by John Nyman
“I'm an artist: a big part of my job is daydreaming, and the more I skimp on that step, the less the finished product is going to be.”
We tend to recognize cities by their symbols, slogans, and skylines—but on the ground, urban life is an alchemy between people and space. Few San Franciscans know this better than visual artist Pete Doolittle. While his aesthetic is indisputably low-brow—“I’m the caveman who paints on trash,” he jokes—Doolittle’s perspective on his city’s visual culture, streetscapes, and social issues is as sophisticated as it is relatable, drawing from 20 years as a working artist in SF.
I sat down with Doolittle to ask what art means to San Francisco, and what the city means to art. In the meantime, he shared a wealth of anecdotes and opinions about the importance of daydreaming, the people and institutions that make his work possible, and creating space for artists and others in a precarious and rapidly changing urban environment.
Five Questions with Pete Doolittle
Favourite contemporary SF artist?
Jeremy Fish; I think he’s the face and heart of it. And Lee Harvey Roswell.
Most inaccurate stereotype about SF?
That it's over! It's not. It's gonna come back.
Two places in SF every art lover should visit?
Clarion Alley and the SFMOMA. The low end and the high end.
Best exhibition you’ve seen in the last year.
Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe. It’s just freaky and awesome.
Three adjectives that describe the kind of art you can’t live without?
Public (otherwise, how in the hell am I going to see it?), original, inspired.
Take me on your favourite walk through San Francisco. Where do we go? What do we see? What do we do?
I call this the two-mile mosey. It's a pretty worn path for me at this point, I've been here 20 years doing this.
I'd start down in the Mission and probably have a stop-through at the Sycamore, a little bar there on Sycamore and Mission. They've got a back patio with one of the best murals in the city, where an artist named Paul Hayes has made these overlapping faces over the years. I'd start there with a little lunch and maybe a beer, then walk Clarion Alley up to The Castro. The walk there has a bunch of beautiful public art, murals, and painted doorways.
Then I'd probably stop at 440 Castro. I'm a little biased on that place: I've been the resident artist there for 16 years now. They have a permanent collection of mine that dates back 18 years to the very present, so it's kind of like going in and having a drink and getting to see your retrospective show.
From there I'd probably catch the 24 up to the Divisadero corridor and get off at the intersection of Hayes and Divisadero, where you have the Bean Bag Cafe. That neighborhood's turned into little Valencia in a lot of ways, but Bean Bag Cafe is one of the old strongholds. I've also been nailing art to the wall there and participating in their art walks for years.
Two doors down you've got the SF Skate Club, which is an afterschool program run by pro skater Shawn Connolly, who takes kids out and helps them do their homework. My son was in the program for a little while and his grades went up, it's a really cool thing. They're always doing something, especially at the art walks: the kids are out there doing amazing little things and sharing their works. And like I said, despite that neighbourhood really changing, there are still the bits holding on. If you haven't moved to Oakland, Portland, or LA yet, you're kind of in it to win it.
From there I'd probably go to Lower Haight: there's a couple of cafes and a really nice little art community. That's where you've got your Jeremy Fish sculptures and your Upper Playground, and there's always something fresh and new going on, as well as some old stuff on the walls. You've got artists like Nychos, who's got some great pieces down there. Then I’d go up the hill toward home in Upper Haight, which is just littered with public art everywhere you look these days, especially with a lot of boarded up windows.
On that walk, on that two-and-a-half, three-mile mosey, you don't go a block and a half without some substantial thing publicly right there in front of your face. Even if I just vary it with some little side street I don't normally take, you can catch something you didn't even know was there. That's one of the great things about the city: it's always fresh with stuff like that.
We usually refer to artists having a “practice,” but people are often mystified by what artists actually do. What do you do when you do art?
You do that thing you do! Well, I've thought about this, and basically making my art is a three-step process. I paint in reverse on the glass of old Victorian window frames—acquiring them is a whole other magic voodoo in itself that I've managed to maintain for about 20 years now. I do the lines first, then I colour it in, and I do that here at the house. But it ends at my friend Frank's backyard, because I need a place to spray paint the background. Since I work in reverse, the background is actually the afterthought, where a lot of paintings usually begin with the background and then build up.
In both of those things, where it starts here at my home studio and ends in my friend's backyard, I often find my comfort zone with music. I'm always looking at new music, but also the stuff I've been listening to since high school, that I'm never going to get over.
That's the physical process, if I had to explain it X, Y and Z. But it's so much more than that. I'm an artist: a big part of my job is daydreaming, and the more I skimp on that step, the less the finished product is going to be. Like, I'll be over in Panhandle park feeding some birds, and then an old 60s VW bus goes by with a nice two-tone, and I scratch my chin and I'm like, Yeah, that'll be good for another character, that'll be great. Or you go out to the beach that night to watch the sunset, and there's a gradient. Sometimes you don't even realize it: the next day I'll be finishing off a piece at Frank's and I've got this orange and turquoise character with a purple gradient in the background, and I'm like, Wait a minute... So you can sit there and let it come to you, daydreaming. I've always been good at that.
It's always funny as an artist, because we get the weird, Oh, you just lead this laid back, Bohemian lifestyle. But I don't know. I mean, maybe it’s Bohemian, but it's not laid back! I've been making my living off art for going on 20 years now. You have to get up and get shit done, you're not just laying around like a beatnik having a jazzy good time.
Some people say, He doesn't do nothing, he sits there and feeds ravens at the beach and then spray paints on some things. I mean, that's the short version, that is what I do. But the daydreaming is mandatory.
In light of its past, present, and future, how would you characterize San Francisco as an artistic city today?
Kind of in a dormant, hibernation stage. It's a boom-crash, boom-crash, boom-crash city. Gold Rush! Banking! Dot Com! Second Dot Com! It's ups and downs.
With artistic things, there are a lot of venues closing up and galleries skipping town. You also have the artists themselves moving off. But like I said, we're in a hibernation stage. The candle's lit, but it’s flickering—the wind's got it a little bit. But I think the flame, as it always does, is gonna hold on. And if it goes out, someone's going to come and light it again, because it's San Francisco. And then it'll be time for the next round.
Hopefully I'll be able to see that. Right now, I'm watching the rents drop, and this is the first time I've seen people negotiating. Two guys I make music in a little band with, they moved into this house in the SoMa, beautiful place, and they talked their landlord down. I'm like, Oh my god, artists are talking the landlord down in San Francisco? Shit done changed, man! It's never been like that while I was around. Just seven or eight years ago there would have been a line out the door with resumes and people outbidding each other.
I think with seeing those rents go down, we always talk about the artists, the artists, the artists. But it's about families moving back, especially people of colour. There’s been a lot of gentrification, and it's hard for them to come back. Once you leave with a family of four, you're not moving back in six years, you've kind of moved on to the next thing. But it's important to get families in here, because that way people grow up in this. I'm not from here myself, though my son is. I dropped anchor, I guess.
A lot of the artists I know work for homeless outreach and harm reduction. I think there's an inherent bond with a lot of artists and people in these situations, because we've both been put on the undesirable side. Artists and homeless people are not the top ranked priorities for any of the powers that be. Sadly, I know a couple of people who 20 years ago were the most amazing graffiti artists, and now they live in a tent three blocks up the street from me. It's an awkward weave for sure.