Place and Memory: A Conversation with Isis Hockenos

Isis Hockenos at the Midway Gallery in San Francisco, CA, where she curated “Rhizosphere: Celebrating West Marin’s Artists & Creative Legacy from 1960 – Today”

In the spring of 2017, Isis Hockenos curated an exhibit at San Francisco’s Midway Gallery called “Rhizosphere: Celebrating West Marin’s Artists & Creative Legacy from 1960 – Today.”  Through Isis’s vision and dedication over the course of a year, what was originally conceived of as a small, one-day pop-up in Marin became a month-long exhibition in San Francisco, CA, which included more than 60 artists from the 1960s to today.  Isis, who grew up in the small coastal town of Marshall in West Marin in a family of artists, felt a show like this was needed and personally selected each artist and piece of work in the show, usually through studio visits with the artists.  

The artwork included in the show spanned many media, including fiber arts, photography, sculpture, painting, and drawing.  In addition to the continuity of aesthetics as a result of Isis’s role in selecting the work, the connection of the artists to West Marin through their residence or connection to Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station also tied together the work in the show.  The impact of West Marin’s rugged and creative landscape on the works is palpable, though usually not in a literal on representative sense.          

Toni Littlejohn, Fire Under Ice, 2015.  Acrylic, latex enamel, tempera on canvas.  48″ x 72″

In the April 2017 conversation that follows, Isis talks about the process of curating the exhibit and her experience of growing up in a creative community in West Marin.

Tell me about this exhibition.  How did you get the idea, and what does it mean to you?

It originated through my role as one of  the Young Artists Fellows at Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station. I was assigned to a committee to organize a pop-up gallery outside of their regular programming.  It was kind of [envisioned as] a one-day-only sort of thing [in Marin].  And I said, “How about San Francisco?”  

And so, together with the other four people on the committee, I brought them around to a few venues in San Francisco that I thought might be good potential places to rent out for this pop-up.  One of those options was the Midway Gallery, where I am currently an artist in residence.  I don’t technically have my studio here right now, but I have access to their resources and Kelsey Issel, the director here, is amazing.  And so we met with her and she said, “Well instead of having this little one-day-only pop-up, just for Gallery Route One, why don’t you turn this into something much bigger and you can incorporate other artists and music and food and all these different things?”  

I was a little trepidatious at first, because I was worried that it would detract from my own work and my own studio time.  But the more I thought about it and the more I talked to people about it and people in the community, the more I could see that it was something that was really kind of needed and there was a lot of excitement about it and people were responding in a way that made me see it was a long time coming, and really vital and important.  And so it kind of snowballed into starting out with a maybe 15-person show into this, which is over 60 artists.

The artists are all from West Marin except for a few of the Gallery Route One artists who are based a bit farther afield.  So that’s the only exception to the idea that everyone is working in West Marin.  But they are engaged in the community through the gallery, so they have that connection.  

Xander Weaver-Scull, Ecosystem of Recovery, 2017.  Homemade earth paints (sourced from California soils) with homemade redwood cone and pinewood charcoal inks, hand drawn and cut acetate stencils, on paper.  42.5″ x 90.5″
Lorraine Almeida.  L to R: Stages of Life, 1978.  Monoprint on paper.  27″ x 18.5″; Luminous Figure, 1977.  Mixed media on board.  20.25″ x 14.25″

Could you tell me about your process to expand this from its original scope to what it is now?  

I’ve been working on it for about a year, with different amounts of intensity.  In the last three months it’s been the only thing I’ve been working on, so, full on.  But in stages, with reaching out to artists, gathering work, confirming work, and I did studio visits with almost all of the artists.  And I chose each piece that’s in the show.  So there’s a thread of continuity running through the show that’s by virtue of people having the shared well of inspiration, which was kind of something I anticipated and hoped for, but it’s even more continuous and obvious than I could have even dreamed of.  I kind of had my fingers crossed that it would all work together and not be hodge-podgy because there’s such a range of medium and style and subject.  And in the end it all made so much sense!  But then there’s also the lens of my own aesthetic preferences because I chose all the work.  So that is present in the show as well, my personal aesthetic.

Marilyn Beck, Sometimes the Train, Sometimes the Track, 2016.  Mixed media.  7.75″ x 16.75″

Tell me more about your process of visiting with these artists and selecting pieces.

