Interviewsand Articles


Interview with Fredric Fierstein: An Outrageous Act

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 23, 2011



The story leading up to this interview includes the influence of my having read Peter Kingsley's A Story Waiting to Pierce You. In his book, Kingsley hypothesizes that a mysterious figure, Abaris, traveled from Mongolia to Greece to meet Pythagoras. Abaris is mentioned in several ancient texts, usually carrying an arrow, a symbol of shamanic power. 

     A few years before having read Kingsley's book, I'd been bicycling around the Berkeley marina one day, when I was surprised to come upon a warrior archer astride a mythical beast that looked something like a oversized Chinese foo-dog. The statue, made of ferro-concrete, was maybe fifteen feet high and like no other piece of public art I'd seen. Stopping to gaze at it, I remember marveling at its squat magnitude and unlikely novelty. 
     Not long after having read Kingley's book evoking an ancient Mongolian shaman, I happened across the statue a second time.  This time I laid my bicycle down and walked up to the statue where I noticed a bronze plaque. It read: Guardian, Fredric Fierstein--To Protect the Life Spirit.
     Standing there, I couldn't help thinking Fierstein's statue had a Mongolian flavor and suddenly, on the spot, I was seized by the desire to find the statue's maker. Without a doubt, it would be worth the effort. 

     As soon as I got home I googled Fierstein. What I found were several photos of the statue and a few brief references to a scandal. For instance, January 15, San Francisco Chronicle: "In 1986 sculptor Fred Fierstein dumped a statue called The Guardian at the Berkeley Marina."
     It's worth pausing at the journalist's choice of the word "dumped."
[ I'd noticed that the statue sat neatly on carefully placed concrete pads. ] In the article it was further noted that, "In a city vote, fans supported the statue and the term 'plop art' was coined." So the piece had been placed there without the city's permission. Thus "plop art." 
     Can we digress a moment? I recall encountering that term around 1992, soon after I'd first began publishing an art magazine. A young man, name long forgotten, had contacted me. He was on fire with enthusiasm; he was a practitioner, he declared, of "plop art." Several disconnected flush toilets sat in the vicinity of Telegraph Avenue thanks to his efforts, as I recall. He thrust a folder full of newspaper clippings into my hands, some perhaps even referring to Fierstein's Guardian. Always willing to find the hidden glitter of a diamond in the rough, I tried to see what was interesting in this young man's oeuvre and came up empty-handed. Looking back though, I can see how well attuned he was with tenor of the phrase "plop art." 
     In any case, Guardian was not dumped, nor was it plopped. 
     Disappointingly, Google provided no further information on the statue's creator. I was temporarily at a loss. But then, what about the City of Berkeley? Inquiries there quickly led to a name and phone number. On my first try, a man answered. "Ever heard of Fredric Fierstein?" I asked.
     "You mean Fred of Fredric's Electric?"
     Fighting off the feeling that I was entering some surreal comedy, I answered, "Is he the one who made the statue down by the Berkeley pier?"
     "That's him."
     So that's how I found Fredric Fierstein--in the Yellow Pages under "electricians." We met one morning and got acquainted, and then a couple of weeks later we sat down for the interview at his home in the Berkeley Hills. 
Richard Whittaker:  I was asking myself where to start. One place would be to ask you to talk a little about your practice of martial arts. You told me you were in Penang. That's where your martial arts teacher lives, right?
Fredric Fierstein:  The temple was there, one that he manages for a Buddhist association. 
RW:  There was a lot of statuary in the temple, right?
FF:  Right.
RW:  And there was this one statue that was quite different. 
FF:  Yes. I had been to so many temples. This one caught my attention. It was about six inches tall and I was inspired by its shape. I thought, wouldn't it be nice if this little statue was larger than life? You know, in order to be able to look up at the figure instead of looking down at it on the table. 
RW:  What was it about the shape that inspired you?
FF:  It seemed playful and serious at the same time. It had a kind of earthly quality. It seemed like it had been done by a person who had been inspired, not something mass-produced. It looked different from the rest of the dieties. And it was made with clay. It wasn't carved from wood. The bow was made from wood. So I asked the priest if we could take it outside. He had to do a little blessing thing, he said some words and asked to move it. So I photographed it. When I came back, I decided to make a big piece. 
