fort Mason Center for the Arts

The new exhibit at Gallery 308 features large-form video projections of Bonnie Ora Sherk’s incredible performance art (eating with tigers at the SF Zoo) and gorgeous stills of 1970s San Francisco along with a lot of wonderful SF history.  We suggest you go see it…

The exhibit is curated by Tanya Zimbardo, who also curated that incredible multimedia exhibit at SF MoMa Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors, (you should see that too).  Tanya has incredible knowledge and reverence for art history in the Bay Area, and this multimedia exhibit is a wonderful experience, overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

A symposium and celebration of the publication launch closes out the exhibition’s run in March 2024.  And on Sundays, a related Fort Mason Art commission, John Bela‘s pop-up urban garden, Garden To Transform Hatred Into Love, is just outside Gallery 308 with a hummingbird Farm and free Sunday Workshops. (reserve a spot for free here).

Bonnie Ora Sherk: Life Frames Since 1970 is part of FMCAC’s signature Gallery 308 exhibition series presenting leading contemporary artists, including Sophie CalleJanet CardiffJoan JonasSir Isaac 

Exhibition Details:
On view: Saturday, January 13, 2024 to Sunday, March 10, 2024
Sundays include a John Bela’s pop-up Hummingbird Farm & free urban garden Workshops!
(great for kids)
Free Admission

More Info at

Bonnie Ora Sherk: Life Frames Since 1970


This post was sponsored by Fort Mason Center for the Arts & Culture

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