Openings in the Veil: JoAnn Low and Kevin Killian in Conversation

Kevin Killian and JoAnn Low, 2018. Photo: alex cruse.

Kevin Killian and JoAnn Low, 2018. Photo: alex cruse.

It took me years to find JoAnn Low, but it was worth the wait. Writing the life of Jack Spicer, I heard over and over from those who knew him and loved him — and some who disliked him — references to a “Joanne.” Because Spicer became close to the poet Joanne Kyger in 1957, I assumed that the reference was to her, and it bothered me only a little that my informants seemed to be talking about a woman who knew Spicer before his life-changing trip to New York and Boston in 1955. With the glibness of the novelist, I shrugged and said, “So-and-so must have gotten confused about when Kyger came to San Francisco.”

Scholar Kelly Holt and I have been editing Spicer’s letters for some time, and a few details brought it home to me. In August 1955 Spicer writes from New York to a Berkeley friend, “Tell JoAnn I’m sorry she couldn’t find me.” Within a few weeks I had worked out that the painter JoAnn Low had been one of Spicer’s very first students while he was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute (then called California School of Fine Arts) on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, and that this was the “JoAnn” he was often referring to from the period of 1953–1955, and afterwards from the establishment of The 6 Gallery, a pioneering collective gallery dedicated to contemporary art which he helped run, and which showed Low’s work.

How to find her? In San Francisco there are hundreds of Lows and Los and Lowes in the phone book, and “JoAnn” has several spellings too. She had disappeared from the local art world decades ago, and no matter where I turned, it seemed hopeless. Then a friend suggested a 2013 documentary by local filmmaker Mary Kerr, in which poet Ron Loewinsohn could be seen sitting and chatting with “Jo Ann Low.”  She seemed so lively and young I had to say it out loud: “She must be alive!” And once kind Kerr agreed to pass along my bona fides to the artist, we had a date to meet. In the meantime, I found out even more about Ms. Low, though she continues to surprise me to this day. The young filmmaker alex cruse, a poet herself, agreed to drive me to and from Watsonville, in Santa Cruz County, and she additionally volunteered to document our interactions.

JoAnn Low is a native San Franciscan, born into a showbiz family. Her uncle was the impresario Charlie Low, who owned the Chinatown nightclub Forbidden City, which during World War II catered to white tourists by featuring Asian-American acts billed as the “Chinese Frank Sinatra,” the “Chinese Ginger Rogers,” the “Chinese Harry Houdini,” and so on. While Forbidden City was far from the only club in Chinatown, it was the most successful; a 1942 article in LIFE ensured lines around the corner for years. (Forbidden City served as the model for the “Celestial Bar” in C.Y. Lee’s 1957 novel The Flower Drum Song and in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s subsequent Broadway musical and 1961 movie.) JoAnn Low grew up outside of Chinatown, but the blare of the club was part of her heritage, though she has since lived many careers.

She touched something deep in Spicer’s soul. At one point, she wrote to him about gaps in communication, and how sometimes, “during the heat of day a mist rises and veils all that was so doubtlessly clear. There are few openings in the veil.” Spicer preserved her letter among his papers, now at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, and when we met she showed me the advice she’d gotten from her former teacher. “Dear JoAnn,” he wrote in April 1955, “I know just what you mean. I feel it myself, of course, in the bars and the school and other places I live — more now even than I did a few years ago. The answer (and a poor one) is this, I think — you can only communicate with another human being by a miracle and you have to wait patiently for miracles and believe in them a little too.”

— Kevin Killian, 2018


Note: All bracketed explanatory text added by Kevin Killian —Eds.

KK: JoAnn Low, how did you meet Jack Spicer?

JAL: You know how the courtyard is at the Art Institute?

KK: Very Spanish, Moorish.

JAL: There’s that tile fountain. I was sitting there and new to the school. There was a guy standing underneath one of those arches that surround the building. Guess who it was? Jack. They probably told him, “Why don’t you go mingle with the students, get to know them?” He walked toward me and when we got talking, I was kind of distant but soon realized he was part of the faculty. Anyway, he initially took me aback.