RW:  Did you learn anything about the story of this statue?
FF:  He did tell me the story, but I don't remember it now. I was more connected with the art, with the visual aspect. That's what got me. It was the shape of the piece, kind of pre-Columbian and playful. 
RW: You mentioned that your martial arts teacher managed this temple. And he had sons.
FF:  Right. 
RW:  And he taught his sons martial arts, too? 
FF:  Each one a different style-one with an ax, one with a hoe, one with this, with that. 
RW:  He would put one of the sons in a trance, you said.
FF:   It was the first son, who is generally is entitled to everything. The father was old and didn't teach me anything. The first son was the one managing the temple. The father would look once in a while at what I was doing. Then it was the third son who was teaching me because I was just a beginner in their style. 
RW:  I'm not sure I'm following this.
FF:  The father taught the first son. He taught all of them, but he gave all the good stuff, stuff the others didn't know, to the first son. The third son was the one he had doing iron palm, where the hand becomes like steel. The first son was showing off hitting people, beating up people when he was young, right? So the father put more energy into the third son. So they were equal, but the first one had some things that the father taught him that the third one didn't know. And I started off with the third one and then, when I got better, the first one taught me. 
     I went back every year for three years. Three years after I got there the father died because someone challenged him.  This is something that is pretty common. Some person would want to start a martial arts school so he would go to an existing martial arts school and challenge the seifu, the master. If he won, he'd take all the students. Not only that, his reputation would grow. 
RW:  So the old man was in a fight with a younger challenger? 
FF:  Yes. It wasn't a really a fight. 
RW:  What would you call it? 
FF:  This is what you do. [Fierstein retrieves a stout wooden staff seven or eight feet long. He holds one end against his stomach and points the other end at me.] You push and I push with no hands, stomach to stomach. It went on for an hour. The old man was damaged internally and he died. 
RW:  Wow. Okay. Getting back, somebody was getting put into a trance. 
FF:  It was the first son who would put, maybe the fifth son, into a trance.  People would come to the temple and they would want to get in touch with one of their relatives. 
RW:  So there was a shamanic thing going on.
FF:  Oh, there was hot oil on certain festivals and whips, and he would whip one of the other kids and they'd put the medicine on afterwards. I mean this was incredible. 
RW:  So the fifth son was brought into a trance state and in that state he had access to...
FF:  Well, a wife might come in and want to talk with the husband, who was dead, you know. So the first son would put the fifth son into a trance. One of the other sons would play a little gong, ding, ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding, ding... They'd light some joysticks. The first son would be chanting, right? And the fifth son would be going into this trance [moves his head around with his eyes rolling] They still do that. And then the wife would ask a question and the first son would get the answer through the fifth son. 
RW:  Do you still go to this?
FF:   Yes. I'm going in November. 
RW:  Would you say something about your own martial arts practice?
FF:  That's a huge question. I've practiced with other schools, too. But I particularly liked that school because it was very primitive. The people were very primitive in the sense of a twentieth century view. The sons had only been schooled by their father and there they were. 
RW:  What was it about the primitiveness that appealed to you?
FF:  Oh, listen. You can't find these people anymore. First of all, they were friendly. 
RW:  These are Chinese people? But not actually living in China?
FF:  Right. They're in Penang, which is on the Malaysian peninsula. 
RW:  So what was it that appealed to you? 
FF:  There's a certain soul there, and honesty. And they're not corrupted, polluted, by parking tickets, by a lot of things that we have to deal with. These things sidetrack us from something. I've found the same thing true in some other cultures. When I've gotten out of the cities I've met people of the earth, I call them. These people take you in and feed you and don't ask you for money. They're not the kind of people you meet in the cities who are trying to hustle you. They want to know about you and what your life is like and they're not too busy to sit down and talk. Right? 
     A lot of these people do one thing their whole life. Their lives are cast by their circumstances. They don't have the options. And they're not bitter as many people in this society are because they look at themselves next to the rich. They accept themselves. And they accept me. One of the most wonderful experiences I had is when I went to the Golden Triangle, you know, where all the drugs are.
RW:  Where is that exactly? 
