I have lived and worked as an artist in San Francisco for more than twenty years. For all of that time, my studio has been at The Point, in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood on the southern edge of the City. When I first moved there, I traveled to my studio by bus. The long ride to and from my studio allowed for reflections of daily life in San Francisco and ultimately shaped my artistic vision.
Located in the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, The Point has had artists’ studios since 1983. Now, according to The Point’s website, with more than 250 artists, it is one of the largest communities of artists in the country. The Point is not without its troubles. The San Francisco Chronicle once described the former shipyard as “one of the nation’s most polluted sites”—a result of it being “the center of a federal nuclear program in 1946 that included a secret laboratory where tests were conducted to determine the effects of radiation on living organisms.” The U.S. Navy has been working on cleanup of the site for years. Yet, even with the cleanup activity and the many working artists at The Point, the ability to work is not impeded. Perhaps it is the remoteness of the place that lends an atmosphere conducive to concentration. My bus ride, for example, from home to the studio was an hour or more each way. By the time I got there, I felt determined to make the effort worthwhile.
More than a mere bus, I came to think of the bus that I rode to my studio as a moving stage with characters entering and exiting at each stop. The constant flow of characters and stories helped shape my work. The number 19 Polk bus starts its route at the northern end of San Francisco at Ghirardelli Square and ends at the Hunters Point Shipyard. It crosses the entire length of the city from north to south. My part of the trip started midway at Civic Center. The trip took me through various neighborhoods of the city, and there was no shortage of drama—both scenic and social. At first, I found the bus activity tiresome. But when I finally got to my studio, the isolation of the shipyard was soothing. It was calming to just sit for a bit and listen to the sound of the nearly deserted shipyard. One day, rather than just sitting when I got to the studio, I decided to draw the impression of some of the stories and characters from my bus ride. Eventually, this exercise became a spark that fueled an interest in storytelling. The stories that came from these drawings were increasingly more mine than what was overheard. Soon I became interested in collecting characters and stories and looked for them everywhere I went in the city.
With this new interest in storytelling, I began to think about how to visually integrate painting, drawing, figuration, and story. I was already using line to give the work a sense of drawing. As I allowed the line more prominence, the paintings took on the visual vocabulary of coloring books. This association intrigued me. It occurred to me that working in coloring books is something that unites us. My desire was that the common experience of coloring books would allow the viewer an entry point to my stories, just as the common experience of the bus ride allowed me entry into the stories of others.
I no longer take the bus, and like everywhere in the city, development has come to the shipyard. It no longer feels as isolated as it once was. As environmental cleanup of the shipyard continues, new townhouses and condominium buildings are sprouting by the week. Someday this will blossom into a master plan conceived by Adjaye and Associates, which will include offices, labs, and more than 12,000 new homes. The Point will remain a part of this new community, and I wonder how this change in the surroundings of the studio will bring changes to my own work.
JOHN BANKSTON is an artist who lives and works in San Francisco.