KK: The California School of Fine Arts had been around, in one form or another, since 1871. For eighty years its students learned only painting and drawing, and there was no academic component, thus no academic degree. You applied at an interesting time, when — in order to bring in new students through the GI Bill, and shortly, degree accreditation — the school opened a humanities department, and that’s why Jack Spicer was hired. In 1953, when you applied, did you have to take written exams to get in?

JAL: No — just present my art work. I looked on their website, and I think that’s still the MO.

When I was starting art school I was asked out by an older commercial artist, a part- time CSFA attendee. We went for a visit to the French artist Jean Varda [a Frenchman, born in Smyrna in 1893, longtime resident of the Bay Area, best known for his collage work] on his Sausalito ferry and Varda told me I was too young to wear black. Lives later (working at UCB then I guess) I was sitting across the desk from my Alta Bates doctor, and looked up to see a Varda collage — a bit faded. I told Dr. Meyer that I had taken a class from him.  Varda had apparently been ill and recuperated in Dr. Meyer’s home at some point.  He was pleased that Varda had died quickly while rushing to board a plane at the airport [in Mexico City, 1971].

KK: Spicer taught not only English classes, but history, too, and other areas.

JAL: But English especially. I got into Jack’s advanced English class, just as all the veterans and Deborah Remington did.

KK: These were the artists who eventually, with Spicer, began the legendary 6 Gallery in 1955 — John Allen Ryan, Wally Hedrick, Hayward King, David Simpson, and Deborah Remington. So these are a gang of people who are a bit older than you, by five or six years?

JAL: About that. They came as a group from Pasadena, as you probably know.

KK: They operated almost as a collective. All had known each other at junior college in Pasadena, and though the Korean War changed the way and the moment each arrived in San Francisco, they all pretty much wound up at the same time. They gravitated to Spicer’s humanities classes. And he took to you artists.

JAL: We needed that course in order to graduate. Your book puts Wally and Jay [DeFeo] in there as the forefront from the 6 Gallery. Of course they were. But I think Jack’s very favorite of that group was Deborah.

KK: When Lew Ellingham and I wrote the biography of Spicer, I hadn’t met Deborah Remington yet. She lived in New York and it took me awhile to get the nerve to approach her; when I finally interviewed her in May 2009 she had some great stories and she seemed to really love Jack Spicer.

JAL: I think she was teacher’s pet.

KK: Oh really? [Laughter]

JAL: I mean he paid her a certain deference. And Jay DeFeo was Wally’s wife at that point. And she came from a different place.

KK: Well she was from the Bay Area too, right? She was in Oakland.

JAL: She was at UC Berkeley, but she had a fellowship, a very prestigious one that sent her to Italy and Africa. When she returned, she got a job teaching at CCAC [California College of Arts and Crafts, a school in Oakland with a more pragmatic vision, less focused on fine arts than was CSFA]. And simultaneously Jay joined up with the group in San Francisco and then married Wally.

KK: Was your cohort a glamorous group? That’s how I picture it.

JAL: It was an interesting group, because it was diverse. And Jay was a special painter. She and I became friends and she came to share personal matters with me, and memories. Years and years later, in the 1980s, she went to see the Merchant Ivory film A Room with a View and told me that the room that Helena Bonham Carter stays in at the pensione she recognized as the room she had lived in during her fellowship in Florence.

KK:  The “room with a view” of the title! And so she was never a student at CSFA?

JAL: No, she never was. But we all had to work too, though I myself was the beneficiary of a very unusual first year “scholarship” to the school. I heard of a job opening as a hatcheck girl at Fior d’Italia, near Washington Square, from the restaurant’s doorman. I only knew the doorman because he and his lady lived in the same building, at the corner of Clay and Divisadero, where Flo Allen lived. Do you know the name “Flo Allen?” Every artist and student knew her; she ran the Model’s Guild and was a model herself. She was part of the social fabric, and her rich brown self was part of every student’s portfolio. She must have introduced me to the restaurant doorman, a crossover from one of my “worlds” to another. I landed the job, worked one evening, found a higher paying job and turned mine over to Jay. In her retrospective book she mentions having been a hatcheck girl—and this is the tangled story of that.

KK: You’ll have to tell me more about the unusual first year scholarship you mentioned?