FF:  That's in north Thailand, a triangle between three countries. And there's opium there. Poppies. . I had a guide and we hiked in. A few others were with us. It was very hard climbing those mountains. We went to this poppy field with these huge poppies. It wasn't a field exactly. There were the poppies growing with the rocks cropping up all over. There was a guy. He had a funny haircut and funny dress. His teeth were all red and black from betel nut. He lived in a little hut about the size of a bathroom. That was it. 
     He was out there living by himself taking the sap from the poppies. They cut these bulbs with a three-pronged razor knife that they make themselves and the juice comes out. In the afternoon they come around and scrape it and make it into a ball. Then they take it and do whatever they do.
    So I looked in his hut. There wasn't much in there. And he looked through my bag. I let him do that. My guide, who spoke Thai and a few dialects, couldn't speak with this guy. That's how far out he was. Hill tribe. I did find out from him, by sign language, that he was my age at that, which was so great! 
    I had, I don't know if you'd call it a revelation, I realized that guy could have been me and I could have been him.  It was just the way the world is. It's so incredible. I was who I was from the fact that I came from one place and he was who he was because he came from another place. But in a sense, we're all the same. He's me and I'm him. Right? 
     That was the thing I got. It was just beautiful to see that we're all equal. This was a wonderful thing for me. So when I talk about people of the earth I get this connection. It's fulfilling in a way. 
     You hear people talking about money. I have to talk about money sometimes, too. They talk about this and that, and it's just chatter. Most of it's all dust, anyway. People are products of their societies. They're not products of themselves, in a sense. Most people are more products of their society than of something inside making them who they are. You see what I mean? 
RW:  Absolutely, and that feeling that you could be him and he could be you. There's something profound there. 
FF:  It's hard to describe. It's just a feeling. When you see a person and you realize you could be him, it helps you not to be so critical and to have a certain amount of compassion. With all of the options we have, we sometimes we get muddled by those options. I mean my grandparents couldn't speak English...
RW:  They were from the Ukraine you said?
FF:   Ukraine, Romania and Russia. And then we traveled to Mexico. When I was twelve we drove all the way around the U.S. to museums. We went into the Crocker's house. My  mother wanted to see Man With a Hoe by Millet. The man took us to the art room and there was this painting. It was like she saw Jesus or something. She was ecstatic [laughs].
RW:  It sounds like you had an unusual upbringing compared to a lot of us.
FF:  Yes. I was in the fifth grade and I could barely read. They thought I had a learning disability. But the thing is, I didn't want to. I found other things I liked to do and I felt that school was like going to the dentist. So I just muddled along and turned off my brain.
RW:  Did you decide at some point to get with the program or what happened? 
FF:  No. I do what I want to do. They raised me like that [laughs]. 
RW:  Did you discover reading at some point?
FF:  Oh, yeah. Later. 
RW:   That's so interesting. It's too bad there's not more of an atmosphere that encourages people to follow their interests. 
FF:  Well, you need some basic learning to survive. It's not like Bali. The artists are revered in Bali and you're high up there whether you're rich or you're poor. But those cultures are disappearing really fast now. 
RW:  Earlier you said that the people you met, the earth people, seemed content mostly.
FF:  Yes. Until they start seeing people next to them who are getting wealthy. Otherwise, they seem pretty content in their lots. A lot of them would like more money, but not all of them want to spend their lives chasing it. There are too many other things. 
RW: Okay. Let's move over to the Guardian piece. Maybe you can remind me what was going on in the city of Berkeley when you started building this thing. 
FF:  I didn't know anything about what was going on in Berkeley. I took the pictures. Came home. My driveway was my studio. So I got the welding rod and started. 
RW:  But you went through a decision process first about how to make it, right?
FF:  Right. At first I wanted to do it in ceramics, but I thought, that's too fragile a material. I was going to build it in place and then build a kiln around it. I'd run a gas pipe in there and fire it. But there was always the chance of its cracking. It's also a huge project to keep the clay you're working with moist. Anyway, I decided to use the ferro-cement technique that boat builders use. 
RW:  You're not afraid to get into processes that are new to you.
FF:  No. [laughing] I love to dive into things. You're not yet so comfortable with it. Here you go. Okay, this thing is doing this. What's going on here? Why isn't it doing that? 
