By Pam Grady
September 30, 2015 Updated: October 3, 2015 4:19pm
These days Joen Madonna is the executive director of ArtSpan, the San Francisco nonprofit that puts on San Francisco Open Studios over four weekends in October and November. But in 1994, she was a fresh transplant from Oklahoma when she received an invitation from a friend to explore another facet of her adopted city.
“We’re going to go to brunch, and I’m going to show you something that San Francisco has that’s amazing,” Madonna recalls of her initiation into Open Studios. “I remember being completely blown away: ‘You mean you can just go in and see these people’s art? You can just go and talk to them?’ ... I’ve gone to Open Studios every year since.
20 artists at beginning
This year Madonna — who also participated in Open Studios with her photography in 2003 — is presiding over the 40th anniversary of SF Open Studios. The annual event began in 1975 with 20 artists. By 1989, the year the Loma Prieta earthquake led to a shortened exhibition and a crisis out of which arose ArtSpan to ensure SF Open Studios’ future, 400 artists participated. In 2015, the program is more robust than ever with more than 1,000 artists represented.
At SOMArts Cultural Center, ArtSpan is hosting a monthlong exhibition in the main gallery of 450 works by 450 artists. At Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason, visitors can view the works of 135 artists in what Madonna describes as a mini art fair. And at 1540 Market St., at the corner of Van Ness Avenue, 22 artists taking part in a nine-month ArtSpan studio residency will be exhibiting their works.
Among the artists participating in Open Studios this year is Rob Sakovich. A San Francisco resident since age 4, Sakovich, 47, was a teenage graffiti artist in the 1980s whose art has come full circle. His canvas is the spray cans themselves.
“There is something about the spray cans, especially for graffiti artists,” Sakovich says. “It’s almost like it’s magical. It’s an incredible tool that the artists use. What I like about it is all the cans that I use have previously been used for graffiti pieces and murals, and then the cans actually become artwork. It’s almost like an homage to the can, because the cans are always producing great artwork, and now they’re becoming great artwork.”
Array of talent
For the past few years, the Sunset District resident has exhibited his work during Open Studios at Secession Art & Design in the Mission, but he first came to know Open Studios as a fan over many years as he visited the artists in their studios with his wife and daughter.
“Open Studios showcases the immense artistic talent here in the city,” he says. “When my family would take our Open Studio tours on our bikes, we were always amazed that the lady down the street did such incredible art and the man you always see at the bus stop does brilliant photography. It’s like for a few days a year, you find out that all these amazing people live right in your neighborhood.”
“You meet a lot of people,” Mission District artist Claudio Talavera-Ballón says. “You meet a lot of artists. You show your work. You share your experience. You share your stories. You connect with people. You have the opportunity to see the work of other people, not in a gallery but in their studio. You know the artist. You know their work. You can see the process of their work.”
A native of Peru, Talavera-Ballón, 41, moved to the city only 2½ years ago and is already participating in his third Open Studios. He and wife, Mariela, are both active in ArtSpan, and he is among the artists who painted “Birdsong,”the colorful mural that marks 1540 Market St.
His home and studio are filled with his art, reflecting his wide-ranging inspirations: the fishing villages he and Mariela have encountered on their travels; the farmers of his homeland; a house he once lived in that exists now only on his canvas; the women of Las Patronas, Mexico, and the Central American migrants that they aid. Since moving to San Francisco, the working-class immigrants of the Mission District have provided new inspiration.
“When I came here, I started to see the same people I was painting in Peru, but maybe they were the children and grandchildren of the farmers and fishermen,” Talavera-Ballón says. “Here, they have the same struggles for making a living, and also they have other struggles, like immigration issues and living in the shadows. I started to paint that, because I admire these people. ... They leave their families. They leave everything in their home countries to come here to make a better life, to escape violence, to escape hunger, and they come here to be practically enslaved, doing the work no one wants to do. Through my paintings, I want people to see these people.”
Madonna acknowledges that the 40th is a bittersweet anniversary with so many artists facing displacement in a city with skyrocketing rents. This year alone, ArtSpan has heard from 200 artists who face losing their studios. Madonna and her husband, artist Paul Madonna, lost their apartment of more than 10 years. Paul Madonna has related the saga in his “All Over Coffee” comic strip in The Chronicle’s Sunday Datebook. Joen Madonna and ArtSpan are working with the city on affordability issues, and she hopes to see San Francisco build artists-specific housing.
In the meantime, ArtSpan is doing what it can for artists with a range of courses designed to help them with the business of art. The organization is expanding its programs beyond Open Studios with such initiatives as Art in Neighborhoods to ensure that there is art throughout the city year-round. Madonna is also trying to cultivate a new generation of art collectors with initiatives aimed at the tech youth who now call San Francisco home.
“What can we do to get artists back to work and get them more work, because I really believe the best way to help artists to is to give them work as artists, have them sell their work, and have them be professional,” Madonna says.
Solving San Francisco’s displacement crisis won’t happen overnight. For the next month, the focus is on celebrating the city’s artists and their vibrant contribution to San Francisco’s culture. Veterans know the drill when it comes to touring Open Studios. Madonna has some words of advice for the newcomers.
“The best way to go about is go to our Open Studios exhibit,” she says of the 450-person group show at SOMArts Cultural Center. “I think the best thing is for people to come here, go to the exhibit, walk around and see the art that inspires you, look it up in the guide, mark the map, and then go see the art that you enjoy.”
Pam Grady is a freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
SF Open Studios run Saturdays and Sundays, from Oct. 17 to Nov. 8, focusing on different neighborhoods each week. Preview events begin Thursday, Oct. 8, and continue through the weekend. Free, except for some special events. For event details: www.artspan.org/events-programs/visit-sf-open-studios. For details on guides: www.artspan.org/visit-sf-open-studios/guide-map.