JAL: I dated a fellow called John Joyce for a while, and at the end of our relationship there was a Christmas card “John Joyce Memorial Award” containing a check for one year’s tuition to CSFA, which he knew I couldn’t afford.

KK:  Very generous!

JAL:  Without it I couldn’t have enrolled, although I’d been accepted. From then through the 1957 BFA, I received a working scholarship, which included making sandwiches under the auspices of David Simpson (John Ryan liked mayo and butter on his), noon office relief, availability for art school student-type photos when the press would appear.

KK: I’d like to ask you about Spicer’s pedagogy. He interested Deborah Remington because he knew so much about everything. His classes weren’t only about poetry and writing. He would name a historical figure, maybe somebody who was alive at the time, like Winston Churchill. What was happening when Churchill was born? That thing of constantly moving backwards.

JAL: I don’t remember the specifics of his teaching, but it was intense.

KK: Remington recalled that he would ask you to focus on one date in history, say 1500 A.D., and the assignment would be: “Find out what was happening globally at that time. What was happening in China? What were people doing?” She told me that this policy of mapping outward opened her eyes up to say, Asia, and the great civilizations of the East. So she wound up going there.

JAL: To Japan and India as I recall. Deborah booked passage on a Japanese freighter. She was the only female passenger, and the sign on the door of the bathroom read “WOMAN.” In passing she mentioned being sick in India, lying on a mat in the street.

KK: How many students were in one of Spicer’s classes?

JAL: There must have been about twelve to fifteen students, Jack held his classes in the library, on the first floor right off the courtyard — which is probably not where the library is now. We were all kind of friends on top of it; it was really art world incest. [Laughter] One assignment from Jack’s class was reading a mid-book section in Ulysses. I hadn’t done the homework and he called on me for a comment. The previous night I had dreamt that my previous boyfriend, John Joyce, had crawled in my kitchen window and struck me atop the head with a drummer’s brush. After class Jack walked with me and suggested that it was James Joyce who had given me the brush. [Laughter]

KK: And Hayward King was in your class too. He was also from Pasadena, right? I never met him, but I understand, he was gay also?

JAL: I think so. He was just sort of Hayward. That wasn’t the important part of the relationship, nor the scene. I rented a studio to live in from Giacomo Patri, the head of the Patri School of Art — part of old San Francisco history now. My studio was in the right area, but it had no bath or running water in the unit itself.

KK: There are still studios like that today!

JAL: But Hayward lived right across from me up on Osgood Place, so I used to go to his place to shower, crossing the street in a bathrobe, and coming back with a towel on my head. There was a Varda influence in Hayward’s work, with collages sometimes using tinseled paper pieces. He had a project in which he wallpapered his Osgood bathroom in silvery paper and so he had us all save our cigarette wrappers for him.

Once, my mother invited me to dinner, and I asked if might bring somebody. When she agreed, I said to Hayward, let’s go to my mom’s for dinner, up on Sacramento and Jones. He and I were in the softly lit living room waiting, while she was fussing about making dinner in the back part. Hayward was wearing what he often wore, a navy-blue V-neck pullover sweater. When my mom came in, do you know what she said? “Where’s Hayward?”

KK: Because she didn’t see him?

JAL: That’s right. It freaks me out now, isn’t that awful? With brown skin and his dark blue sweater, perhaps the soft lighting — But my mother wasn’t blind, I don’t know what her problem was. But, yeah. I mean it’s horrible.

KK: Was Hayward upset?  Insulted?

JAL: He played it cool, that’s how he was. I’m sure all the stuff he went through in life…

KK: God bless him.

JAL: So we had dinner, and afterwards he and I walked down Market Street and went to a movie. And I think he was aware—we must have gotten some looks or something like that, that was yet another part of that evening.

KK: It’s a vivid story, almost uncanny, since it illustrates the haunting quality of racial visibility and invisibility — today as well as in the mid ’50s. Were there other Asian artists besides you in your cohort at the school?

JAL: There was little ethnic differentiation. Bernice Bing subsequently transferred from CCAC to CSFA, and we became friends.

KK: Bernice Bing was a student there in the 1950s?  Bing was a very impressive artist herself.

