The days grow short as September fades, but it might as well be spring in the 1890 Bryant Street Studios.
“Maybe it’s an archetype because everyone is painting flowers,” said DK Haas, one of about 100 artists in the bustling Bryant Street hive participating in Artspan Open Studio Oct. 1 to 3 (Artspan artist-hosted events take place around the city through Oct. 17). “I think the response has been, ‘I’ve got to paint something happy, because this situation is screwed.’”
Cultivating blossoms on canvas seems like an entirely sane response to pandemic confinement and ongoing uncertainty that has thrown so many daily routines into disarray. The return of 1890 Bryant Street open studios is both a reassertion of normalcy and an opportunity to see how artists are responding to extraordinary circumstances.
An essential niche in the Bay Area arts ecosystem, 1890 Bryant Street is home to a tight-knit community of painters and potters, sculptors and bookbinders, jewelry artisans, photographers, fiber artists, printmakers and mixed media mavens. Many of them presented virtual open studio events this year, but in-person visits provide a window into the honeycombed world within the massive five-story building.
“Really, the reemergence is for the public. The art scene, the artists, never stopped,” said Haas, who was out of action for several months after catching covid over the summer. “After I got covid, I came back with a vengeance, and for many people, this has been the most productive time. This is a chance to come and see the way that artists have coped, and in some cases are expressing these difficult times in their work.”
Simo Neri says she’s also experienced a burst of productivity, and her work has been shaped and inspired by the pandemic. The Italian-born artist lived across the street in Project Artaud throughout the 1970s and ’80s, long before Vera Cort and her company, Cort Properties, bought the former Best Foods factory and transformed the 1949 building into one of the region’s biggest artist workspaces.
After years in France and New York City, Neri moved back to San Francisco in 2018 because she landed a studio in 1890 Bryant Street. After a few months of sheltering in place she started coming back to her studio, where she plunged into various projects and reveled in (socially distanced) human contact. “The spaces are so large and light and airy, they don’t feel cramped and dangerous,” she said. “We were able to do get-togethers on the roof, and the quality of the work people are doing is some of the better stuff I’ve seen.”
She’s designed a series of silk scarves that can be worn or framed, and “got obsessed with creating four-panel art screens on wheels with double acting hinges, or what I call ‘dream screens,’” she said. “Since so many people are working from home, they want dividers, so why not make them beautiful or interesting? In this show I’m presenting them almost like a diorama. I learned a huge amount producing these. I know a lot about hinges and casters now.”
Like many artists suddenly cut off from regular sources of income, Sidnea D’Amico started designing and selling face masks. The Brazilian-born painter and mixed-media artist and three colleagues share a 3,000-square-foot studio that they call the Art Farm (“art freshly made,” she said). Turning despair into creative fuel, she “took the time to paint more and draw more and took some classes on design,” she said. “I love that I could concentrate on my art and became more creative in many ways. There was plenty of stress. Galleries are not selling art. I couldn’t visit my family in Brazil. But I was very productive. I didn’t even watch a movie.”
Often employing text in her multi-layered still-lifes, collages and cutouts, D’Amico creates evocative pieces that can range in size from a single-serving cereal box to barn door. The initial impression is often whimsical, but the lapidary quality of her work draws the eye for deeper inspection as the partly obscured text recalibrates one’s reaction to the fields of color or rhythmic brush strokes. At the time we spoke, she was working on four big canvases that she was aiming to finish just in time for the open studio.
D’Amico participated in a virtual open studio event in May and sold some of her work, but the absence of direct contact with people “made me not take that for granted,” she said. “I’m really excited to be present in their presence. I come from a warm culture, and that connection to me is very important.”