How did you get here? How did you start painting, and why were you drawn to Oakland?
I started painting seriously in Florence, Italy while helping clean up after the disastrous flood of ’66. When my job ended in 1968, I studied painting for two years in England. In 1970 I returned to the Bay Area to rejoin my girlfriend from Florence in Berkeley. When we broke up I moved into a collective household in North Oakland where I lived for the next twelve years. It was there that I began to paint on the street in front of my house because my old ’54 F-100 truck was too rickety to take me out into the countryside to paint. I discovered, very quickly, that urban paintings had more depth and intensity than cows on golden hills.
You do most of your work on location, painting on the street in urban areas. What sorts of reactions do you get from people passing by?
I get enormous positive feedback from just about everyone. I get a few smart alecks who ask me why I don’t just take a picture which would be “much easier,” but in general people love the fact that I’m painting their turf. Some fill me in on local history, past and present, and many offer to to be in the pictures.
One of your paintings shows real Oakland figures talking on the street — Jerry Brown and activists Sonny Le, Randolph Belle, and Tomye. What’s the story behind that image? Did you have to work to get them all in the same place, or did it happen naturally?
These guys were all very active in the arts community in those days. They met and talked with Jerry during his campaign. I staged this scene in the sense that each one of them posed separately after Jerry had already posed for me on site. It’s a very busy location to paint. I couldn’t imagine painting four people simultaneously with all the crowds that gather there.
There’s a lot of debate lately about the future of Oakland. Where do you hope the city is headed, and what do you hope never changes?
I’m old enough now to say that there’s nothing in this world that doesn’t change. What has made Oakland a great place to paint is the climate, the great mix of early 20th century buildings — mostly Italianate — with more recent structures, and the working class tenor of the community. People talk to each other on the street. They find the time to stop and really talk with me.
As to the future, so much has to change, and quickly. This awareness is one of the reasons I supported OCCUPY and helped put together our group show at the Joyce Gordon Gallery (at 406 14th St. though Dec 1st). We need to get a handle on the issue of police accountability in this town. Don’t get me wrong, most Oakland cops that I’ve met seem decent and level-headed, but the bad apples must be weeded out and held to account. The foreclosures have to stop. And finally, the highly creative younger generation needs to be put in the driving seat. They will decide the direction of this city and hopefully make a major contribution to Bay Area culture.
What’s your idea of a perfect day in Oakland? What would you do, see, eat, hear?
My needs are very simple: give me the time and the weather to paint on the street in Oakland, around the lake, downtown, in West Oakland or in the port, and I’m happy. The Friday Farmer’s Market in Old Oakland is one of my favorite locations.