JAL: She was. Fine arts ultimately drew everybody to CSFA, as the more important, newer things were happening there. And we were close to the Bay — Baker Beach served as a CSFA gathering spot. One day Wally, John Allen, I and one other person ignored a posted “No Swimming” sign and were nabbed by the US Army military police — for wading. Turned out that several days before, someone had been seriously attacked by a shark and injured. We had to appear before a military court. I don’t recall the penalty. Isn’t that funny, “Art school students cited for wading?”

Unknown photographer, JoAnn B. Low at the beach, ca. 1950s. Courtesy of the DeFeo Foundation.

Unknown photographer, JoAnn B. Low at the beach, ca. 1950s. Courtesy of the DeFeo Foundation.

KK: And you saw it all.

JAL: I was not an attentive student. Especially when young, my life was really performed before the glitzy backdrop of jazz and show business, the hungry i part, the North Beach bohemian/Beat bar part (I was Henri Lenoir’s first cocktail waitress at Vesuvio, and that job fed me through the last couple of years of art school). Throughout all this I was an inactive but acknowledged part of the SF Low clan, and then I was also what Wally Hedrick called me — a party girl, but more. The CSFA part of my life predominated, but I had to support myself as well as paint.

KK: Would you call it “chaotic”?

JAL: I would say things were very, very multi-faceted. It was organized enough to also keep us all afloat when needed. So I did feel okay about it.

KK: And who did you study with in the art sections?

JAL: [Elmer] Bischoff.

KK: Whoa!

JAL: Remember Nate — Nathan Oliveira? Does that name sound familiar to you?

KK: Yeah.

JAL: He was a good teacher and a beautiful painter himself. In one class he talked about bullfighting with such passion that I got swept up, returned to the studio, and painted a bull (which I called The Grass Is Greener). That painting is one work of special value, I feel. My daughter has it now.

KK: Little of your other art is extant, then?

JAL: My daughter has some. I didn’t have much of a body of work. Blocks of my time didn’t involve painting. The guys at school were getting the GI Bill and would often run out of money. I was usually flush since I was waiting on tables, so it would be me handing out tip money to tide them over. I remember sitting in the cafeteria going, “How much do you need?”

JoAnn Low, The Grass is Greener, ca. 1950s.

JoAnn Low, The Grass is Greener, ca. 1950s.

KK: And where did you waitress?

JAL: I started working when I was underage, at the hungry i. The nightclub scene was a whole other world, during that same time and taking place in the same neighborhood, but very different from the art scene.

KK: The hungry i was a nightclub with —

JAL: With food. And comedians — Woody Allen…

KK: Lenny Bruce worked there.

JAL: Also Mort Sahl. I have a picture of us at an unglamorous coffee shop in the International Settlement where we would sometimes go.

KK: Phyllis Diller?

JAL: Phyllis Diller was at the Purple Onion.

KK: So were the hungry i and the Purple Onion rival comedy clubs?

JAL: They weren’t especially comedy clubs but showcased varied performers. I was told about the “i” when Piero Patri [Giacomo’s oldest son] told me they were hiring wait staff. I said, “I’m not old enough.”

KK: Were you supposed to be eighteen?

JAL: Twenty-one. So I wore all black and descended into the darkened club. “How old are you?” “I’m twenty-three.” Enrico Banducci, the owner, was interviewing in the back office. And he said, “You wanna walk down that way and walk back?” And I did, in my high heels, and he said, “You’re hired.”

[In 1950 Enrico Banducci (1922–2007) bought the hungry i from its founder, Eric “Big Daddy” Nord, and launched the careers of many US entertainers, from Jonathan Winters to Maya Angelou.]

JAL: Once, I took Jack Spicer to the i, where we had a mediocre dinner. And one day, arriving for work at the club, I heard a voice calling my name: “JoAnn!” It was Johnny Mathis, there for an audition. That made two of us underage. He too had gone to Washington High where he was a track figure and I part of the school’s first cheerleading squad. He was as surprised to see me as I to see him.

KK: I love Johnny Mathis, and I love cheerleaders.

JAL: One of us was Lee Meriwether, who became Miss America. We once had a cheerleading rehearsal in my mom’s dimly lit, “Where’s Hayward?” living room. Did you ever hear of Peggy Tolk-Watkins?