I didn’t put out a call, I approached everyone, I assembled a list.  And then I asked people, “Is there anyone obvious that I’m missing?”  Because there are so many artists, but the vast majority I had already planned to approach for inclusion.  And then there were a couple of people, as we neared the end, where I thought “what about so-and-so?”  Or a couple of people emailed me like “Hey, I’ve been an artist in West Marin for 35 years, I’d love to be included.”  And I’m like, “Oh!  Sorry, I don’t know you somehow.  Let’s get together.”  And it always panned out for the best, which is great.

It was so fun to see people’s studios, especially people I’ve known my whole life, but have known maybe from a more social perspective or my friends, or my parents’ friends, or things like that.  And less as a peer or a colleague.  And certainly not in a way where they are presenting their work to me in this in kind of formal — I mean formal sort of, because of what we’re doing — but informal because we’re having tea or beer or wine or coffee while we’re doing it.  So that was one of the funnest parts.  I kept a pretty good log of those visits through the Instagram account that I made for the show, so that was really a nice way to share with people what I was getting to experience as well, and give people a glimpse into all of these amazing kind of studio spaces tucked up into the woods and out of sight on your typical drive through West Marin, you know, up these roads with no idea what’s up there.  And it was nice to be able to share little glimpses of that with people.

Zea Morvitz, Venus and Mercury, Alchemical Emblem Book series, 2014.  Ballpoint pen and watercolor on handmade paper.  23.5″ x 17.5″ (unframed)
Zea Morvitz, Mt. Helicon, Alchemical Emblem Book series, 2014.  Ballpoint pen on handmade paper.  23.5″ x 17.5″

You mentioned since you hand-selected the pieces for the show, your aesthetic preferences came through and are a thread of continuity.  Could you tell me a bit about what your aesthetic preferences are?  

Yeah, I was trying to steer away from too much strictly representational work.  There are only a couple of strict landscapes in the show.  And I was thinking more about what spoke to the particular energy that exists in the place, and the kind of magic that makes West Marin so special.  You know, you go out there, and you go kayaking or hiking or go and eat cheese or whatever, and that’s all great, but it would just be a list of activities if there wasn’t this particular energy and so I think I was trying to harness that in choosing the work.  And thinking, too, about what I had.  Going into it I knew for sure a few pieces I would have, like the first couple of people who I reached out to, or people whose work I’m very familiar with.  I kind of knew, if not exactly what pieces, what it would look like, and then I could kind of build off of that.  So I had sort of a core group of maybe six or eight artists whose either particular works or particular style felt very certain.  And then I could build off of that to put together a show that made sense.  

Madeline Nieto Hope, Setting Suns, 2016.  Mixed media.  24″ x 7″ x 20″

Which were those kind of certain pieces?

Well, I knew that I would have both of my parents’ work.  And I wasn’t sure what of theirs, but I’m so familiar with it, that it felt certain.  

I knew I was going to have some of J.B. Blunk’s work.  So what ended up happening, I don’t actually have any of his original pieces, but I have this photo series of the house and studio where he lived in Inverness until he died.  And these four were taken in the seventies when he lived there, and these four were taken just in 2009.  Since he’s died, his daughter Mariah has kind of simplified the space and turned it into an artist’s retreat and residency space.  She’s eliminated a lot of the things that he lived with, you know, the dried flowers, and postcards, and beads, all of these scraps of fabric, and all of this stuff that really made it homey.  But in order to make it a space where other people can put energy into it and get energy back, it needed to be simplified and maybe be made a bit more neutral.  Then you can really celebrate the special qualities in the space.  

And she and I have talked a lot about this because, as you know, my mom died in the fall, and talking about artist spaces and artist houses and how you can preserve the legacy without turning it into like a tomb or a shrine.  Because, you know, if you leave something like the last pen they used and you leave it on the desk, suddenly, after a while, there’s no spirit.  It’s like a shrine and it just becomes a token.  But if you’re able to continue to keep energy flow going in and coming out, that’s so much more respectful to their memory and legacy and their work, I think.  And I think Mariah’s done that really well with what she’s done with her father’s house.  So I knew I’d have my parents, I knew I’d have J.B. in some capacity in the show.  

Ido Yoshimoto does these prints, I knew I’d have Ido.  His dad actually shared a studio space with J.B., and Ido  is now using it as his studio space, so he’s able to get a lot of inspiration from J.B.’s work and J.B.’s environment and then give creative energy back to the space, in exchange.  One of my goals for the show was to kind of bridge the generational gap and figure out how the younger generation of artists can help the older and vice versa, and I think this is a perfect example of how that is super effective.

