Heads Up: Free Art Thrown from Bikes

Nazir Agah and Heather Tompkins, co-coordinators of Papergirl SF, grab rolls of free art that will be thrown to pedestrians via bike during Saturday's second annual "roll and ride."

They yell at targets on the street, and ring their bike bells until they make eye contact. It’s the polite thing to do before hurling rolls of brightly colored paper at people.

“Free art! It won’t bite!” Ding, ding, ding.

“We don’t want to pelt anyone,” said Heather Tompkins, co-coordinator of Papergirl SF, an annual project that receives art through the mail and distributes it freely and randomly. Delivery is by bike, to anyone on the streets of San Francisco.

Those along the Potrero Hill-to-Golden Gate Park route for the second annual “roll and ride” this Saturday, Oct. 29, should hold out their arms and consider themselves lucky.

“You have to be at the right place at the right time,” Tompkins said, surrounded by more than 800 rollable submissions clothespinned to string at Incline Gallery. The art has come from artists as far away as Australia.

Volunteers with the project, whose partners include Mission Bicycle Company, PUBLIC Bikes, Arch Drafting Supply, Incline Gallery and Rickshaw Bagworks, will meet at 11 a.m. at Arch’s loading dock to roll the art into bundles of five or more pieces, wrap the bundles in butcher paper, and carry them any way they can — in baskets, messenger bags, backpacks, milk crates, panniers and inside jackets.

Distributing the art paperboy-style to unsuspecting pedestrians, an anticipated 30 cyclists of all ages will pedal a leisurely three hours, tossing the rolls any way they can: overhand, underhand, backhand, over the head, over the shoulder, sideways, into car trunks and “baton style.” A roll band explains to the recipients what they have caught.

“It kind of bridges the gap between the artists and the public,” said Christo Oropeza, cofounder of Incline Gallery, who jumped at the chance to host a week-long show of all of the art submitted to Papergirl SF. “The more conversation about art, the better.”

For Mac Warrick, staff manager at Arch, it’s all about fun and accessibility. “It’s a good way to get art off of the gallery walls and into people’s hands right away,” he said of the project that was inspired by the original Berlin Papergirl project, which has taken place every summer since 2006.

“Oftentimes art can be intimidating for people who have an interest in it but don’t know how to attain it outside of a gallery or coffeeshop.”

“It’s unique, and kind of weird,” said Nazir Agah, co-coordinator of Papergirl SF. Receiving a gift from a stranger on the street isn’t the only mysterious thing about the project.

“It’s sort of a mystery to us, too,” he said. Not knowing what art has been chosen for each roll, project coordinators and volunteers distribute random packages.

And trips to the post office box to pick up submissions are always full of surprises. “It’s like Christmas,” Tompkins said, describing ripping open the boxes that come from all over the Bay Area, Italy, Germany and the U.K.

Dan Nguyen-Tan, a PUBLIC Bikes employee and avid cyclist, said his company was drawn to the project last year for its integration of art and cycling.

“The opportunity to participate in the distribution of free art to the masses was just too good to pass up,” he said.

He described the ride he led last year with around 40 cyclists as “a bike gang of joy rolling down the street with rolled-up art.”

A former paperboy, Nguyen-Tan said Papergirl SF reminds him that he still has the touch when it comes to the lost pastime of throwing rolled-up paper from a bike. “I’m just living my childhood again as an adult through Papergirl.”

What Nguyen-Tan loves most about the project is the human interaction that takes place. “Very few people wake up in the morning and think that they’re going to walk down the street and get a free piece of art. To surprise people with this gift is part of the joy of participating.”

He observed similar reactions wherever the bike gang went, from the tourists downtown to the locals in the Lower Haight: Confusion, followed by faces lighting up. “They love the sort of whimsy and surprise that ends up getting thrown at them — that ends up being a wonderful piece of art.”

Sacramento artist Yumi Kitade was drawn to the off-the-beaten-path aspect of the project. “I want to be a part of that spirit,” she decided before submitting last year. This year she submitted 18 Sumi ink drawings on recycled newsprint.

Trained in Japanese calligraphy, Kitade said Papergirl SF introduces her art and culture to new people. “When they open my art and look at my calligraphy, they’re connected to the history,” she said. “In some way I will have been able to connect with someone, and I think that’s wonderful. I think it’s the spirit of the event, from the very beginning to the very end.”

Kitade said that she thinks about the fun and spontaneity of the project more than letting go of her art to a stranger. “Art is about sharing,” she said. “Like any artist, I hope the art is enjoyed. I hope it leads the person to something new.”

Tompkins, who rides a heavy cruiser from the ’70s, said that one of the reasons she started Papergirl SF was to introduce to the community great underground art that wasn’t being seen.

“It’s so exciting to see them get so excited about sharing their art,” she said of the artists, many of whom don’t show at galleries, but gain confidence in their work through the project. “Keep creating art,” she tells them. “Have an artistic voice. The world needs that.”

And it’s fulfilling to facilitate that through an all-inclusive project, said Agah, even though he hasn’t met many of the artists. “The most important thing is that their voices are being heard in a visual way,” he said.

Henriette von Muenchhausen, a German artist living in the Netherlands who submitted a photographic diptychon to Papergirl SF, has never been to San Francisco, but was thrilled to be part of the art community through a random act of kindness.

“It’s an exciting way to spread art and play with the possibilites of pure chance,” she said in an e-mail. San Francisco, she said, is a nearly imaginary place. But “suddenly I feel connected to this faraway city on the other side of the ocean.”

Which is exactly what Papergirl SF coordinators hope for. After all, Tompkins said, receiving art from around the world only gets better. “Giving it away is half the fun.”

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