RW:  Somehow you pulled it off, because it's really beautifully done. 
FF:  Yeah. It's a nice piece. 
RW:  From scratch-this big ferro-cement structure. 
FF:  Yes. A lot of people would come by and watch me. They'd bring beer. They'd sit. They'd all chit-chat and I'd be working away. It took six, eight weeks or something like that. 
RW:  Then finally it's sitting in your driveway. Now what? 
FF:  I talked with a friend. I said, I wonder what I should do with it? He told me that the city council had appointed art commissioners. I guess the council didn't want to deal with public art anymore. So each council member appointed an art commissioner and the city had also instituted an ordinance to put art in public places. 
     Anyway, I brought photos to the art commissioners. This was the first piece to be offered to them. I called them up every month and asked what was going on. Well, we haven't decided yet. Okay. When do you think you'll make a decision? We'll let you know. 
     After about six months, they told me they didn't want the piece. Of course, my friends were all waiting to see where it was going to go. They were going to help me move it. So, at that point, we all had a discussion and it was decided that it would end up where I wanted it to be. It was where I asked them to put it, which was at the marina. We decided to just put it there. 
     So I had to figure out a path from my house to the marina. I attached a long piece of bamboo sticking up from my car at the right height. See this piece, on a trailer, was over sixteen feet high and I didn't want to tear down any electrical wires. So I found a path through the streets down to the marina that way. 
    We decided to do it early on a Monday morning. 
RW:  I noticed that its four feet were each sitting on a nice little concrete pad.
FF:  I poured those here and then we went down and set them in place a week earlier. We just took some shovels and a level and we installed them down there. 
RW:  And nobody bothered you?
FF:  Nobody bothered us. We did that on a Sunday. Then a week later we moved it on a Monday morning. 
RW:  You had to get a big crane, right?
FF:  I had to. It weighed over three thousand pounds. And I brought some cones and we put the cones out. The piece was on a car trailer and it was covered up with a tarp. So we're driving to the marina with something big. Must be a sailboat or some kind of related machinery. What else would it be? When we got there, we waited in the parking lot of His Lordships, that restaurant just to the south. 
     We waited and then when the crane arrived we talked about the logistics and got that all figured out. I set out the orange cones and went back and drove over with the trailer. We took the tarps off the piece and the guy with the crane strapped it, lifted it off the trailer and lowered it into place. It took about fifteen or twenty minutes once we had it unwrapped. 
    Then Bill Montgomery, the head of the parks and recreation department showed up.
RW:  By accident, right?
FF:  By accident. He wanted to know who had given us the authority to do this. Somehow I had a letter on City of Berkeley stationary that gave me permission to place it there and I handed that to him. I asked him to give it back, but he wouldn't. He said, "I have to find out about this." So we cleaned up the cones and the tarps and then we went and had breakfast. A little later, the city sent me a citation for littering. Then, when the news...
RW:  How do you think it hit the news?
FF:  I don't know. Somebody told somebody. Billy Monroe called me from Channel Five and I went down there to do an interview. I have that tape somewhere.
RW:  So you found yourself on local TV?
FF:  Yeah. I was on three channels. There was a fair amount of media attention. The art commission wanted to remove it. But actually, before I placed it down there, I checked to make sure the city didn't have a crane big enough to lift it. 
RW:  You did your research. And you figured out that the same red tape that you had run afoul of would snarl them up, too, in trying to get the equipment to remove it.
FF:  That's right. [laughs] It meant they would have to requisition something. And that meant that the bureaucracy, the same bureaucracy that kept me from putting it down there, would now have to trip over its own shoelaces. 
     So it was there and I went away on another trip. But I had a friend who was behind watching it for me. And I got a letter from her telling me they were getting ready to remove it. So I stopped traveling and came right back. We decided the only way to save it was to get it on the ballot. At that particular time each city council member had to run for office in a district election. So there was a snap election happening and the art aficionados who didn't like the sculpture were pushing their representatives to remove the piece. But it was popular, either because it's art or because of the act of placing it there the way I did. See, there were others who also had been stonewalled by the wonderful bureaucracy in the City of Berkeley, and they appreciated the act. Others appreciated the art. 