Ido Yoshimoto, Elm Ev 2 of 4 and Elm Ev 1 of 4, 2016.  Woodblock prints with sumi on okawara.  15″ x 13″ each

So [I knew I’d include] both of them, [our friend] Angela’s mom (Elan Whitney), and Sue Taylor.  So these rugs, these two are Elan Whitney, the other two are Sue Taylor, who’s actually Angela’s mom’s husband — Nick’s — first wife, did those.  And Angela’s cousin did this, and that’s Angela’s sister in this.  And her husband did that piece.  And his cousin on the other side did that piece.  So we could just walk through the gallery and do that the whole time which is really fun.  And it’s different than a family tree.  

Rug by Elan Whitney, Nuff Said, 2014. Wool.  37.5″ x 44″

I would love to hear more about your family, and growing up amidst artists.                

My approach to my work is very different than that of my parents; they both had other jobs their whole lives.  They identified as artists certainly, that was their whole life, they lived it, but their incomes came from other places.  They were doing it, they were making art for themselves, and I feel like I make art to put out in the world.  And they were definitely much more introverted than I am, and kind of reclusive.  They moved to West Marin so they could be by themselves with their art in a cabin in the woods.  That was all they wanted.  And that was all that they needed.  And they weren’t interested in the commercial aspect, or all of the things that come with making it a career, like if it’s your job and all of that stuff comes along with it: the networking, and the self-promotion and all of this stuff, and having gallery shows, all of that.  And that was of no interest to them at all.  

So I saw that, I saw and I really respect how they made work.  But I knew that I didn’t want to have to have another job.  I didn’t want my art to be just mine, I want to do it in a way where my work can be a thing that I give to the world.  And also live it, live my life, not have my work and my life be separate.  The way I live is my art also.  But I definitely learned from how they do it that I want to do it in a different way.  Which is interesting.  And definitely engage with community more.  My mom was really engaged, but not necessarily through her art.  That was something that was so much more personal.  But she worked in a native plant nursery and was a gardener, and all of those things were all shared, and she gave out, gave out, gave out, but her work was hers and my dad’s together.  

Being in a community where being an artist, well, it’d be more surprising if you weren’t.  And having gone to a Waldorf School as well, where the arts and making are just totally integral and part of how you live life and how you exist and every single thing we do in Waldorf comes from a place of creating and making and so to be an artist didn’t mean to do anything different from how we were living anyway.  I think the only difference is whether or not you need to have another job.  That’s what is defining it for me right now. 

From L to R:  Robert Hockenos, Deep Inside An Elephant, 1982, Oil on canvas, 48″ x 60″; Robert Hockenos, Caboose, 1986, Oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″; Rufus Blunk, Sea Passage Stool, 2008, Marin coast redwood driftwood, 7″ x 11″ x 20″; Alice Beall, Untitled, 2009, Cotton and silk embroidery, 13″ x 15″ (framed); Alice Beall, Untitled (red), 2007, Cotton and silk embroidery, 11″ x 11″ (framed)
Alice Beall, Untitled, 2009, Cotton and silk embroidery, 13″ x 15″ (framed)
Alice Beall, Untitled (red), 2007, Cotton and silk embroidery, 11″ x 11″ (framed)
Isis’s Parents:  Alice Beall, Self Portrait with Rob, 2005, Gelatin silver print, 12″ x 15″ (framed)

You’ve mentioned an energy that makes West Marin so special.  If you had to describe what that energy looks or feels like or is, what would you say?

I think that it’s a very kind of holistic way of existing where the mind-body-spirit all come together.  For instance, Elan [Whitney]’s rugs: it’s useful, it could go on the floor, but it’s also really visual and also comes from a place of instinct.  Everything is done with intention and, whether it’s something that’s utilitarian or a traditional painting on a canvas, it still has this really direct relationship to place. Take where Igor [Sazevich] is living, for example.  He lives up on the top of the mountain, on the Inverness Ridge (he and Marna Clark live together).  Their view is of the whole valley and the bay and he’s really incorporating his surroundings but not depicting his surroundings.  So his work is  not representational of the area, but it is the area.  It’s hard to put into words, it’s hard to point to, because that’s the thing about it, it’s kind of elusive but, I don’t know, nobody is living there and painting, say, pop art.  But it’s also not landscapes either, it’s not all plein air, it’s not barns and farms and cows, it’s something else that’s more holistic and multifaceted.  And really being in touch with your hand and your mind and your spirit coming together.

