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Masterminds 2010 

Meet the talented Bay Area artists competing for our $2,500 grants.

Wednesday, Feb 17 2010

Unless you work for Goldman Sachs, times are tough now. They're especially hard on many Bay Area artists, who, let's face it, aren't rolling in cash even when the economy is good. That's why we love it when our annual Masterminds contest comes around: We get to hand out $2,500 grants to local artists to spend any way they want, and we get to feel we're doing something to help the good guys.

That's the cool part. The sucky part is we can't make everyone a winner, which inevitably results in some bruised egos. This year, it was especially difficult for us to narrow the field to a short list of finalists. We're not sure why (we suspect the economy had something to do with it), but we received more than 100 submissions — more than ever before. The quality of those entries was truly inspiring. That's why we have 12 finalists this year instead of the usual 10. Our goal was to have at least one finalist from each of the contest's four broad categories: visual arts, fashion/design, performing arts, and film/video/media.

This year, we will be giving $2,500 grants to three deserving artists. We'll announce the winners at our Artopia event, where all the finalists' work will be on display. It should be a good party, with great art. Hope to see you there. — Ed.

Phillip Hua
Like most teenagers, Phillip Hua didn't have a whole lot of direction. He knew he liked the art class that he'd taken in high school, but it wasn't until a community college art instructor pushed him to take his creative work more seriously that a path emerged. "She basically told me to go to art school," says Hua, now 30. "So I did."

At San Francisco's Academy of Art, Hua dabbled in many forms, taking painting and drawing classes. He got the most inspiration, though, from a job at a frame store. "I was working so much with the degradation of materials," he says. "I got the idea that if people spent nearly as much time on the environment as they did preserving their work, the world would be a different place." From that insight on the nature of time-sensitive materials, Hua began playing around with newspapers. He started a series of trees painted on Wall Street Journal pages — working with the juxtaposition of the economically minded publication and the icon of nature — that used the yellowing surface to great effect.

Hua's recent Mission District installation as part of the S.F. Arts Commission's Art in Storefronts series also plays on the withering effects of time on certain media. "Consider It" uses wilting flowers and phrases stenciled onto objects ("Stand up" appears on the seat of a red chair) to make a statement about America's unexamined consumer culture. While it was a nice break, he says, to not worry about producing saleable art from his disintegrating materials, he aims to return to his wallworks on a much larger scale. Same capitalist, environmental critique, just supersized.

Joshua Hagler
While it would be inaccurate to say that painter and multimedia artist Joshua Hagler, 30, is a religious man, he is deeply fascinated by religious men, and faith in general. His interest in religious history around the world was piqued by his own experiences with Christianity. He grew up in a churchgoing small town in Idaho, but didn't become religious until college, where he became a Bible-thumping born-again. Around the same time, his parents' marriage was breaking up, and he converted his father to the faith. Shortly after, their divorce was finalized and Hagler himself fell quickly out of love with his chosen religion, although his father has remained devout. It was a rather strange switcheroo.

But, rather than picking apart Christianity, Hagler became fascinated by the universal qualities of world religions, how each seemed to find different answers to the same basic questions. He does not shy away from the grotesqueries found in many religious tracts. Take, for example, his "72 Virgins to Die For" show at Frey Norris in early 2009, which contained a vividly lurid set of paintings with an installation project. All the work played on virginity's multiple religious meanings, from the literal Islamic promise of 72 virgins in heaven to references to Mormonism. In one painting, "Golgotha," hurled tomatoes look like bloody body parts, sullying the handkerchiefed pilgrims. There's no one historic or religious scene being depicted, but a strange amalgamation and compression of different traditions.

Hagler is currently working on a video-based series that blends fact and fiction. He has chosen four figures from his own life to tell different stories (modeled on the Gospels), and has been interviewing them on camera. The results, though, won't be verbatim quotes; he will boil down their stories to archetypal forms. "The things that stay constant over time, the myths, that is what I find most interesting," he says.

Andrew Schoultz
Andrew Schoultz, 34, makes large, swirling paintings depicting elements of environmental and manmade chaos that are more suggestive than explicit. In his words, they are "nondefinite narratives." In his sprawling pieces, "the viewer isn't pressured to draw just one conclusion." But that doesn't mean he doesn't have certain things in mind when he makes them.