KK: She went to Black Mountain College, an artist, or a poet?

JAL: I worked for Peggy twice, first at the Tin Angel — on the Embarcadero, which, at night, was dark then. And then at her subsequent club, the Fallen Angel, in this fine old house on Pine, previously occupied by Anna Held, who took milk baths in one of its tubs.  [The Fallen Angel, at 1144 Pine, was designed by the New York architect Stanford White, but it became famous in San Francisco as the most lavish bordello run by the madam Sally Stanford.  Anna Held (1872–1918) was earlier still, a Polish-born vedette in Paris, a star of vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies, who in fact did take milk baths to dazzle and seduce audiences of brokers and bankers in the pre-war USA.] At the Fallen Angel I was working an afternoon Halloween shift in a fishnet costume when Peggy suddenly threw me over her shoulder and dumped me into the fountain.

Jack Spicer at the opening of the 6 Gallery, Halloween 1954. Photographer unknown.

Jack Spicer at the opening of the 6 Gallery, Halloween 1954; at left in the background is Hayward King, and further behind him is John Allen Ryan. Photo: Robert Berg.

KK: Ouch!

JAL: And Johnny Mathis sang there, though not on that occasion.

KK: When I looked at the archival records at CSFA’s library I asked them, “Why was Jack Spicer there for just two years?” They had let him go, and the file is brief, only a suggestion that he was “too familiar with the students.” It’s very ambiguous. That he was very involved with the students is obvious, since he and five of them opened an art gallery together. That was more than the average teacher would do I suppose.

JAL: He was just part of the 6 in a way. Sort of the senior member of that group, with Deborah, Wally, John, Hayward, and David Simpson.

KK: And tell me then — you knew Graham Mackintosh at the school? Was he a student there?  [Graham Ferrier Mackintosh (1935–2015) grew up in the Inner Sunset, graduated from Lowell, and began to attend CSFA but was drafted by the Army and sent to Fort Ord. In later life, at Spicer’s suggestion, he trained as a printer and began printing for White Rabbit Press. He is generally regarded as one of the great printers and designers of the West.]

JAL: Yes. Jack once commented to me that Graham should work with his hands.

KK: Was Jack Spicer involved with Graham in a romantic way?

JAL: I don’t know how involved per se, but I think Jack was in love with Graham.  Graham was huge fun, on top of everything else. What complicated things was that Graham had already, within a short time at CSFA, become involved with a fellow art student, Kathy Knight, whom he later married.

KK: I’m editing Spicer’s letters, and at the Bancroft Library are something like a hundred from Spicer to Graham. Graham was drafted in October ’54. At Fort Ord a letter came every day from Spicer, telling him what was happening at the school, gossip about their mutual friends, a report on the opening of The 6 Gallery. It’s all very touching, but you’d have to be devoted to somebody — literally in love — to write that often.

JAL: He — Jack — was a presence.

KK: Their letters are really great, but you know, for our biography, Lew asked Graham flat-out, “Did anything ever happen between you and Spicer?” And he answered with one sentence: “Our friendship survived that intimacy.” More ambiguity!

JAL: Possibly. Kathy loved him. She and I met and worked together for a Pacific Heights family, during that period when she and Graham had made love for the first time, not realizing they were creating their daughter.

KK: Oh!

JAL: Kathy and Graham married at the Mackintoshes’ house, I think it was in the Sunset.  I remember when Kathy was pregnant and Graham had been drafted, and stationed at Fort Ord. She didn’t know how to drive, so we rented a car and I drove her down to see him. There was no place to meet, so we stood in an obstacle course, and she was able to be with him briefly.

During that general period with Jack’s class as the center, we all started speaking backwards. Have you heard that?

KK: John Allen Ryan demonstrated it for me.

JAL: Oh good.

KK: He said it was the Martian language that Spicer liked to speak.

JAL: It might have been that.

KK: What did speaking backwards entail? Like every word, you’d have to think backward and…?

JAL: Don’t ask me to speak backwards today, but one would just think a little bit. “Shut up” would be “tuhs pu.”

