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Masterminds 2012: Honoring 10 Extraordinary Bay Area artists 

Wednesday, Feb 8 2012

Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.

Artists are everywhere we look in the San Francisco Bay Area. They wait the café tables where we eat. They staff the markets where we shop. And when their shifts are done, they create. They paint, dance, play music, and make film to nurture their souls, to share with others, and possibly — just possibly — to make money enough to fund more art. Making money may be the hardest part of being an artist in the high-priced Bay Area. Which is why SF Weekly's annual Masterminds competition exists. Every year we give grants to emerging artists. As always, we welcomed scores of submissions. That was the easy part. The hard part? Narrowing them to a bona fide Top 10.

SF Weekly is still deciding which three of these 10 artists will get our Masterminds grants (the winners will be announced at our Artopia event on Feb. 16), but here are our finalists. These are the artists who our judges felt deserved more attention. These are the artists whose work inspired us toward a moment of transfixion. These are the artists who — young in age or young in spirit — are approaching a new point in their careers. Some of these artists are just beginning their professional lives. Others have established themselves but are taking a new direction — a leap of faith whose end is unclear.

If anything unites these 10 artists, it's that their art took a chance, that it dared the world to take notice. On that level, they have already succeeded in a big, big way.

The Icelandic Illustrator:
Baldur Helgason

Portrait of a Man with his Goose by Baldur Helgason

A couple of months ago, Baldur Helgason was watching the British TV show Quite Interesting (otherwise known as QI), a funny quiz spectacle hosted by Stephen Fry, when Helgason was inspired to draw the wry, witty actor as a kind of cigarette-wielding monstrosity. This Stephen Fry has sinking, wrinkly jowls, a nose that looks kicked in, and an oversized hand that splays toward the viewer. "I accidentally drew him a lot older and creepier," Helgason announced on his Tumblr blog, where he regularly posts his elaborate drawings. Helgason's Tumblr elicits a regular stream of positive responses from visitors who share his love of visual exaggeration.

An Iceland native who graduated last year from San Francisco's Academy of Art University's MFA Illustration program, Helgason frequently populates his illustrations with people who are older and bulbous. A pencil-thin umbrella-holder would fit into nicely in a film like Yellow Submarine or a book like The Phantom Tollbooth. Helgason says his aesthetic stems from his upbringing in Iceland, where stories of trolls are still common enough to dominate a young person's imagination.

"Troll folktales got stuck in me, and that's where the old people come into it," says Helgason, 27, who studied graphic design at the Iceland Academy of Arts in Reykjavík before moving to San Francisco four years ago. "When I went to illustration school here, the American way of illustrating is more clean, with kind of Superman-eseque things," he says. "But take the Icelandic mentality — it's more distorted and rough. As an 8-year-old boy, I was reading stories about beheadings in front of trolls. These kinds of twisted stories are brutal. They definitely influence Icelandic arts."

The Destination Artist:
Laurie Halsey Brown

A mixed-media triptych by Laurie Halsey Brown

In the Netherlands, interdisciplinary artist Laurie Halsey Brown created a webcast and poster project to explore that nation's controversies over the legality of squatting. In New York City, she made a video installation that let viewers gaze down from the World Trade Center towers destroyed on 9/11. (She had taken the footage just the day before the terrorist attacks.) And in Japan — Brown's latest art-project destination — she crisscrossed the country to take photos and gather found objects. Wherever she goes, Brown is conscious of what she calls "a sense of place" — which is basically anything (a building, a person in the street, a scrap of paper, even a feeling) that gives meaning to her destination.

In a triptych from Brown's series, "Honoring Japan's 'sense of place,'" she juxtaposes two photographs of pedestrians scurrying through a crowded Japanese intersection with an intoxicating multi-patterned textile. The blueish pavement, white-striped crosswalks, and patterns of people in the photographs complement the textile's blues, whites, and grids. In another triptych, Brown reverses the photo/non-photo order: Two watercolors with sea-blue blotches segue into an image of two people sitting over a canal. By juxtaposing disparate scenes, Brown — who graduated with an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1990 and lives in San Francisco — lets viewers delve deeper into her subjects. Each "Japan" work is titled with a haiku. "When I'm in a place," she says, "it's not just seeing one thing — it's a layering of different things, with lots of different elements."

The Biblical Artist:
Jon Kuzmich

Song of Solomon by Jon Kuzmich

In the past few years, the Bible has enjoyed renewed scrutiny from a bevy of artists and writers. Esquire scribe A.J. Jacobs headed the parade with his book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, a comical look at religious adherence in a modern age of Starbucks, tempting sex, and widespread snark. Now comes Jon Kuzmich's "Logos," which reduces the Holy Book to a series of dot patterns. Born in Kentucky and raised in Kansas in what he describes as a "very religious Southern Baptist" home, Kuzmich, 34, graduated last year with an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and almost immediately plunged ahead with his deconstruction of the religious text he grew up with.

As Kuzmich puts it, he's "painting all 4.3 million characters of the King James Bible," including "consonants, vowels, spaces, symbols and numbers," as dots onto 66 plastic panels. Framed this way, the Bible is morphed into an abstract belief system, to be studied like any other system. Kuzmich has also applied his critical dot-art to the history of capitalism. He says that his "Logos" project doesn't try to explicitly blame or praise religion. Still, the San Francisco resident proclaims, "I always had many doubts.... I'm very much interested in delusion and the mechanics of mass delusion, and I'm very interested in how as human beings we can be ensnared by the very system and structure that we create."

About The Author

Jonathan Curiel


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