   It was too popular. So any city council member who was an incumbent who said something bad about it was sure not to get re-elected [laughs]. Even Loni Hancock was against it, but all these people had to be quiet. Also, I decided to get a measure on the ballot to let people vote whether to keep it or not. I needed twenty-four hundred signatures-actually more because some signatures wouldn't hold up. Anyway, I managed to do that and it got on the ballot. I had posters made. That's a whole other story, my campaigning-going to speak at the Democratic Women's Club and there was the opposition, which was the art commission. 
RW:  Wow. So you had to debate them?
FF:  Yes. I was so astounded that the art commission would actually defend not putting art in some place. Seven months after they were given the direction to put art in public places and nothing. The only piece that did exist, they wanted it removed. This was the Berkeley Art Commission!
RW:  What was it like during the campaign? Would you speak?
FF:  Yes. I would speak. And some would speak against me.
RW:  Well, what was that like?
FF:  I was just flabbergasted! [animated] You know, they would ask me and I would tell them the art commission stood between me and giving a gift to the citizens of Berkeley because I so like it here. Now they're trying to remove it. And I would ask, who are these art-authoritarians who have been appointed? 
RW:  How did that play out?
FF:  Well, they kept criticizing. It's not art. And I would say, no, it's not art. It's just a study of art. It makes no difference what you want to call it. Does it have that thing that touches people?
     Then they would argue, oh, it's going to fall over. It's going to get rusted and it will be a danger. You know, trying to find anything. I mean I was just amazed at all the ammunition they were coming up with, the excuses. So I said, the art commission wouldn't let me bring it in the front door, so I brought it in through the back door [laughs]. 
     The truth was that I created this thing and I did want it to be a gift. I thought it was a wonderful spot for it down at the marina.
RW:  What were the reactions in the audience?
FF:  You'd get both sides. Some people are always afraid. And the art commission said, "Listen, we can't let this happen because a lot of other people might start doing this."
   I said, " Gee, wouldn't that be wonderful?" [laughs] I mean, it was just so ridiculous. I had to ask myself, am I really in Berkeley? One said, "Oh, you did this to be famous." I said, absolutely not. 
RW:  It reminds me of some of our conversation when we first talked. You showed me all these really beautiful things you've made and I asked why you didn't have an art career. You just laughed. You told me you really weren't interested in getting into making some particular thing and keeping on repeating it for others, something like that. 
FF:  I work when I get inspired to do something. Just like the Guardian. I was inspired. I didn't think, gee, you know, maybe I should find out if should go someplace first. I wanted to see it big and be looking up at it. And I made it. Then I thought, okay, now what do I do with this? [laughs] It's just like that. 
     To be able to do this is just a wonderful thing! You see something. You get inspired. You do it, right? And then when you're exhausted from it, you're done. It's passion. It's passionate. It doesn't have any time or place. It's not like math, which you can pick up and do the next day. When the passion comes, you act. It's like falling in love with somebody. 
RW:  There was no strategizing, like I'm going to make a career for myself.
FF:  No. I never strategized on that. Because I had the advantage of doing my electric work for money. I didn't have to prostitute myself in the art field, which a lot of people have to do. You make and make and make and nothing. Then all of the sudden, you hit on something. Then that's what gets produced and produced. Not everyone gets caught in this bind. Some of the big, great names were able to fly all over the place following their inspirations. 
    I thought, I don't want to have to talk to somebody in some gallery. I don't want to have to go over here with my hat in hand. I did that a little bit. And, gee, what am I selling here? This is not what I'm about. I'm about seeing something, getting turned on, exposing myself to the piece and the medium with whatever passion I have at the time. Because it comes and goes. And then it's done. I was satisfied to totally separate the art from the money. 
RW:  What are the different mediums you've explored?
FF:  Oils, acrylics, watercolors, ceramics, metal, of course, ferro-cement. I also have made things out of wood, like this cabinet here. I made this out of scraps. 
RW:  That's beautiful! [a fine, hand-crafted cabinet with unusual woods]
FF:  And just things you can see in the house [it's full of all kinds of creative alterations]. Those windows I found under somebody's house. I built the temple entrance in the front of my house. Here's the inspiration. I was running up in the hills and I went by a driveway and saw those tiles. So I went and knocked on the door and asked the guy, do you want to sell those? He sold them, but there weren't enough to do the whole thing. So I made more. 