KK: Deborah Remington told me that Spicer had his students undertake many conceptual projects. It wasn’t just, “What were the names of Shakespeare’s plays?” John Ryan said that for one class he took, Spicer wouldn’t let anybody pass until they had a letter to the editor published in a daily newspaper in San Francisco. Ryan bragged that he got one published in three days. But, he allowed, there were then nine daily newspapers in San Francisco, so if you wrote about just about anything you could get a letter printed.

JAL: Some of this I totally have no recollection of. Or maybe it was another class that he taught that I wasn’t in. With all these segments that I’ve lived during that period, it’s like a Cat’s Cradle that got messed up.

KK: You were everywhere, girl! In her memoir, The Dharma Committee, Joanne Kyger writes about meeting you at Vesuvio in ’57 or ’58, as a young poet, with her girlfriend, Nemi Frost, who was a painter.

JAL: Kathy knew her too.

KK: Joanne wrote when Spicer introduced the two of you, he pointed to her and said, “And this is Joanne Kyger, the Alger Hiss of Zen Buddhism.” [Laughter]

JAL: Great.

KK: That was his way of summing up a person.

JAL: That sounds about right. You know, one time Jack told me that he believed that he inadvertently started the use of the term “Beat.” That because of him the term “Beat” was used. And he told me that he had written a line in the men’s john at Vesuvio: “We are too tired to fight like lions.” Maybe he was spinning a tale, but I sort of believed him. He was always convincing to me.

KK: I never heard about him inventing that saying.

JAL: “We are too tired to fight like lions.” He wrote it on the wall, everybody wrote their thoughts on the wall in that bathroom.

KK: And that gave rise to the idea of being Beat. Too beat to actually react.

JAL: He said “I did that.” [In 2018, as this interview was being prepared, the American scholar Daniel Katz announced that his search through Spicer’s papers at the Bancroft had unearthed an unknown, major Spicer poem called “We Are Too Tired to Live Like Lions.”  The piece dates from the late ’40s or early ’50s, and will appear in Dr. Katz’s forthcoming edition of Spicer’s uncollected poems and plays.]

KK:  I’m wondering about The 6 Gallery. You had your own show there, with the now celebrated artist Manuel Neri. SFMOMA owns one of the posters for your show, and not too long ago the curator Tanya Zimbardo posted it on Open Space. And it looks so great. You went under the name of Jo Blow, or you added a “B” to Low?

Manuel Neri and JoAnn B.Low, 1957. "I slapped together the simple original in a rush,” Low recalled. "Manuel and I delivered the shocking pink announcement to a fellow student with a print shop who helped without charge.”

Manuel Neri and JoAnn B.Low, 1957. “I slapped together the simple original in a rush,” Low recalled. “Manuel and I delivered the shocking pink announcement to a fellow student with a print shop who helped without charge.”

JAL: Everybody started calling me Jo Blow, because my middle name is Bentley. We got cute. Art school cute.

KK: Jo B. Low, so Jo Blow. And “Joe Blow” was even then a byword for an average person or a nobody. “Who’s that?” “Oh just some Joe Blow.” So it did seem like a very fun gesture to change your name in that way, to make it into almost a Duchamp gesture: “I’ll change my name to make it less of a name, more of an attitude.”

JAL: Punchy.

KK: There you are, showing at the gallery. How much work did you have up? I’m trying to get a picture of the size The 6 Gallery was. Was it as big as this living room we’re sitting in?

JAL: No, bigger. I believe it was previously a garage, with a concrete floor. There was a narrower front entry corridor. Then there was a larger main space, becoming a blunt L, with a stage-type platform a step or two up. At the opening of my show with Manuel, Vesuvio’s Henri Lenoir donated the kegs of beer and volunteered as the bartender.

KK: So the show was a success: did you sell any work? It seemed like the kind of gallery where nobody ever sold anything.

JAL: Not there. But Henri, who showed art at Vesuvio, gave me a show there and I sold several works, one to a colleague of an attorney who had taken to carrying a newspaper photo of me in his wallet: the deal was that I was to surprise him by delivering it personally. On the day of delivery, his wife was there too, dressed like an adagio dancer — not meant, I believe, to be amusing. They subsequently gave me a show in their Lake Merritt subdivision garage. I sold one painting, to my CSFA teacher, Ralph Du Casse (1917–2003). Another painting was bought by the city planner Jim Keilty, an acquaintance of my mother through work.

