Dancing on Thin Ice

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine. —R.W. Emerson

italianate lanterns

The next time you find yourself walking about the San Francisco Civic Center, take a close look at the lanterns on the War Memorial Opera House and the Veteran’s Building and especially those that illuminate the gateway between the two buildings. Of course the architecture is beautiful, but the lanterns are sublime.

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cuteness infusion

Camera in hand, I recently spent the day with my grandson Clyde. Next month is his second birthday.

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Clyde – 18 May 2010

Grandpa is putty in Clyde’s hands.


Reinventing myself meant, foremost, reactivating parts of my mind that had lain dormant for six years and recovering my hand/eye coordination. To accomplish this, I used drawing as one of my primary tools. Below is the first of my pen-and-ink drawings, dated July 2001, my third month at the Sixth Street hotel.



While still in the hospital, I had rediscovered my love of language and symbolism when I read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum; afterward, once I’d secured a roof over my head, much of my time was spent poring over alchemical treatises and ars combinatoria of the Middle Ages, wherein I found the inspiration for many of my drawings including “abracadabra.” The alchemical symbols inside the little gold triangles represent mercury (mind) at the apex, sulfur (spirit) on the left, and salt (body) on the right.

setting forth from the jaws of darkness

Almost as soon as I moved into the hotel on Sixth Street, still in the early stages of recovery from a six year nightmare of heroin addiction and homelessness, I started a sketchbook as an exercise in reinventing myself. Among other things, I used the sketchbook to reconnect with my love of calligraphy and the illuminated manuscripts and decorated letters of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The exercises culminated in a small series of watercolor decorated letters, two of which paid homage to poets whose writings had influenced my life in years gone by. I offer here some pages from the sketchbook and the three watercolors for whatever they are worth.

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Happy Birthday, Erik

It’s a little early, but what the heck . . .

Erik Satie

erik satie

17 May 1866–1 July 1925

Ever since the age of ten, when I first learned to play his “Gymnopedies,” Erik Satie’s music has been a part of my life. To commemorate this year’s anniversary of Erik’s birth, I offer “The Memory of Monsieur Satie,” Part IV of a piano suite I wrote for Pulitzer nominee Cyrus Cassells in 1984.

erik satie by jean cocteau

another lifetime

“Curt McDowell and Mark Ellinger, circa 1979”

Not long after my friend Curt McDowell died, I drew this picture from a photograph of the two of us shooting a scene for his film Initiation on King Street. The drawing was a gift for Curt’s older sister Marce, who lives in Indiana where Curt grew up. It’s a shame that Curt never finished King Street. It was, or would have been, one of his best films: dreamlike, dark and moody, unsettling and prophetic,* densely layered with metaphor; it was an allegory of Curt’s self-discovery as an artist. Initiation on King Street was not Curt’s final film, but it was the last film on which I worked with him. It was another lifetime—we were so damn young.

In ’78 and ’79 Curt and I shared a flat near the foot of Utah Street at the bottom of Potrero Hill, when it was still an active industrial district. There were no condos, galleries, or jewelry marts. Our neighbors were companies like Forderer Hollow Metal Products, Best Foods, Kilpatrick’s and Hostess Bakeries, Crown Zellerbach Paper, Lone Star Concrete, Hamilton Hardware, and diners; lots of little diners that fed the factory workers, truckers, and trainmen. Most streets in our part of town were embedded with train tracks, spur lines to the area’s industries, and at night we were often serenaded by the soulful chimes of Western Pacific air horns as switching engines shuttled raw materials and finished products to and from the factories. Much of Initiation on King Street was filmed near the Southern Pacific train depot, within a cobble-stoned labyrinth of low, wooden warehouses between King and Berry Streets, stretching from Fourth Street almost to Seventh.

It was the end of an era and I deplored its passing, so to live amidst the industrial remnants of that era was a little slice of heaven. It breaks my heart to think that nearly all of Curt’s and my documentation—motion pictures, photographs, and sound recordings—has been lost, for it captured the zeitgeist of that too-brief moment in history, of which only my memories now remain.

