An Artist You Should Know: Joshua Coffy
The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights local artists before they exhibit their work somewhere awesome, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place. Meet artist Joshua Coffy, the ‘gifting king of San Francisco’
Sometimes a little inspiration is all we need. When I’m having a bad day and I need to channel my inner Brave Little Toaster, a good story about someone giving a stranger a gift always helps. For example, when people tip their sad waitress insane amounts of money, or when they pay for other people’s gas, or they leave dollars in the dollar store, or when they buy that one broke-ass writer the things on her SkyMall wishlist… It turns out however that I have one more for the books, it’s Joshua Coffy, the gifting king of San Francisco.
The more I learned, the more I realized that Joshua is one bad-ass human being. To start, he is one of those unfairly talented people who can’t help but constantly produce art, be it in the form of paintings, writing, or original ukulele music. Additionally, from 2011-2012, he committed himself to a gargantuan and unique project: The Gift Prolific.
The idea behind The Gift Prolific is simple. Inspired by the Burning Man festival, Joshua decided to give a gift every single day for a year, and then to paint a picture corresponding with that gift. The gifts would range from treating his son to an extra special Frozen Yogurt, to recording a song for a friend having a bad day, to a spa day for his wife, to some free meals or flowers for strangers. While he wouldn’t always finish a painting in 24 hours, he made it a point to give the gift each day. On top of that, he also wrote a blog post telling the story of each present.
While doing one thing consistently for a year sounds damn near impossible to me, Joshua points out that gifting is different. For one, it feels really damn good to make someone feel better. Beyond that, Josh told me that it evolved into more than just the gift itself. “[It’s] more about meeting people and connecting to people,” he explained. “The gift facilitates that time exchange. I created several mottos….one was Gifts given is immediately gift received, meaning that both the giver and the recipient are benefiting from that action.”
Rae Bathgate: A lot can change in a year. Do you think that the Gift Prolific project significantly contributed to the changes that happened to you from 2011 to 2012?
Joshua Coffy: The Gift Prolific changed my life in more ways than I thought it would. When I started the project, I was trying to dig my way out of the darkest depression I had ever known. Giving to others on a daily basis really taught me that I had the power to get through the depression….even if it was just for that 5 minutes of shared time with someone else. The more you do that every day….the easier it became to shake off he funk.
Painting everyday taught me a lot about my own art and how I create. I learned to draw and paint faster….and taught myself a few of my own rules that would eventually become my style.
I learned that I could take on huge undertakings and make them work, almost in a project management sense. For one year I devoted my life to daily kindness and painting. The list of things that taught me is too big to list…but these are some of the highlights.
RB: What’s your favorite gift? Tell me the first one that pops in your mind.
JC: Wow….It’s hard to say. They were all so varied. One that comes to mind was I was in the emergency room. I had a huge tumor on my cheek bone. (Turns out a small piece of rice was lodged in my spit gland). Anyway. As I am laying in the ER I can hear all the horrifying noises of people in various situations. The guy next to me was probably my age. He was laying there moaning and I could tell he was in a lot of pain. I looked over and said ‘Hey Man, what are you in for?” He squeaked out “Appendicitis.” I was like “Oh that’s easy….I had that when I was 13. No big deal.” He laughed, which caused his side to hurt. I told him “Hey, when you get out of here and you can walk around take your girlfriend out for yogurt,” and handed him a gift card for a local frozen yogurt shop. His eyes opened wide and just for a few moments neither one of us seemed to be in the ER. His girlfriend thanked me and we all laughed that even the thought of dessert made things better.
That one was one of my favorites. You can read the original story and see the painting i made for this one…here.
RB: Did anyone ever reject a gift of yours?
…well, sort of. Sometimes the gift could miss the mark a little, if what I had to offer wasn’t exactly what that person may have needed in that moment. Obviously, no one really would refuse to take some cookies or free coffee, but I worked really hard to look for opportunities to give to other to specifically avoid that misconnection. That taught me that you have to be present each day and look for a way to do some good for someone. Once you open yourself up to that connecting and giving something valuable can be quite enjoyable. I did offer to let a friend stay with my family….and he turned out to be a dreadful alcoholic that stole from us and was just ridiculous. So I learned from that too.