KK: James Keilty had one of your paintings! He fascinates me, not only myself but several of the younger scholars of the poetry scene in ’50s San Francisco. By day a city planner, Keilty was a poet and playwright too, and when Robert Duncan put on his own play at The 6 Gallery, Faust Foutu, Keilty acted in it with Spicer, Michael McClure, Duncan himself, Larry Jordan, Helen Adam, the whole crew. Keilty lived long enough to realize he had been implicated in the whole urban renewal project of the ’60s that tore the Black middle class out of the Western Addition, and replaced a strong, creative, lively neighborhood with bland white ticky-tack. As if to escape life itself, he concocted his own language, “Prashad,” and wrote plays and poems in it, charging his actors to act out the scripts and memorize all the words—words no one had ever heard before. He translated Proust into Prashad, and the New Testament too.

JAL:  A fire in Keilty’s apartment ultimately consumed that painting he’d bought from me.

KK: Jack Spicer’s Humanities classes, leading to the experience of membership in The 6 Gallery, seems like a great bonding experience. In an e-mail you told me a story about a scarf that once upon a time you gave to John Allen Ryan….

JAL: Let’s see. We were waiting to go into the memorial for Jay [DeFeo, who died in November 1989] and there stood John. John looked exactly like he did in art school. He walked up, we gave hugs, and then he said, “Look.” And he was wearing a scarf I had given him all those years ago at CSFA. I don’t know why I gave it to him, but I did, and he had it on that day. And that scarf had been given to me when I was around seven. But John wore it to the memorial! Funny to think of a scarf walking through these many years. But it was nice to see John, that was the last time… [Ryan died in San Francisco in 1994.]

KK: So, tell me, then, JoAnn, you identified as an artist but at a certain point you just decided to stop making art.

JAL: The art world during that period was kind of inbred. There was so much I wanted to do, much of it was geographically prompted, and you don’t carry around your jars of paint all over the world. So I said, “This isn’t fun. There’s a lot more out there than the San Francisco art world. Why am I saying I’m a painter? I’m not a painter because I’m not painting.” So I veered off into the rest of my life. I was curious about what else was happening and wanted to experience it.

This swept me along into a Wiesbaden job in Air Traffic Control during the Berlin airlift, editing translated architectural lectures in Copenhagen, hostessing at The Trident in Sausalito, social work in Los Angeles during the time of the Watts Riots, counseling and conference coordination following the Third World strikes for UC Berkeley; this interjected with a sweet girl child and whatever would sustain the continuing curiosity.

KK: I see your life as being kind of in these different segments and different careers in moving from one thing to another.

JAL: Because, I’m just sort of like, “Let’s do that.”

KK: But I take it that some of your identity as an artist always has stayed with you.

JAL: Yes.

KK: Well, I don’t know if it was you in particular or the whole generation, or if the people who you found at CSFA were extraordinarily independent people — maybe it was a rootless, restless time when people were thinking and trying new things, but yeah, your story is very impressive. You’re right up there with those iconoclasts. [Laughter]

JAL: Even until today the San Francisco art period and very much its people remain a deeply imprinted part of my life. In my hallway — real time — stands an open box of books with my sixth grade autograph book on top of the pile. Kathy Knight and I shared a small Pacific Avenue spot after we’d left the Pacific Heights job. Graham had been drafted but would visit on leave and the two were soon to be wed. Years later when looking through this red-leather-covered childhood keepsake, I turned up a penciled in message. “Good luck in Marina School — Grahamy Mackintosh.”

Unknown photographer, JoAnn B. Low and unidentified man climbing stairs at 2322 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, ca. 1957. Courtesy of the DeFeo Foundation.

KK: We’ll wrap this up — though I have so much more to ask — but before I go, will you tell me about making Jack Spicer a Halloween costume?  I got diverted.

JAL: It’s easy enough. It was Halloween, at The Place; you’re supposed to have a costume to get in. I had one of those fluorescent things workmen wear working on the roads. And I gave it to him and he put it on over his dark suit.

KK: Like a construction outfit.

JAL: No, it was just that thing that’s kind of neon so that nobody would —

KK: They can see you in the dark.

