Sandra Wang and Crockett Bodelson, both 26, have been sitting Indian-style and harmonizing with children’s instruments inside a tepee for about ten minutes now and I’m beginning to worry they might never stop.
Very early in the interview, when Wang asked if I’d like to see their tent, I’d said yes, of course. But I had no idea they were going to set the thing up in their studio and start band practice. That’s just how they roll, I guess.
Wang and Bodelson, who make and sell small-format paintings of trees, animals, and strange characters together under the name SCUBA (an anagram for “Sandra and Crockett United Business of Art”), are a world of two and they share a similar brand of whimsical spontaneous energy that must make it easy for them to work side by side. Their art –small, quirky, light and fun– is a reflection of their relationship: it’s strange in a cute way, endearing…and well, it just works.
“When people find out we work together they’ll often say something like ‘God if me and my boyfriend tried to do that we’d be at eachother’s throats,’” said Bodelson, a Santa Fe native who studied at The California College of Arts in Oakland for a year before dropping out to pursue art on his own. “But we don’t really think like that; we trust each other and we value the outside input.” Wang, who studied biology at the University of Pennsylvania before moving to San Francisco in 2007, agreed.
Collaborative relationships are definitely rare in the art world –the only cases Google seems to know about are the environmental installation team Christo and Jean Claude, cinematic legends Alfred and Alma Hitchcock, and of course John Lennon and Yoko Ono—and to come across them is to witness a special sort of witchcraft. It’s called collaborative genius and the three couples I met while researching the phenomenon all manifest it in different ways. They also do it for different reasons, each of which is reflected in their art and lifestyles.
SCUBA’s collaborative efforts are seamless, as if the two of them share one brain. The second couple, Chor Boogie and his fiancé, Bast, have a different approach. Their collaborations reflect the way they cohabitate, with each supporting the other’s artistic pursuits just as each supports the other in life. The final couple, Kate Tedman and Eric Siemens, known together as Kate Eric, collaborate on large abstract paintings that seem to tell the story of their life together: formless, wildly colored and mystical –like a dream. While visiting each of the artists below, I came to understand why art couples seem to be so rare: it takes a special sort of bond to make this kind of magic.
“What’s the best part about collaborating as boyfriend and girlfriend?” I asked SCUBA after I’d convince them to come out of their hut. “It really forces us to clarify our ideas,” said Wang. “I don’t like art that makes people delve into their subconscious psyche. I prefer art that tells a story.”
Wang and Bodelson’s art studio tells the story of shared quirkiness. A small space –maybe 10 x 10–, it feels more like a tree house than a cluttered workstation. It’s full of pastel-colored toys, K-Mart instruments from 1983, and a huge supply of the couple’s trademark miniature paintings. There’s an elevated bed near the window in back, a small kitchen, and even a living room decorated with stuffed animals, a rope swing, and of course, a full-sized piano. A lot of the stuff is left over from SCUBA’s first collaborative effort, a converted cargo truck/mobile live-work studio they called “Peggy M,” which they filled with found furniture and art supplies and drove up and down the West Coast in the summer of 2008. It was on this trip that Wang and Bodelson, who had met one year prior at an art exhibition at The Lab, learned they truly had a flair for sharing.
“We had a kitchen, a peg board, solar panels and a pull down bed,” said Wang. “We drove slowly down the Pacific Coast Highway and kinda just sold paintings out of it like a taco truck.”
“Yeah,” said Bodelson. “We didn’t have a plan at all. But we wound up living in it off and on and it was a great. We passed paintings back and forth and had a bunch of successful shows and that’s when we learned how similar our styles were. It was so much fun.”
Wang and Bodelson eventually developed a system over the course of their journey. Sometimes she would start with a simple background decorated in splotches of color and then he would fill in detail to make a character or two. Sometimes the process would be reversed and other times each would work on separate paintings, which would then get thrown in with the rest. What they got in the end was a body of work representing their composite identity.
