SF Mission Artist Pushes for Growth in Shrinking Art World

Bernadette Bohan reflected in one of her art pieces. Photo by Laura Wenus

Even on a weekday morning over coffee, Bernadette Bohan looks like she just stepped out of a Warhol painting. With red lipstick expertly applied and wearing leggings printed with an image of her own staggeringly bright collage artwork, she’s taking no prisoners, and this isn’t even her evening look.

At 45, Bohan is ready to bust out of starving artist mode and into her career – but unlike many career-focused women, she’s determined to bring up other artists around her too.

“She’s always wanted to be this person who wants to showcase other people’s work as well as showcase her own work,” said Cynthia Boedihardjo, who runs an arts space on 26th Street called The Laundry.

Boedihardjo and a group of co-owners acquired the space, then a laundromat, in 2013. Over three years, they built it up into an events and exhibition space, and recently added a cafe to the front. As the Laundry began tentatively opening its doors to the community, Bohan was quickly on the scene, offering to do a trunk show there.

More recently, Bohan’s solo show there began with a full-on party, which the artist emceed and used as an opportunity to get her friends gigs, too.

“This was her solo exhibition, but at the back of her mind was, okay, how do I promote other people that are also in the arts space, and also struggling, and let them have their space for the five to ten minutes that I’m providing them?” Boedihardjo said.

That’s trademark Bohan, according to friends. When she decided to try and live as an artist in San Francisco 25 years ago, Bohan said, it seemed like a town, a place where you could make it. But it was also clear that there was a flourishing arts scene.

After having to leave a raucous artist live/work space at 9th and Folsom streets about eight years ago, Bohan found a building on 21st and Florida streets that had once produced boxes. Inspired by the space she had just left, planned out an arts space.

“I wanted to do more community stuff and was less focused on my own art and more into collaborating with other people,” she said.

Bohan now has her living quarters in the area of the building that used to be the shipping and receiving department. A large open area is made available as space for whoever needs it, from visual artists to bands that need practice space. Often, using the space is free or paid with barter.

The space, which recently passed muster during a citywide crackdown on warehouse-turned-arts spaces, is also what keeps her afloat thanks to rent control, and provides a low-cost workspace to others.

Bohan called it The Box Factory – in part because it was literally that, but the name is also a play on the slang term for women’s genitalia and Andy Warhol’s Factory.

Art by Bernadette Bohan. Photo by Laura Wenus

Not content to be simply a mixed media artist and run an artist space, plays in a band, emcees and hosts concerts, and started a radio program called Late Night Bubbles on Radio Valencia about a year ago. On it, she frequently hosts drag queens and other queer personalities.

Shortly after she learned the ropes at Radio Valencia, said station manager Steve Courtney, she put on a fundraiser for the station.

“I used to deal with a lot more people who did things, movers and shakers, people who coined the term makers, people in San Francisco used to doing shit. And she’s definitely one of those people,” Courtney said. “She seems to burn with a certain degree of fire and internal energy.”

That passion is evident in Bohan’s goals.

“I’m still determined as fuck,” she said. “I’m sticking it out…I have this dream that I’m pursuing. I don’t want the house and the dog and the bullshit. I’m 45 and I don’t want to give up on my dream.”

Bohan said a pivotal moment for her was when she went to the Board of Supervisors in July last year to speak in favor of the DaDa art bar moving into the Mechanic’s Institute, to the dismay of its would-be neighbors who feared noise. Drag queens and artists dressed up to give their statements to the city to defend the bar, she said – and prevailed.

“There are still artists here, and it’s not fair that we have nowhere to go,” she said. At that point, she decided, “I’m putting a new stake in the ground. We can’t do this anymore.”

That means staying in the know, keeping up with the latest movements in the art world, and, yes, taking side jobs. Trained as an English teacher, Bohan does freelance creative work, has worked as a barista, as massage therapist and holistic healer, and has established an active bartering network that keeps her space properly equipped.

Her art, too is about reinvention and seeing things a new way. Her current series on display at The Laundry features vibrant collections of repurposed children’s toys. Much of the materials are sourced from thrift store or other places where people deposit their unwanted, used up belongings.

“The aspect of upcycled toys or donated toys, and her trying to discuss the topics of trash people throwing things away even though they’re brand new, and just having people look at that and have a conversation about it really spoke to me,” Boedihardjo said of the art.

Through the lens of these discarded toys and materials, and especially with color, Bohan also explores gender and how gender roles are enforced. The pieces are interactive, Boedihardjo noted, allowing and even inviting the viewer to touch, to play – one piece, for example, includes a mirror. Another, during one mid-January visit, sported a large gap where someone had pulled off an element.

Reaching people is part of the reason Bohan is so stubborn about walking the artist path.

“I can reach many more people through my art than I could teaching in a classroom,” Bohan said.

To carry on the artist’s torch in gentrifying San Francisco, Bohan said, one must be in the know. She knows who’s who in local politics, she knows who to talk to to put on events.

“She’s definitely the kind of person who’s keeping that San Francisco alive,” Courtney said.  

Bernadette Bohan’s show will close at The Laundry on Saturday, March 4 with jazz and performances.

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