George McCalman: An Artist’s Life In Color

Question: Can art leave a person both socially awoken and at peace? There are those that say the work of the artist is to offend, to disrupt the established view or way of life.

There are others, such as the great James Baldwin, that have asserted the work of the artist is to make the world “a more human dwelling place.” What a lovely turn of phrase. But is it feasible? Can anything we do make the world a more human dwelling place? And if artistic actions do have this capability, how do they do so? For artist and creative director George McCalman, the role of artist is first and foremost this: to observe. It’s a good answer, especially considering the fact that his monthly feature in the San Francisco Chronicle is titled “Observed.” But what is the endgame of observing? It turns out, a great deal indeed.

“The thing that is amazing about “Observed” is that I created it just six months after I started illustrating full time for myself. I started documenting my daily life,” McCalman told Bob Cut. “Conversations on the street, market culture, restaurant culture; I was very drawn to documenting San Francisco and its transition of identity.”

His secondary inspiration for diving headfirst into this project came from the passing of Bill Cunningham, the celebrated NYT street fashion photographer.

“He was one of the few people that equated black style with self-expression. He saw things that a lot of people who made a lot of money didn’t see. Fashion took from black style. It was a one way conversation and he documented that. He didn’t editorialize. It affected me as a young black boy in Brooklyn. There was someone who saw us.I remember thinking about “Observed” and realizing, I can do this in San Francisco.”

When asked what his understanding or definition of art is, McCalman’s answer is characteristically thoughtful; it lends art the capacity to be many-faced, to be fluid.

“It changes all the time. It is a conversation between any creator and any audience. Art is open to interpretation. It is kinetic, dynamic, aesthetic. It doesn’t always have to provoke, it can please. Please your senses, awaken your senses. I am a political artist, but I don’t think all art has to be political,” he explained. “It is a service of the times. I don’t believe that fundamentally art has to be political. I believe that currently it is. Art is sensual, provocative. It is human. It is as mercurial as we are as human beings. It is often the second response, after our emotions. It is a manifestation of our human emotions.”

Walking the streets of San Francisco, the schisms of our local society are unavoidable and painful, though as our city grows richer it seems even more hell-bent on avoiding these issues. As a patron and observer of this city in a very official capacity, George has a unique viewing point of each one of us, we creatures of Fog City. Should art be an avenue to reconcile the abyss between Millionaire’s Row and the alleyways of the Tenderloin? Even if it should, can it ever possibly succeed?

“I don’t think you have to reconcile it. I think you have to acknowledge it. There is so much wealth here that people are not paying attention to the societal schisms,” McCalman offered. “It is irresponsible to live in today’s city and not pay attention to these problems. Acknowledging brings you a step closer to solving. If you have a city of socially-aware people, you can accomplish a lot of things. I am surrounded by a lot of people who do not pay attention to racial, social, gender, or class issues. It is a problem for the long term viability of the success of San Francisco. It is a fundamental flaw in this city right now.”

George McCalman outside his Dogpatch studio, photography by Alora King.George McCalman outside his Dogpatch studio, photography by Alora King.

George McCalman outside his Dogpatch studio, photography by Alora King.

The thing about fundamental flaws is, they are hardly ever localized. If an artist—or anyone, for that matter—finds a flaw in a group of humans, that flaw will be found again and again the world over. It is these iterations of imperfection, hues of passivity, and spectrums of unrest that illustrate the tone of any age. Observing as he does, not only in San Francisco but across the globe as well, McCalman says there is a distinguishable note that rarely wavers, no matter what human stands before his sketch pad.  

“I document people in terms of emotion. Clothes, body language, how we present ourselves to the world versus who we actually are,” he noted. “There are very few people on earth who actually are who they say they are. I accept that going into the world. I don’t have my goggles on when looking at people.”

Cutting to the quick, he went on.

“We are animals that forget we are animals. We don’t understand each other very well, and we barely understand ourselves.”

Despite this, he says that his work on the front lines of human observation allows him to look at this world with a great sense of joy. On a local scale, the personality of San Francisco keeps him on his toes. He defines the geographic and cultural landscape of the Bay Area as “a place of quiet exceptionalism.”

“I am surrounded by other people who followed a dream for themselves and this place allowed them to flourish and blossom. If you have a whole city or area of that, it produces an interesting ecosystem,” McCalman explained. “It’s a dynamic place, but on the other side it is not a place that is terribly emotional. There are a lot of other cities that allow you to be your true emotional self in a way that this area does not.”

The artist finds Oakland, unlike San Francisco, to be deeply in touch with its own emotionality and soul.

“Oakland is a soulful city,” he went on. “It’s a culture thing—black people are very in touch with their emotions even when they try not to be. They are not always in control of it, but always in touch with it. That is a piece that is missing from San Francisco. I’ve lived here for twenty years, I see how different it is now. I also see the things that remain. The counterculture is still present…that energy is still here. If we allow that culture to go away, this place is permanently changed.”

Perhaps the observing is an integral part of that very culture of which he speaks. Understanding, believing, caring, being moved—all of this begins when we observe. Too lofty a goal is it, maybe, to be so intent on changing what people see. First, they just have to see it. Everything else comes after that initial act of looking.

The role of the artist? Maybe we’ve cracked it: to give sight.

// George McCalman’s Instagram features updates and previews of his work, even before it makes it to his column in the SF Chronicle. Photography by Alora King.

George McCalman: An Artist’s Life In Color
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