RW:  You made them?
FF:  Oh yeah. And the dragons, I made them, too. All the tiles on the blue gate-every single thing. 
RW:  You didn't make those dragons. 
FF:  Sure did. 
RW:  Wow. Hold on. [I stopped to take photos.]  Now you mentioned earlier how you had a little coffee place in the Philippines. It was even a bookshop, too. So how did all that happen?
FF:  It was on an island. This place was extremely gorgeous. It wasn't built up yet. I mean, people would come off the boat with fish and you could just buy the fish there. If I sold one book, I could buy three fish! Another book, I pay the rent! Another book, I can drink at night!  
     I had to build a coffee machine that could run on gas, an espresso machine. There was no electricity there. I was open from December to March. I said this is life! [laughs] Of course, in the off-season nobody was there. So I would just close up. Then, I went south of the equator to Bali. It was cooler. 
RW:  What did you do in Bali?
FF:  I'd look at all the art and just hang out. Now that's all changed. 
RW:  What years were you there?
FF:  The best for me was from 1977 to 85. And in 1990 the place in the Philippines began to get expensive. I knew when people found out about it, it was going to turn expensive. I'd seen what happened in Bali. People used to come there and hang out for three or four months, live in a coconut tree with a hammock and build a sailboat. I knew almost all the foreigners there. 
RW:  So that little island in the Philippines is now a tourist destination.
FF:  Oh yeah.  It's the biggest tourist destination in the Philippines. But when I was there, I'd play chess all day, make a couple of coffees and sell a few books. The Europeans would come. At night they'd go out and party starting at 10:30 until 3 o'clock in the morning. They'd wake up, have a coffee, go for a swim, have lunch. They go to sleep, wake up at six and they'd want another coffee. Then I'd close. 
RW:  It must have been amazing. But let's get back to the election. It was held and the people of Berkeley voted to keep Guardian. 
FF:  Correct.
RW:  Do you remember how the vote went? Was it a squeaker? 
FF:  No. I won by a larger percentage than the mayor. 
RW:  And then the story wasn't quite over, right?  You got a letter...
FF:  Yeah. From the city attorney telling me that the city still intended to remove the piece. She said that ballot initiatives only apply to elected officials, not appointed officials. And since the art commissioners were appointed officials, their decision could not be overridden by a ballot initiative. 
RW:  They were still going to take it down.
FF:  Yes. Even after the citizens of Berkeley voted to keep it! Can you imagine, the city of Berkeley, where I donated a sculpture and it won, that they would actually come and tell me something like that? I was like, gee, there's something wrong here. I knew they were only being provoked by who? By the art commission! And anybody they could find who would take their side. 
RW:  So what did you say to the city attorney?
FF:  I asked her if she wanted the art commissioners and the city of Berkeley to get more egg on their faces that they already had. I told her we would take the fight to the county and if I didn't get a decision I liked there, we would be going to Sacramento. If that didn't work, we would be going to Washington D.C. 
RW:  You must have made an impression on her. 
FF:  I never heard from her again. So that was the end of it. 
RW:  [laughs] When I saw that piece I knew that whoever made it would have made all kinds of other things. And I haven't been disappointed. I find it really interesting that you haven't wasted your time, so to speak, trying to get recognition as an artist. And clearly, you are. 
FF:  You recognize me and I'm thrilled. [laughs] I tell you, that's enough. 
RW:  So what's ahead? Is there anything that's inspiring you right now?
FF:  No. I wouldn't say I'm in a funk. I've been a single parent for nine years. Now my project is my kids. In terms of making art, I still appreciate it and it's still part of my life. Some conversations are art. Sometimes I see people sitting and talking with each other and without even listening, I see something going on that's nice. It's all out there to look at. 
Before leaving, Fredric proposed a magazine project to show the cartoon drawings of local high school kids. A lot of these kids don't get any recognition, he said, and a lot of them actually have talent. He couldn't do a magazine all himself, he said, but he has a background in animation and a love of cartoons, too. And he would love to work with a few people on such a project. 


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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