The Milwaukee native moved to the Bay Area as a teen, and says he was heavily influenced by underground cartooning and warlike play — he was fascinated by medieval castles, for instance. "The older I get, the more I can see this carryover of the interests I had as a kid being carried out as an adult," Schoultz says. "My interest in fantastical work, storytelling."

As an adult with an art education, Schoultz makes contemporary as well as historical references in his work. Militant figures on horses are reminiscent of Persian miniatures from the early 18th century: "For me, [using those images] is an attempt to be fully integrated into a globalized society." Still, his primary concern isn't to make art "for history buffs," but to "establish a general vibe." As he prepares to ship work for his spring show in Milan, he says he has been working on another issue of global and historical significance: the Great Recession.

Kate Mitchell
Many artists work in more than one discipline, but few manage to successfully blend them. Choreographer, designer, and collage artist Kate Mitchell is the exception. She designs clothing around movement for her dance troupe, Kate Mitchell and Dancers, which she founded in 2003, and takes inspiration from as varied sources as the painter Wassily Kandinsky, fashion designer Christian Lacroix, and filmmakers such as Julie Taymor and Pedro Almodóvar. "I just happen to be one of those people with a split artistic personality," she says, laughing.

The Oakland resident attended New York City's High School of Performing Arts, where she studied dance, and then to Yale. She put dance aside in college to focus on design, taking classes in art history and stage management, but returned to it as part of the dance repertory company CoDanceCo in New York, which became known for working with choreographers Bill T. Jones and Mark Morris.

She also studied fashion at Parsons New School for Design in New York.

"About ten years ago, I began weaving together dance and design, my two passions, and I started to realize all these creative pursuits connected through composition — whether it be the frame of a video or on the stage, or in a two-dimensional work," Mitchell says. "At this point, I started to feel really excited. Like all of these things that I had done and studied had a purpose."

Tabitha Soren
Her face is instantly recognizable to anyone who watched MTV News in the '80s and '90s, but Tabitha Soren, 42, has retired from journalism after a decade or so of globetrotting. She has not, however, stopped working. The Berkeley-based Soren has been seriously pursuing photography, with assignments from The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and others providing public displays of her portraits of people and places.

Her primary subject? "Time," she said in a phone interview. Soren tends to find a subject, such as post-Katrina New Orleans, and keep returning to it. In that series, "Uprooted," she first shot "all over the place," but eventually limited her scope to eight plots of land. The images are bereft of people, but feel far from empty: Soren shows the cycle of destruction and growth through mud-splattered patio chairs and plants poking up through the earth. In another series, "Underdogs," she has been taking pictures of baseball players, showing their journey from fresh-faced rookies to more weathered professionals. "They started out as happy, hopeful kids, and now — they are being marketed, they have a lot on the line," she says. "One injury can change everything. There are psychological elements of time in their portraits."

Soren is less sure about why time has been such an interesting topic for her. "That's a hard question," she said, pausing. "I grew up in a military family, so we were always changing locations. Maybe photography is a response to that, an effort to slow time down. And now that I have children, well, people say that children mark time, by their changing growth, and height, and so on."

While Soren's photography does seem to somewhat straddle the line between journalism and art, she remains firmly planted in the latter. When asked whether photography could be construed as an effort to avoid the frantic pace of her MTV days, she answered drolly: "Oh, ya think?"

Misako Inaoka
For visual and installation artist Misako Inaoka, 32, figuring out what is natural and what is artificial is often trickier than it seems. Take parks, for instance. The grass and trees might be from nature, but, as she points out, "everything was planted," or placed in planters or otherwise manipulated. Houseplants, fake Christmas trees, animal statues in front yards — once you start paying attention to things, as Inaoka does, they seem to be everywhere.

Inaoka's keen eye for the subtle absurdities of urban attempts at nature has led her to create a unique body of work. In "Urban Habitat Re-Creation" at YBCA in 2008, she installed dry moss on the ceiling and Astroturf on the floor of a narrow, sloped corridor. Recorded bird noises engulfed the space. Visitors had to crawl into the space to peer up to small windows that contained such things as floating plants and a mirror. It was a memorable exhibit.

She also uses representations of nature, as well as actual plants, in her work. Small bird figurines with strange heads, equipped with motion sensors, tweeted in a 2006 show. Inaoka, who has been an artist-in-residence at the de Young, made a chess set with animal pieces last year, poised to attack each other from across the board.