*The film foretold Curt’s untimely death, and included an eerily prescient scene of my own mourning.

shameless horn tooting

The vivacious and multi-talented Julie Michelle recently interviewed me for the excellent photo website Caliber. If you’re at all interested in photography (and San Francisco), it’s a website well worth visiting.

julie michelle

Julie Michelle, self-portrait

“The City” at 1:AM

"The City"

Roman Cesario has been doing some fine work in the central city and past shows at his gallery (corner of Sixth and Howard) have been worthy of note. I have seven pieces in this show, including some new cityscapes, all of them previously unexhibited and all most definitely for sale. I hope to see you at the opening—it should be a lot of fun!

more cloudy skies

I’ve been preoccupied with other projects and have thus neglected this site for months. Tsk-tsk! For the next little while my posts might be just random images that I like. For starters, here are some San Francisco skies that I shot with a little Canon G3 back in 2003.

“Gathering Clouds”

“Throne Lights”

“After the Rain”

a matter of perspective

Regarding nearly everything, the attitude of my sixteen-month-old grandson Clyde is the same:

Photo by Monica, Clyde’s mom

Ain’t he cute? I try as best as I’m able to follow his example, but the little bugger is light years ahead of me (which is exactly as things ought to be). Am I bragging? Of course! I’m his granddaddy, get used to it.

art from the heart

By drawing pictures in sand on a light table, Ukrainian artist Kseniya Simonova tells the story of the World War II German invasion and occupation of Ukraine. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Prepare to be amazed. This young woman possesses a rare talent that will take your breath away. If you’d like to learn more about Ukrainian art and how it reveals that country’s tragic past, uncertain present and hope for the future, I highly recommend spending some time at the excellent website ArtUkraine.com.

Thundercrack! makes national news

. . . that is if anything on Fox can be called “news.” In a piece headlined “Perverts Put Out,” Fox talking heads get their panties in a twist over San Francisco Frameline’s screening of a thirty-five-year-old film. It’s heartwarming to know that Thundercrack! still offends the delicate sensibilities of conservative prigs, but watching them express their outrage on national television is exquisite. I would like to personally thank Rupert Murdoch and especially Roger Ailes and his minions for giving national publicity to Thundercrack! I know that George (Kuchar) also thanks you, as would Curt (McDowell) if he were still with us.

Disclaimer: I developed the original story concept for Thundercrack! with friend and director Curt McDowell and also wrote and performed the film’s score.

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Thundercrack! stills are copyright © 2004, Melinda McDowell (thanks, Mindy!).

Click here to listen to excerpts from the score.

orological atmosphere

One of the best things about the building in which I live is an accessible rooftop, where I have a fairly unobstructed view of the sky. Last night I was fortunate to see a spectacular sunset made even more luscious by the appearance of lenticular clouds in the northeastern sky. Altocumulus lenticularis are stationary lens-shaped clouds that form at high altitudes over mountainous regions, normally aligned perpendicular to the wind direction. When stable moist air flows over mountains, enormous standing waves sometimes form in the mountains’ lee. If the temperature at the crest of a wave is at or below the dew point, moisture in the air can condense to form a lenticular cloud. When multiple lenticular clouds are generated by the crests of successive waves, the resulting formation is known as a wave cloud.

“Altocumulus Lenticularis”

one for the history books

500e block O'Farrell

“500E block O’Farrell Street”

Written by architectural historian Michael Corbett* and photographed by me, the survey nominating the Tenderloin to the National Register of Historic Places has been accepted and approved by the State Historical Resources Commission and the National Park Service. The most fascinating and, in my opinion, the best neighborhood in San Francisco is now officially the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District.

Speaking for Heritage, we are delighted with this anticipated news.

We very much look forward to working with stakeholders in the Tenderloin to advocate and educate on preservation of our city’s great architectural and cultural identity, and how, with good planning and neighborhood participation, we can improve the quality of life in this great neighborhood.

Congrats to you for your keen eye and careful documentation, Randy Shaw for his vision and leadership, to the superb architectural historian and author, Michael Corbett, who continues to document and write on places important to all San Franciscans, and to the many other important people who made this happen.

Jack A. Gold, Executive Director
San Francisco Architectural Heritage

*Corbett, Michael R. 1979. Splendid Survivors: San Francisco’s Downtown Architectural Heritage. San Francisco: California Living Books.

200o block Leavenworth

“200O block Leavenworth Street”

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