JAL: And so Jack just slipped that over his suit and walked into The Place.

I would be remiss not to share this final scene, recalled just this morning. The scene seems integral to the school’s accreditation journey.

One morning, very soon after my start at CSFA, there was a loose assemblage in the courtyard including Ernest Mundt, the director then. He announced that the school was unable to open because of lack of funds. Wally Hedrick was there and I think John Ryan and a total of about twenty-five of us. There was a lampblack coffin present with a sign, “Art is Dead,” probably made by Wally. We formed a procession headed by Wally and other carriers of the coffin, parading down Chestnut, southward, through Chinatown where I purloined a trash can, found some implement and banged the beat all the way to 256 Grant Avenue, in front of The White House — then a top San Francisco department store. There we stopped to acknowledge questions from passersby.

KK: What sort of things did they ask?

JAL: With Wally’s sign, “Art Is Dead,” they mostly asked one question: “Who is Art?”

KK: Did you raise funds for the reopening of CSFA?

JAL: We collected $1.

Comments (10)

  • Fantastic interview from JoAnn Low–her life in the San Francisco world of artists, poets and eccentrics back in the “Beat” time. Conversation with Kevin Killian is enlightening plus brilliant. Thanks for publishing.

  • Ammiel Alcalay says:

    As someone very much in the business of doing the kind of digging Kevin Killian has done here, I must say that this is one of the greatest things I’ve read in a very long time. First of all, to simply encounter the rich history that JoAnn Low recounts here brings us back to ACTUAL history, in which all kinds of people found themselves together, and important to each other, regardless of the blinders we might now have on. The richness of her own life and the few tantalizing images of her beautiful art work, not to mention the extraordinary candor of her memories, are things to cherish. Thank you so much for making this available. We want more!

  • Rodney Koeneke says:

    What an amazing exchange. A vanished San Francisco came to life for me in reading it, one buried under even more ash than the one I remember having lived in. (“Very Spanish, very Moorish” instantly raised the Art Institute courtyard before my eyes.)

    It’s an interview only Kevin Killian could have done. And JoAnn Low, with her wit and lightning-bright memories, seems due for a biography of her own.

    Reading this made my day. Thank you, Kevin and JoAnn. San Francisco’s that much richer for having you both in it.

  • Patrick James Dunagan says:

    Terrific indepth footnote to existing Spicer scholarship (not to mention De Feo, et al) Time for an expanded edition of Poet Be Like God. Good Stuff. Totally Great. Many thanks to both Kevin & Jo Ann Low for allowing the rest of us to get tuned in.

  • Garrett Caples says:

    This is an absolutely fantastic interview with JoAnn Low, and I salute Kevin Killian’s dedication to the world of Jack Spicer and the SF Renaissance. We’ve lost lots of poets from this era of late–Joanne Kyger and David Meltzer come to mind–and it’s inspiring to me to see Kevin out there capturing the sort of information that tends to disappear into history. JoAnn Low is a trip! I love reading about her friendship with Jay DeFeo in particular and the glimpses she gives of Vesuvio’s bar and Henri Lenoir during the Beat era. Thank you, JoAnn, and thank you, Kevin.

  • Ruby Brunton says:

    This is such a charming conversation even to someone with less biographical knowledge of the scene at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed the tone of the interview and the intimate memories that sparked an interest in me to learn more. Kevin Killian’s affability and poetic phrasing make him a perfect interviewer. Hope to read more!

  • Thanks for this wonderful interview–pure gold!

  • Joseph Mosconi says:

    Wow, what an interview. Kevin, thank you for introducing me to the work and life of JoAnn Low!

  • Leave it to Kevin Killian, sleuth of the Spicer Circle, to find JoAnn Low! I loved hearing their recent conversation in Watsonville, going way back to the Low family in Chinatown, San Francisco as it once was, the artists, the 6 Gallery and all. Brilliant! Very interesting to know JoAnn’s trajectory and why she disengaged from the pack of artists that she was once a part of. Thank you JoAnn & Kevin!

  • Kevin, this is such a wonderful interview. I don’t know a lot about Spicer, not yet at least, because I want to immerse myself in his biography and read more than the recently published Dutch translations. Thank you so much, to both of you!

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