Inaoka's goal seems to be to make us look more closely at the world around us, whether it's man-made, natural, or in between. "I think a lot of people around here pay attention," she says, noting that she chose to move here instead of New York City after attending the Rhode Island School of Design, and has been happy to find such a "warm, supportive community." But even if audiences in the Bay Area do tend to keep their eyes open, Inaoka does a great job focusing their gaze.

"We are Will and Grace," Ryan T. Smith, 29, co-founder of San Francisco dance troupe RAWdance, says of Wendy Rein, his professional life partner. "No, we make Will and Grace look totally functional," Rein, 32, quickly adds. "Because we've lived together and worked together." They both start laughing, as if on cue.

The dancers and choreographers have known each other since their Brown University days, and it shows in their work. Neither could imagine working as closely — and taking as many artistic risks — with anyone else. The pair formed RAWdance in 2004 after collaborating for six years. They get props for edgy, sexy inventive fare designed to speak to audiences who would rather snort glass than call themselves "dance people," but who actually might like modern dance.

One of the main components of making their work more accessible is Smith and Rein's choice of locales. Take their 2009 work, "The Beauty Project," which took place in the most unlikely of locations to see avant-dance performance: the mall. The company occupied an empty storefront in the Westfield Centre on Market Street, and spent long hours entertaining passing shoppers. The work was inspired by fashion photography and took mechanical, mannequin-esque movements as its vocabulary.

Rein admits that they may have surprised mallgoers not expecting to see humans in the window. "I think one kid may have cried," she says. Bringing dance to the people may involve certain pitfalls, but it also has rewards. "It's really important to us that we bring in audiences who might not be otherwise exposed to dance," Smith says. As their back-and-forth banter shows, these two, at the very least, have great timing.

Dennis Ruel
Many independent filmmakers restrict themselves to traditionally low-budget fare — moody failed relationship pieces, absurdist ironic plotlines, or lots of talking about esoteric bands. But Dennis Ruel, 30, makes and stars in films that showcase action.

Unsurprisingly, Ruel grew up watching martial arts movies, although it wasn't until he was 14 that he actually began taking martial arts classes. "It came very naturally, to want to do it all the time," he says. From the beginning, he knew that he wanted to study fighting for film. It was more "screenfighting" than streetfighting.

For several years, he has channeled his knowledge into well-shot action shorts while teaching at a local martial arts school. In Ronin, Ruel shows off both his quick moves and his acting chops, although, perhaps most impressively for low-budget cinema, he manages to make the action believably intense. Fight choreography and good blocking are often taken for granted in big-budget flicks, but are painfully apparent in most amateur fare.

This year, Ruel is working hard on assembling material for a full-length film that will look and sound as professional as possible, and will also "be strong on [the] story side." He has also signed up with a local acting agency and began appearing in roles — he has already played an unlucky electrician on the NBC show Trauma.

Ruel is hopeful about his prospects, although realistic about the odds. Film "is a rough area to compete in, and I know the chances of a martial arts movie to be popular at Sundance are next to zero, but not actually zero," he says. "Hopefully ... we can turn some heads."

Packard Jennings
Conceptual artist Packard Jennings, 40, is perhaps best known as an effective propagator of the "shop drop," the term for subversive additions to store inventories (basically, the opposite of shoplifting). As shown in videos posted on his detailed Web site, Jennings' M.O. is to discreetly bring in his satirical objects like his Walgreens Local Business Coupon, a list of local shopping alternatives designed to be inserted into the store's coupon catalogs. Then there's his distinctly uncommercial anarchist and Mussolini action figures, which he put on the shelves of big box chain stores. Clerks, when trying to ring up the rogue items, are often hilariously stymied.

It's a surprisingly effective way to throw a wrench into the American corporate shopping paradigm; Jennings encourages action that "upends the power structure," as he puts it, through such inventive works.

More recently, he has begun a series of Pocket Survival Guides, tiny comic books designed to help you stay afloat (literally) amidst the giant gyres of garbage that now swirl in the world's oceans. These small comics are then taped to different sizes of plastic bottles for consumers to find. "I try to be a little funny about it," he says, noting he himself has shop-dropped them on a variety of cleaning products.

Jennings is putting together a project for the S.F. Arts Commission's 40th anniversary that will be, predictably, untraditional: It's a dinner party for a group of artists to discuss what kind of project they should make. A Web site will launch this fall to serve as a clearinghouse for the kind of mischievous, interventionist work Jennings and frequent collaborator Steven Lambert have been doing for years. "Depending on how people use it, it could be more of an archive [for work like this] or more dynamic," he says. "I'd prefer for it to be dynamic."