Ernesto Sanchez, Igbo (Your Past is Your Strength), 2016.  Mixed media.  16″ x 9″ x 26″

Do you think that’s just a product of the beautiful landscape in West Marin, or are there spiritual practices that people also incorporate?

I think there is a lot of spirituality, not in any kind of uniform sense, people are very individualistic in the way that they experience that.  So it’s the landscape, but also the community and knowing that you have each other in this way.  You have support.  It’s much easier to be reclusive if you know that all of the other hermits are around you on the hill, and maybe you can’t even see one single little light through the trees, because there are so many trees and so few lights, but I think that it’s very different to be an artist kind of working alone in a small community than to be an artist working alone in a big city.  You’re so much more alone when you’re alone in a city than when you’re alone in the country.  And there’s, just a, you know that you can walk into town and be held.  Whenever it is that you want, even if it’s once a week.  But in a city if you’re alone for a week and you walk out your door, you’re not held by anyone.  

I’m curious if there’s any memory from growing up in that community that stands out to you from when you were younger of, say, an arts festival or an interaction with particular artists?

I think something that really defines how I think about my childhood was an artist who is in the show, Clayton Lewis.  He passed away in 1995, but he was a fisherman and an artist and he lived across the Bay from Marshall at Lairds Landing, maybe you’ve been over there, it’s the cluster of buildings right next to Marshall Beach.  He moved into what was formerly a Miwok fishing village and kind of turned it into this artist’s compound and he was kind of like a gruff old artist fisherman but really incredible and super creative.  He had a home forge, he had animals and chickens and everything was built out of painted driftwood and things he’d collected.  He’d row across the Bay everyday to get his mail and before I was born, my mom would model for him sometimes, he’d row across and pick her up and row her back again.  And a lot of the big, kind of community parties would be at his house and we would go over all in a boat and everyone would just camp there and on Marshall Beach as well, which is the next beach over, and then sometimes he’d come across to Marshall and we’d have a lot of community dinners and events .  It was before the oyster farms were public, they were just farms, there were very few vacation rentals, a lot more permanent residents in downtown Marshall.  He was an artist, but also it was like everything that everyone did was intentional.  And the way we’d, say, set a table or celebrate an event.  There was a lot of ceremony and procession and so on.  No one had TV.  No one had, I mean it was early so nobody had computers.  But it was just… everything was hand-made and specific and used because it had a purpose but was also beautiful.  And kind of just the intention, living with intention, I think, would be, I think the thing that I have carried through with me.  

This bronze bust is Clayton’s.  This case here that has Rufus Blunk’s  tools in it, the window that this case is made out of came from Clayton’s house.  It was on parkland, he was grandfathered in, so when he died, it’s kind of disintegrating back into the bay.  There are a few other things in the show that came from his property.  So it’s really special.  The bed that he made is actually in SF MoMA’s permanent collection.  It is this big four-poster made out of driftwood that he painted with these distinct bright colors.

Tools of Rufus Blunk.  Window for case from home of Clayton Lewis.
Clayton Lewis, Bust of Carla (on loan from Linda Emme), 1973.  Bronze.  21″ x 13″ x 19.25″

He did this [bronze bust] in 1973, so before I was born.  He had a home forge and I guess he never confirmed or denied this but, apparently, he had a big casting party when he cast this bust.  This was of Carla, who was one of his lovers who lived in Alaska but would come for like a month every year, and he did this bust of her.  And he had a big party when he cast it because that’s a lot of hot metal to handle by yourself and so a lot of people were there to help him.  But the same weekend that he had this casting party, the Marshall church bell went missing.  And he would never say that it was or was not related but, obviously, this bust is church bell-sized.  

And the house you grew up in I’ve been to and it’s super beautiful.  

Yeah it was the boarding house when the railroad went through.  Where Hog Island is was the post office and general store, there was the hotel which burned down, there was the Marshall Tavern, there was the feed barn.  And some little boat houses.  That was downtown Marshall.  Our barn was the blacksmith shop which was the first building on the property, over 100 years ago.

Ben Livingston, Oroborous Moons, 2015.  Charcoal, graphite, oil, wasp paper, poison oak leaves, micah-rich soil on plywood.  48″ x 12.5″

How do you feel the show has gone and what sort of feedback have you received?

People have been really pleased.  I think it’s nice for all of these artists to see each other’s work together, you know, it’s people you see at the post office, every day.  You maybe didn’t even know that they made work, which is crazy in such a small town, but it happens.  

