More than a month ago the fire at 22nd and Mission Streets destroyed furniture, legal papers, computers, quinceanera dresses, businesses, and homes. We’ve heard about the businesses and the residents who lost everything, but there was another type of inhabitant in the building that lost something different – work that cannot be replaced.
Karen Van Dine and William McLeod, both artists, had most of their lives’ art and photo archives on the second floor of the three-story building. When it went up in flames on that late January evening, so did a life-time of work.
“All of my life’s work is up there….40 years of tools brushes paints, ….” said Van Dine, a 73-year-old multimedia artist and carpenter, who worked on sculptures mixed media, prints, drawings. “These tools are an extension of hands and soul. Art is not just about replacing something. Outside of my daughter and granddaughter it is the force that has helped me to survive.”
Now, she says, she has “no material, no work, no space. I have no present, no future.”
McLeod, a photographer and filmmaker, said his entire photo archive was in his office on the second floor. “Twenty-five years of photos and prints, and negatives and slides,” said McLeod, who documented the early years of Silicon Valley.
“I really documented the rise of Silicon Valley,” he said. “With photos, everything is so time sensitive.”
For both, the first urgency has been to return to their studios to salvage what they can of their belongings.
“Up until now, my whole force of energy has been to get in there,” said Van Dine, kept a studio in the building for 15 years.
There does not seem to be any hard and fast rule for who was allowed in, for how long, and how many times. McLeod has been one of the luckier ones, having been able to get into the building four times – the last time being three weeks ago.
Even with multiple visits, McLeod has not been able to rescue all that he wants.
“I really think a lot of people want access and I don’t really understand why it is taking so long. I am super swamped still trying to save what I already got out, but I have a lot in there,” he wrote in an email.
Van Dine has been allowed to get into or near her studio twice (the second time she was only allowed to stand in the hallway while she watched engineers sift through the mess). She has not been allowed to return since February 4th and she has heard that it might be another month before she is allowed to enter again.
Van Dine said she had artwork going back to her high school years stored in the studio. Before moving to San Francisco from the Central Valley in 1992, she had been a set designer and makeup artist for productions like Oliver. Sketches from those designs are also somewhere in the muck and water that now occupy her space.
She had also been collecting plexi-glass for her next large piece for 20 years. She had hoped to show it at a gallery in the near future.
“Those aren’t replaceable,” she said.
McLeod kept his studio in the same second-floor space for 20 years. It was a convenient location from his home, which never had enough space for his work and is around the corner on Lexington Avenue
A friend called him on the night of the fire to let him know the building was on fire. Not knowing the extent of what was happening, McLeod brought a bag to salvage stuff but was greeted by large flames and a series of fire trucks busy drenching the building. Since that day, he has put his full effort into saving whatever he can.
He’s been back in the building four times, but has not been able to get back in over two weeks.
“When I did go to the office the last time, it was kind of she loves me, she loves me not going through my file cabinets,” McLeod said.
“It’s frustrating. I can only complain so much because obviously I am safe and someone died and other people were physically injured, and that’s absolutely terrible,” he continued.
McLeod said that photos and contact sheets that might have been salvageable a few weeks ago may now be completely destroyed.
Looking for a new space is much lower on their priority list. Even if it was a priority, finding affordable studio space in the Mission seems like an impossible task.
“I’ve looked around. I can’t afford anything as nice, and it’s all three or four times the price,” Van Dine said. “The Mission used to be a real center for the arts. It’s all in Oakland now.”
But Van Dine cannot move to Oakland. “I can’t at my age. It’s too hard. I want to stay here.”
Van Dine paid $400 a month for her space while McLeod paid roughly $600.
“It was so close and inexpensive. I don’t know if there are any other options like that,” McLeod said.
McLeod joked about using one of the cherry-pickers on Mission to get through the window to his prints. Van Dine talked about getting masks and hazmat suits from Home Depot to prepare for the next time she’s allowed back into the building, which she hopes will be soon.
“Whatever it takes, I’m getting in there,” she said. Her next body of work, she added, will be about the fire and loss.
Lydia Chávez contributed reporting.