By SHALWAH EVANS
When I first encountered 500 Capp Street, the life work of the conceptual artist David Kenneth Ireland I was underwhelmed. It’s decrepit—the paint is old, chipping, and faded. The next-door neighbor had no idea that the 1886 Victorian held any history–he’d only moved in three months earlier.
I couldn’t imagine someone driving around the Mission District, stumbling on the beat up, baby blue, two-story Victorian and deciding—this is the one. But that’s exactly what Ireland did in 1975. And for those who knew the artist who died May 17, it is the house at 500 Capp Street that became his most important work and offers the best insight into his life as an artist.
One of Ireland’s first Capp Street pieces began with a request from the city to repair the sidewalk in front of his home, said Karen Tsujimoto, the curator at the Oakland Museum, who organized “The Way Things Are,” a 30-year retrospective of Ireland’s work that ran from November 2003 to March 2004.
Once Ireland started the process, he noticed that he had to make the same choices as an artist. Soon he was sanding floors and stripping old windows. Ireland said working on an old plaster wall was like working on fresco, Tsujimoto said.
To Ireland, “You can’t make art by making art.” It takes some wandering around in Ireland’s art to understand what he meant. A public memorial will be held for him on September 14 at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. So after Ireland passed away, Mission Loc@l spent some time with oral histories, videos, and and his friends to get a better sense of the man and his art.
“He was looking at the world in a bigger way than a lot of people do,” Tsujimoto said.
Born in Bellingham, Washington, on August 25, 1930 Ireland earned a degree in art and industrial design from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1953, but didn’t focus on art full time until the 1970s when he returned to the Bay Area to relocate a business focused on travel to Africa. It was then, in his 40s, that he attended the San Francisco Art Institute for a Master’s Degree.
But more than school, it was that drive around the Mission District and finding the house where an accordion maker once lived and worked that really defined Ireland’s professional life. “In a way, 500 Capp Street was like a trophy for him,” said Paul Kos, a fellow artist and friend of Ireland’s. “It was something he devoted his entire life to.”
Where most people would see a window molding with cracked edges and torn out corners, Ireland saw another way of looking at architecture and an “expansion of available imagery,” he told Susan Riess in a 2001 oral history.
“He kept reminding us of how to look and how to pay attention and appreciate things the way they are,” said Tony Labat, an artist and friend of Ireland.
Labat, who chairs the new genres department at the San Francisco Art Institute, met Ireland in 1977 when he did a video of Ireland’s artistic process at 500 Capp Street, titled David Ireland’s House.
All the work he did on the house, it’s walls, floors, ceiling, and the items in it were a reflection of the many different types of work he did. Ireland, Kos said, was as much a skilled carpenter as a painter.
“I like the feeling that nothing’s been designed, that you can’t tell where the art stops and starts,” Ireland said to the Oakland Museum’s curator.
Some of the pieces in 500 Capp Street were furniture left from his paternal grandparents, whom he’d never met. He rarely changed the look of those pieces, including them in the exhibit of the house, he said, to give them importance and to challenge the way in which we think about objects and art .
In the oral history, Ireland explains that his grandfather’s chair would simply be a chair if sold to a secondhand store. But if kept in 500 Capp Street with the other pieces, he said, the chair could be special enough to end up in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Ireland was as iconoclastic about events as he was objects and in the oral history, he offers Riess a different perspective on memorializing the victims of 9/11.
“It may be that in a hundred years no one will be alive that knows any of the people who would be inscribed in the granite or whatever they have to choose,” he says in the history.
Many remembered Ireland for his generosity to the other Bay Area artists. They said because he was able to work with engineers, architects, welders and restauranteurs, Ireland had a large network of friends that crossed social and economic classes. At 6′ 5″ with blond hair, he resembled a strong hunter. But he was collegial, and likeable, always hosting dinners at his home, and fun to be around, said Kos.
In a 17-minute video of the oral history, Ireland seems like the crazy uncle that every family has; the one who an make anything interesting. He jokes about a jar full of something being either dust bunnies or his hair. (In the written transcript of the oral history he refers to his pubic hair as part of a piece of art in the house.)
Minutes later in the film, he gleefully lights two small propane tanks swinging from the ceiling.
The man in the film and the oral history reflect the man his friends remembered as well. Fellow artist Kos recalled the story Ireland told him about Dumbballs, his famous rounded balls made of concrete. Ireland said he’d stay up all night passing the balls back and forth in his hands in order to keep the shape, a motion that made him feel dumb. Then some gallery would actually be dumb enough to exhibit the balls of concrete, then a collector would actually be dumb enough to buy them.
Though he made fun of it, Ireland still saw beauty in the process and creation of them.
“If it looks like art, it can’t be,” Kos said repeating one of Ireland’s rules for students when he taught in the new media department at San Francisco Art Institute.
The house on Capp Street never progresses to a renovated, finished look. Instead, casements are left open so that a visitor can see the layers and brooms accumulated over time become beautifully disheveled.
Ireland lived and worked there until 2005 when his deteriorating health meant he had to move to an assisted living facility.
Philanthropist Carlie Wilmans bought the property in 2008, and said recently that the house will be a repository directly related to his work; an archive and a place for people to see his art. She said the plan is to restore the exterior and make some other changes, but nothing will be solidified until everything is approved by the San Francisco Planning Department.
Beyond the Capp Street house, Tsujimoto, who began following Ireland’s work in the 1970s, said that the 2003-2004 retrospective at the Oakland Museum, demonstrated Ireland’s range. It included four large-scale installations, 30 sculptures and 47 two-dimensional pieces, and had a special meaning to her.
“I just felt that he was deserving of a major retrospective of his work. David has been an important creative force here in California,” she said.
“I respond to each of them. It’s kind of a wimpy response, but that’s how I feel,” she joked over the phone.
Paule Anglim, of the Gallery Paule Anglim in downtown San Francisco said that his last show had been in March of this year.
“He gave us more than we gave him. He had a great influence on many artists and he was so generous in sharing his ideas, ” she said.