Since then, Wang and Bodelson, who live together in an apartment in the Mission and sell art together every weekend near the corner of Hayes and Octavia streets where Bodelson had previously been selling as a solo artist, have been collaborating on just about everything. When it comes to music –they’re both in a four-member “electro wilderness” band called MAKEing Tents (he plays guitar and percussion, she plays piano, keyboard, xylophone, etc)– painting (they exchange fill and background duties) and life (they do absolutely everything together) Wang and Bodelson are, well, enmeshed.
“It’s gotten to the point in some of these pieces where our styles have just become totally integrated,” Wang said. “Sometimes it’s like we’re melding into one.”
SCUBA’s work is currently on display and available for purchase at Studio 3579 from now through January 21st. Or you can visit the couple in person every Saturday afternoon on Hayes Street near Octavia Street.
“Look at him. He’s blushing!” said Bast, a local yoga teacher, healer and performance artist who lives with her fiancé, world-class aerosol artist Chor Boogie, in a large apartment in the outer Mission. I’d been looking through a photo album of a dance performance she’d done with friends a few years ago and I’d just flipped past a series of scantily clad dancers in extremely intimate positions. Boogie just chuckled. “You gotta be open to new things bro, that’s what relationships are all about.”
Then, for the fifth time in the course of twenty minutes, the couple shared a longing stare before bursting into laughter. They’ve been telling me the story of how they met, reliving the details, and complementing each other relentlessly along the way.
“I saw her from across the room backstage at the Rock the Bells tour in 07,” says 30 year-old Boogie, a stocky dude with a shaved head, t-shirt and jeans. “She just had this look in her eye and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s special.’ And then of course, she tried to stick her tongue down my throat.”
Bast, 34, a taller woman with long brown hair and otherworldly eyes, tossed her head back and gasped. “Ha! I think maybe it was him who tried to do that.” Then she added, “You know, we met and I just realized right away that his flavor of craziness suited me. I was surprised that a person so young and hot and talented could be such a noble being,” Bast said she was suspicious at first, but that her fiancé eventually proved to be all those things and more.
Boogie just nodded his head and said, “I knew she’d be my queen the moment I saw her.”
This flirtatious banter seemed a little showy in the beginning, but after a while I came to understand that it’s just how they communicate. It’s fun and sexy and it seems to keep them in tune. It also speaks to how these two very different artists can work together without missing a beat. Boogie and Bast don’t directly collaborate on individual pieces of art; rather, they use their separate talents to enhance the work of the other in a sum-is-greater-than-the-parts kind of collaboration. A harmonized path of synergy, Bast calls it.
The couple meditates together nearly everyday and makes a habit of sharing all their creative ideas with one another on a daily basis. The first time they officially joined forces was in November 2008 at Boogie’s solo show at Project One in Potrero Hill called “Romanticism.”
The collaborative piece, a one-off supplement for opening night, was called the “Immaculate Romantic Conception” and it consisted of two half-naked women, a few empty picture frames and a whole lotta body paint.
“I brought in a dancer friend named Enchantress and we just let Chor paint us however he wanted. Then we basically danced inside, around, and through the picture frames to bring his work to life,” said Bast. “I was honored to be a part of that and I think it takes a really big man to let his girlfriend dance almost naked in front of crowd.”
“Yes,” said Boogie. “Trust is key. I just made sure that the body-painting reflected the theme of my show and then she just took it from there. It’s important to let her express her talent the way she needs to and when we collaborate, I trust her to make it work with what I’m doing.”
Boogie and Bast have plans for more muralism-meets-interpretive-dance projects in the near future, but they don’t want to ruin the surprise by talking about it beforehand.
“Don’t worry,” said Boogie. “It’s gonna be big.” Then Bast giggled.
Chor Boogie’s latest mural is on display on Market Street between Sixth and Seventh streets as part of The San Francisco Art Commission’s “Art in Storefronts” project. Bast will be co-teaching a “Temple Tribal Fusion Dance” workshop at Dakini Temple in Potrero Hill on December 12th.
