Not easy being green

Sonic Reducer
By Kimberly Chun

THE SAD FACT of life is art and green cookies don't always mix. I realized this at this year's Mission Creek Music Festival at the Lab, where Aquarius Records stalwart, Wire scribe, and onetime Bay Guardian columnist Jim Haynes was tag-teaming on a lengthy piece with fellow Bay Area sound artist (ext.) from behind a bed sheet. Yellow and orange lights pulsed. Textured noise induced lapping waves of paranoia. Apocalypse Now village watering hole chatter morphed into what sounded like Mos Eisley Cantina bum fights. The foldout chairs became increasingly uncomfortable. Mission Creek founder Jeff Ray closed his eyes and appeared to be lightly dozing in the seat beside me. I probably resembled Marlon Brando emerging from the jungle, peepers rolling to the back of the head and jibbering about the horror, the horror of certain sonic frequencies and maybe the South Beach Diet.

I decided to sit out the rest of the war on the step of the Lab's foyer, holding my head. But little did I realize that the swirling green and blue images around me, on the walls of the entrance, were created by another artist, who happens to be accustomed to altered states and, well, seizures. He knows all about lost time. Mission District artist Scott Williams spray-painted and stenciled those surfaces, and while he's starting to get some deserved recognition as the recipient of the San Francisco Art Institute's 2005 Adaline Kent Award (his artwork is on display at the SFAI through July 30), you've probably seen his handiwork 'round town for years: on art cars, at Clarion Alley and Artists' Television Access, on the walls of Burger Joint and the DNA Lounge, in collaboration with Rigo. That mascot on the Leather Tongue banner is his.

Williams still quietly does his part in the local activist/art community, as I learned talking to the artist a few months later, at his flat/studio, watching him offer a "reworked" real-estate sign to the organizers of a community art event put together in an effort to stop the demolition of the nearby 20th Street Quonset hut. He has firsthand experience with housing woes, being once the center of a lengthy artist eviction, which ended in '82, at the Goodman Building.

"It was fun living there – it was an artists' building," he says, remembering the place that was once home to Margo St. James and painter Margaret Senger, and where he first started working with photo-based stencils. "There were wild characters, like an old IWW hobo – he'd get free food from places, big batches of stew."

The artist is now fairly settled in a 'hood that has changed radically over the years ("Gone to hell in a handbasket," he laughs ruefully), although his flat of 16 years remains, if not the same, then an amazing work-in-process. Spray-painted scraps of text, butterflies, cowgirls, quizzical faces flit across the walls of his painting alcove.

Embellishing the kitchen are chunks of drywall and metal, resurfaced with familiar icons like Mona Lisa and Geronim. If there were any bare walls, you wouldn't know it, because Williams seems to have covered all surfaces with an almost obsessive scrim of images, patterning, collage.

Despite the fact that his stencils have shown up on walls 'round town, Williams would never call himself a graf artist, though he seems to have been working on a parallel track. These days he prefers water-based paints to spray paint for health reasons – a decision that left him without an income for a few years. "I have epilepsy, and it was getting worse," he says. "So I thought I should cut back – all these warnings on the side of the can. You can't drink a quart of vodka every day while you're trying to kick the flu."

The change in media led him to work smaller, in books, and he's now collaborating with writer Fred Rinne on fantastic hand-painted and stenciled volumes, at the urging of ATA cofounder and Booklyn director Marshall Webber, who has sold the pair's works to the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, the Library of Congress, and Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. "Marshall saw my sketchbooks, and he was like, 'Oh, yeah, if you just had better binding I'd be selling these for you, no problem," Williams explains, adding that 160 hand-cut stencils might go into a book that earns him a $1,200 check.

Still, it's amazing that Williams, 48, hasn't gotten more attention: Nick Gorski made a short film, Spray Paint, in 1991, about the artist, which was shown on PBS. But the soft-spoken Williams doesn't exactly come off like an avid self-publicist. "It actually came out the same time as the R. Crumb documentary, and they were shown together, and he had wild tales and crazy brothers, and actually I didn't really like talking in front of the camera," Williams says, somewhat wistfully. "I'm a little worried about what this catalog will do. Might have talked too much. I do have crazy tales."

Book 'em On the readers' tip, Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers tells me that he is writing a film script based on his 33 1/3 volume on the Smiths' Meat Is Murder: It's the only fiction installment in the book series on canonical albums. While I have him on the phone, he marvels, "As we talk, we're in a very seedy part of Detroit. It's hilariously bad. A lot of people who are mildly fucked up walking around. But if I remember correctly, even though where we are is grim, where we're going is probably even grimmer." Maybe take a cue from the record, hand out a few pork chops, and dodge possible homicide?

Scott Williams's and Chris Ballantyne's works are on exhibit at Walter Gallery and McBean Project Space, San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut, SF. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Pernice Brothers play Sat/30, 9 p.m., Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, SF. $15. (415) 885-0750.


Contact Kimberly Chun at