And then also to kind of [connect] people who do know about each other’s work, but would never be showing in the same place, just by virtue of the style of work that they do or the circles that they run in, or how they’re normally exhibited.  I think that’s it’s a really inclusive bringing-together of all of that.  And then to see it out of context, everyone has been, all of the artists and the supporters in the community who have come, everyone has mentioned how fun it is to see this work that they’re familiar with in a totally different context.  It gives them a new appreciation for the work and the relationship that each piece has to the other.  So that’s felt really good, and really reinforces the fact that it was something that was really worth doing.  

People who are not necessarily the artists, but other people who have come to the show, have been totally surprised by the breadth of work.  It’s such a small place, there are this many people making art, and I’m like “this many?!”  I could have done this show once over with the artists I didn’t include, and maybe those artists are people who I would want to include in this show, you know, it’s the people who maybe aren’t my particular aesthetic, who I didn’t reach out to, but there are this many more people again and again who are making work.  

One of my points in doing the show was to celebrate that and highlight it for people who love the area and love coming there, but don’t necessarily realize why it’s so special.  I think it’s special, like I was saying before, because of that energy and that’s only there because of the people.  If that’s not being supported, if we’re just supporting the parks, or just supporting the food industry, the farms… those are all super important, but there’s this other element that’s less obvious that also needs support, financial and moral and all the ways, so I’m trying to highlight that as well.             

From L to R:  Isis Hockenos, Bury the Body III (corpse) and Bury the Body II (diggers), 2016.  Oil on canvas.  16″ x 20″ each.

Is there anything else you want to add or what you hope to see in the future for artists of Marin?  

I’d love to see some kind of subsidized studio space in West Marin.  I think that there’s room for that.  I’ve never done grantwriting or anything with money, and I don’t necessarily know if that’s what I’m supposed to do but if there’s a way to have that happen, like a low-income housing / studio situation, I think that would be really, really incredible because there isn’t very much space, and only so many people can have studios in their parents’ gardens.  And a lot of people do.  I mean we could go through and point to everyone who has a studio in their parents’ garden.  It’s like most people.  But not everyone can do that.  

And is that a result of things getting more expensive and times changing?  

Yeah, and more people.  A lot of people buying second homes in West Marin.  So people from the city and of course they’d want homes there, it’s beautiful, absolutely, you can’t blame anyone for that.  But it really affects the housing and affects options for what could be studio space.  There’s a program through Community Land Trust Association of West Marin (CLAM), which is an affordable housing project in West Marin.  They’re doing a partnership with people so if people have an extra unit they can rent it out via CLAM for low-income families.  Because there’s so much land protection, there isn’t room to build more houses.  So CLAM is approaching people who already have houses who maybe have guest units or an extra room and are using that as a little extra income for those people.  Sort of combatting Airbnb, it’s obviously way less money than they would be making with Airbnb, but for a way better purpose.  So there could be some sort of programming along those lines, which would be cool.  I actually just found out about that a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t looked into it more but I think it’s brilliant for somebody to be organizing that.  

What impact do you think this exhibition is going to have on the way people think about artists of Marin or practically in terms of future collaborations?

Yeah, I think it’ll be useful, I hope it’ll be useful, I think that it’s easy to think of a place like that as just having kind of seaside town art and to realize that there’s actually relevant, contemporary wild cool art being made there is eye-opening for people.  Because if you drive through you would expect plein air and cows and that kind of thing, landscape, and to see that there’s a lot more than that will be useful for people.    

Charlie Callahan, Lagoon Smooch, 2015.  Blown glass, cork, pine cone shingles, mixed media.  43″ x 36″
Kelson Isaiello, Spatulas / Drafting Pencils / Tray / Saw Handles / Puzzle, 2017.  Various local woods.  
Rufus Blunk, Salad Bowl, 1978.  Tassahara sycamore.  19″ x 12″ x 5″    
Tim Graveson, Sea Side, 2009.  Mineral pigment print.  24.5″ x 34.25″ (framed)
L to R:  Emma Oppen, Fresno, 2016.  Oil on canvas.  36″ x 58″; Marina Beebe, “S Turns” – Confluence of Walker Creek & Tomales, 2007.  Oil on linen.  18″ x 24″
Sarah Wiener.  Top to bottom:  Untitled II, 2010.  Paper.  15.5″ x 13.5″ (framed); Untitled IV, 2011.  Paper.  13.5″ x 15.5″ (framed); Untitled III, 2013.  Paper.  14.75″ x 12″ (framed); Untitled I, 2011.  Paper.  13″ x 16″ (framed)



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