“This isn’t our apartment,” said Eric Siemens, 35, as soon as I walked in the door of the giant half-empty outer-North Beach loft he and his partner, Kate Tedman, 30, have been crashing in for the last few months. Scruffy and dressed to chill in a t-shirt and worn-in pants, Siemens immediately offered to make me an espresso and then started rambling about the kitchen. “I just made that little cabinet thing over there,” he said. “You gotta have a place for dishes even if you don’t have a home, right?”
Tedman shook her long wavy hair, laughed and then offered me a seat at a large table sprinkled with art supplies and fruit. She slouched over a chair and sipped tea in paint- splattered jeans and a t-shirt, waiting for Siemens to finish making coffee.
“The story of how we met is long and a bit cutesy,” said Siemens. “But it serves as a good microcosm of the rest of our existence. We’ve been bouncing around for almost ten years now, living like bums in friend’s empty houses. We’ve lived in every district in San Francisco, including right across from the 500 Club in the Mission, which has always been our favorite area of the city. It’s just got this combination of decayed grandeur, diversity and physical space that allows happy accidents a chance to surface.”
Tedman and Siemens, better known as Kate Eric, an amalgamation of their first names, have made a living selling large amorphous organiscapes, abstract sculptures, and other paintings for years now, but neither of them had any plans to launch serious fine art careers when they met at Heathrow airport nine years ago. He was an art director at a graphic design firm in San Francisco relocating to Barcelona for a change of scenery and she was a philosophy student passing through London to visit her parents in Oxford.
When Siemens asked Tedman for directions that day, she misunderstood where the wandering American needed to go and told Siemens to hop on the bus with her. “It would’ve been like telling someone at SFO to ride with you down to Santa Cruz in order to get to North Beach,” Siemens said.
Two hours later Siemens was standing in Tedman’s childhood living room, bewildered and about four hours away from where he thought he was heading.
Months later, after Siemens had found his way out of the English countryside and gotten settled in Barcelona, the couple made plans to meet in Paris and drive down the French coast together. The trip would have been great had Tedman’s car not died halfway through.
No matter, Tedman wound up staying with Siemens in Spain. After a few weeks, when Tedman’s finances were getting dangerously low, the couple hatched a surefire plan to make ends meet: they would make paintings and sell them next to street performers and the guys who do the cheesy sci-fi landscapes with spray-paint.
“We were super smart back then,” said Siemens. “I mean, what better way to make money than to sell art on the street, right?” In their collaborations, Tedman would start a painting and then Siemens would help by giving her directions and jumping when he got ideas for improvement.
“At the graphic design firm I worked at, I’d gotten used to sitting around telling people that their art sucked, so I figured I’d just let her draw and then come in and fix whatever she made.” It worked.
Within months, they’d caught the eye of an art dealer from London who invited the couple to show in his gallery. Afterward they met another dealer on holiday from San Francisco and then another and another.
To their surprise, Siemens and Tedman have since shown and sold their paintings and sculptures in Hong Kong, Dubai and Chicago, among other places. “A lot of people imagine a collaboration to be a situation where both artists bring something unique to the table whereas with us, it’s just two miserable half artists that kinda create a whole,” Siemens said. “Really, the amount of stuff we don’t know about art could fill this entire interview and many to follow.”
“Yeah. It’s not like either of us have some great artistic idea we want to drum out,” said Tedman. “The relationship is what’s most important to us and we would’ve been happy doing anything –winemaking…whatever. We really had no artistic interests or aspirations before this. But we love it.”
Siemens agreed and apologized to the rest of the art world for not realizing a career in art was supposed to be hard to achieve. “We just get up, paint all day, and then go to bed. We don’t leave the house for weeks on end and it’s great.”
Kate Eric’s exhibition “Bug War Over Two Blue Mountain” will be showing at Frey Norris Gallery from March 11, 2010 until May 1st, 2010.