And in the midst of what he calls a "collaborative" year, Jennings is making a short feature film on the theme of guerrilla marketing. It would be his first film project, although he has made videos and animation. As usual, he doesn't aim for the obvious. "I don't want to hit people over the head with this stuff," he says. "There are serious issues, though, under the surface."

Mary Van Note
Comedian and San Rafael native Mary Van Note, 26, began her standup career in college at UC Santa Cruz, where she purposely dressed in conservative clothing to tell bawdy stories about masturbation or her sex life. But, after playing countless shows around the country, as well as making the Web video series The Mary Van Note Show: Gavin Really Wants Me, her stage persona has shifted. "When people ask what I do, it seems like the easiest way to describe it is as 'not your normal standup comedy,'" she says. "It's gotten to the point that I've forgotten that the difference [between my looks and act] is surprising. I dress the way I want to dress. And then I forget that people are surprised by what I say."

How blue can Van Note be? Well, on her Web site, she proudly provides a link to a short essay she had published in Clean Sheets Erotica magazine, titled "How to Give Head in the Men's Bathroom of the Church You Were Baptized, Given First Communion, and Confirmed in."

Van Note says that she will always view standup as her main art. (She is passionate about comedy being received as an art — "I go through all the trials and tribulations of being an artist," she says, unironically.) For her series — a 10-episode show starring Van Note and often featuring her S.F. comedic pals Brent Weinbach and Moshe Kasher — she achieved a measure of local notoriety for her single-minded focus on our fair mayor, Gavin Newsom. She even got the word out to him.

"When I was doing a show at Purple Onion for the show [Love Letters to Gavin], I guess a guy who works for his office, some assistant, took a flier to Gavin and said, 'You should go to this,' and Gavin, I heard, said, 'Oh, I'm not going to go to that because it would ruin the joke,'" Van Note says, "He gets it! He totally gets it."

Gavin Worth
Ideas can come from the most banal surroundings, like a hardware store. That's where visual artist, designer, and sculptor Gavin Worth, 29, got the notion to make work from bendable wire. (Well, that and seeing whimsical sculptor Alexander Calder's work at SFMOMA.) The result is immediately captivating: expressive, stark bits of metal that show two intertwined hands or a woman's naked back. Some, like his three-part "Sadness" series, use a spray-painted background to enhance the color palette of the work.

"They are wire drawings," Worth explains, an extension of his other artistic interests. Visual art, though, wasn't his first love: The New Mexico native trained as a Shakespearean actor and performed in summer theater companies after college. But he says he eventually grew tired of performing the same things over and over. "There aren't a lot of new Shakespeare plays," he dryly notes.

He now splits his time between his studio and a part-time job that gives him access to a wood saw. In addition to the wire sculptures, he also designs marketing materials for a Los Angeles art festival, stencils, and works in set fabrication.

But wire works are close to his heart. He plans on expanding on his wire repertoire in the coming year, bringing it into the third dimension with new shapes. "Is 'curl' a shape?" he asks. "Well, if it is, that's the shape I'm starting to work on."

Lucy Puls
Installation artist Lucy Puls, 54, has long been interested in the detritus of American culture. In the '90s, she began visiting thrift stores, looking for materials. "It was very striking how everyone throws away the same thing at the same time," she says.

From there, Puls, who teaches sculpture at UC Davis, decided to add another constraint to her acquisitions: They had to be things found for free, usually what people would put out on the corners in her neighborhood. As many Bay Area residents know, there's an active free market exchange happening on the sidewalks and stairwells of homes and apartment buildings. Puls has had no trouble gathering objects.

But her skill isn't just in her eye for collecting. The installations, like in her series "Ad Hunc Locum," are an eerie lot. She assembles tableaux from both the objects and photographs of them which she has transformed somehow: Images get screenprinted on fabric and hung on car parts, for instance. The essential loneliness of the discarded, unwanted bits of American consumer culture are nakedly on display, laid all the more bare by Puls' artful manipulations.

Her latest ongoing work takes on an even bigger discard. With the help of a real-estate agent friend, she's been taking photographs inside foreclosed homes, and has started assembling pieces to be installed in future shows. The homes themselves aren't always sad, but each place tells a story. "Oh, some are filthy," she says. "Some are completely filthy. I love it."

View more works by these artists, visit

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Reyhan Harmanci


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