RB: It looks like once people started hearing about your project they started to give you gifts themselves?
JC: I did receive quite a few gifts. That was never expected and is something that I will always cherish. I realize as the receiver of gifts my role is to smile and say thank you. The giver wants to share something with you…and that is to be appreciated. One of my favorites is that a good friend of mine paid for me to get 2 new tattoos! I will always have them as a reminder of my project and my friendships.
Writers complimenting other writers can be rare, especially if one of the other writers is not exactly a writer yet and the other one is a painter. However, credit should be given where credit is due. On top of being a really good painter and shredding on the uke, this magnificent bastard can write. If you ever have some time on the internet that you shouldn’t be spending on Facebook (=always) and want to feel as inspired as possible without joining a cult, read his blog.
If you do, you’ll notice that it begins in 2011 but it actually continues until, well, now. This confused me, so I snapped into action and asked Joshua some more invasive questions. It turns out that after an experience like the Gift Prolific, our hero struggled with what to do next. “I had so many amazing experiences with Gift Prolific and with giving all of that art away,” he said, “I felt like I had to repeat it right away. “ While he wasn’t able to do exactly that, in January 2015 he started a new project, called Birds of San Francisco.
With Birds of San Francisco, Joshua paints a picture of a bird each month, and then he makes a high quality print of that painting. He then leaves the print somewhere out in San Francisco, only asking the person who finds it to either keep it or give it to someone they think will enjoy it, and to please send him an email letting him know what the end result is. On his 40th birthday, in January 2016, he is then hoping to do an art show with each of the original paintings.
I continued to ask hard hitting questions.
RB: Why birds, if I may ask?
JC: I love birds; they’re so diverse and dynamic. They come on all shapes and sizes….just like people. Birds adapt to their surroundings. As a boy I would spend a lot of time at my Grandma’s house, and she loved birds. So a lot of times when I paint them, I am doing a little bit of a tribute to honor her. She was possibly the kindest person I will have ever known.
Joshua is indeed broke like the best of us, and he was still able to give a present for 365 days straight. Now, he is making a living off his own art, something which he partially got to through making San Francisco a little weirder and a little more beautiful every day.
RB: Do you think that giving will always be tied into your art?
JC: Actually, I do. When I sat down to design what my art business would look like I wrote that giving has to be part of my business plan. I’m not talking about as a marketing tool, which it is, but much more as a way to make art available to everyone. I believe everyone in the world enjoys art at one level or another. And if people connect with mine and enjoy it then I want to honor that. Of course giving away art doesn’t pay the bills, so I can’t give it all away. But I get to pick and choose how and where I can give it. A good portion of my art now goes to charities like ArtSpan. So yeah….Giving happens everywhere, and I hope I can give as much as I can for many years to come.
I encourage you to take a few things from this:
- Read Joshua’s blog or follow him on Facebook. I suggest this not only because he is legitimately interesting, but also to make sure you find out when his next showing is!
- Keep an eye out for Birds of San Francisco…you never know when you’ll stumble over one of them (perhaps even literally – yes, that’s how sneaky he is).
- Try to give every day. It’s simple to say, difficult to do, and it’ll probably give you superpowers.
- To support Josua’s art check out his site for amazing deals. $20 prints of his work on paper and $80 prints on wood: www.undersong.com
Upcoming Coffy Events!
EXHIBITION AT MODERN EDEN
801 Greenwich Street @ Mason and Columbus
2 PERSON SHOW WITH DIANNE HOFFMAN @ SECESSION ART & DESIGN in SF
3235 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110
POP ART VINYL SHOW @ WONDERLAND in SF
1266 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110
7th ANNUAL “BIRDLY DELIGHT” @ CACTUS GALLERY in Los Angeles
Frogtown, 3001 North Coolidge Avenue, LA, CA 90039
Thank you Joshua for the pictures! For more of Joshua Coffy’s original art, visit his website www.undersong.com