The Forgotten Artists of the Belvedere Codfishery
“Halfway between civilization and its opposite.”
— Dave Lemon, quoted in the Daily Independent Journal, 1949
The town of Belvedere is an island — really two islands, the smaller of which, Corinthian Island, is shared with Tiburon. And to call either an island is to venture back at least a half-century, before large embankments were built joining them to the mainland by raised roadways and sealing off Belvedere Lagoon, which had previously been a useless shallows. Belvedere, which faces Sausalito across Richardson Bay, was incorporated in 1896 as a fair-weather getaway for the affluent in San Francisco; the current town of a teeming two thousand or so is now one of the wealthiest per capita municipalities in this or any other state.
Back in its wild and woolly days, Belvedere was home to a fishery or two, supporting a small fleet of Alaska-bound schooners. What became known as the Union Fish Company opened its briny digs in the mid-1860s on a huge wharf along a treacherous cliffside on the town’s western shore. Specializing in cod, especially tempting for the local Portuguese community, the thriving Fish Co. expanded on the wharf to include a full-blown cannery, salt barns, drying flakes, and a bunkhouse and mess hall. This all came to an end on November 4, 1937, when the codfishery suffered a catastrophic fire.
The wharf was soon subdivided, with one developer buying the fire-wracked remains, and another, Harry B. Allen, founder of the Belvedere Land Company, taking on the few buildings to the north that survived the blaze. The original renovations were spurred by Allen’s wife, who required a getaway shack, ironically little more than a half-mile from her principal residence: “’So help me,’ laughingly threatens dignified Mrs. Harry Allen of Belvedere, as reported by Judy Stone on November 26, 1949, in the Daily Independent Journal, ‘I’ll harpoon the next person who tries to rent away my weekend studio in the old cod fishery.” Mrs. Allen felt the restorative virtues of her retreat situated upon the salvaged wharf, Bay waters lapping at the nearby pilings. “The old self drops from you there and you take on something new,’ she explained.”
Within a few years, the old wharf and its weathered wood-slat structures were more generally salvaged, eventually making for six livable apartments. With the arrival of World War II and a pronounced scarcity of housing, the clapboard units were put on the market for adventurous renters. The wharf was only approachable by a perilous three-hundred-step stairway, walking a good distance at low tide, or navigating the Bay in a boat. For sculptor, sailor, and shipbuilder Dave Lemon (1908–1997), those restrictions were a plus. What better way to maintain some semblance of artful seclusion while in close proximity to the sea? Plus, rent was $25 a month.
Along with his wife, artist Jerry O’Day (1912–1986), Lemon moved into the two-story bunkhouse, establishing a studio and living quarters just feet from Richardson Bay. Soon other artists followed suit — former WPA artist Justin Murray, then a successful caricaturist; ceramicist Jack Brinker; painter Peter Gullholm; Jerry McCabe, a secretary at San Quentin by day, a wood carver by night; and the caretakers Alice and Leo Rivers, Leo himself being an old seafarer from the codfishing fleet.
Clinging to the curvaceous coast, the codfishery emanated its own romantic mystique. In a December 4, 1949 San Francisco Chronicle article, “The Art of Living is Demonstrated in an Old Belvedere Codfish Plant,” journalist Alfred Kay wrote, “The persons […] are highly desirable and highly talented tenants, a fact that has given rise to a rumor that only persons on speaking terms with a Muse are admitted for occupancy. This is not true, of course, for the owners realize that even if you have no talent when you arrive, you soon will have. The view, the climate, and the neighbors expect it of you.”
Kay continues, “But just as important to this area as art for a living, however, is living as an art. For, you see, these people and these buildings are bound together in a unique experiment in Bay Region life […] This might be due, possibly, to the fact each person on the wharf has a free hand in the design and furnishing of his apartment. Consequently, the personality and philosophy can be seen there in the rooms — and also just how far talent can go when given a chance to work out on old and whitewashed walls.”
In January 1952, a slo-mo landslide pushed one of the main residences off its pilings. Three families fled for the mainland while the beached structure was put on a barge and taken to Sausalito. Voluntarily stranded, Lemon and O’Day persisted, gathering a secluded Marin art scene around themselves, hosting soirées, and pursuing their own artistic endeavors. By 1962, the frenzy of high-end development along Belvedere’s West Shore would bring the wrecking ball to the serenity of then-called Pescada Landing. “’And,’ sighed Jerry,” in Stone’s article, “looking out at the peaceful twilight blue of the bay as she perched on a rotted piling left from the fire, ‘the quiet… oh-h-h-h-h!’”
But how did Dave Lemon run aground on the privileged littoral of Belvedere?
In 1938, Lemon — an aspiring artist and boat-builder living in Seattle — sailed to San Francisco with fellow artist Steever Oldden, seeking work at the International Exposition being constructed on Treasure Island. Lemon had learned architectural modeling as a trade, apprenticing with his father, Frank, a master sculptor who specialized in terra cotta ornamentation for commercial buildings. But Lemon was also part of a thriving Seattle art scene, centered on the campus of the Cornish College of the Arts. It was here that he met Jerry O’Day, an adventurous abstract painter, who was born in, of all places, Oakland.
Thirty-year-old Lemon did indeed find work at the Expo, sculpting bas reliefs for the Alameda-Contra Costa County Building, itself designed by the notable local architects Irving and Gertrude Morrow. He and O’Day would also become assistants to prominent San Francisco artist Beniamino Bufano, who was working on a bust of St. Francis for California Hall on the Expo grounds, and the equally-important Sargent Johnson, whose ten-foot statues would grace the garden of the County Building itself.
The ensuing years found Lemon and O’Day moving first to Hollywood, where they worked on a Federal Youth Project, then back to San Francisco, where they maintained a studio. By 1942, with Bay Area industrial production gearing up for the war effort, Lemon got work at the Madden & Lewis Shipyard in Sausalito building wooden, anti-magnetic mine layers and sub-chasers. The codfishery was almost in sight of the shipyard, so Lemon commuted the easy mile-and-a-half via motorboat across Richardson Bay, grabbing a mention in Herb Caen’s 1948 Chronicle column as a “water borne commuter.”
Throughout the war years and beyond, the old codfishery became a gathering place for Belvederean artists. Lemon and O’Day were central to this scene, as were Justin Murray (whose political caricatures graced the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle) and his wife, Ella. Still, this prosperous community of artists was quaint in number compared to the clique around Sausalito, especially with the 1948 arrival of Greek-born collagist Jean Varda and British surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford, who converted a decrepit ferry, the Vallejo, into a floating salon.
Sausalito’s art community was also a strong support for Lemon and O’Day, who exhibited with some frequency in the local galleries, especially the Marin Art Center, the Contemporary Gallery, and the Landmarks Gallery up-county. But it was the City that really counted, with shows at the East & West Gallery, the City of Paris, Rotunda Gallery, the Lucien Labaudt Gallery, the Legion of Honor, as well as the Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions of the San Francisco Art Association at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
O’Day’s finely detailed pen and ink drawings, often spontaneous eruptions, gained the most praise, including Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein’s 1962 assessment: “Miss O’Day is an extremely clever and accomplished virtuoso of the pen who manages to be influenced by Klee and Mary Petty and the late Signor Piranesi (but fortunately not all at once). I liked her best in her vertiginously speedy abstractions.”
Lemon’s meticulous sculptures found broader approval than his codfishery cohort’s canvases. Working in the converted salt barn with mallet and chisel, he produced a massive array of teak, walnut, and redwood pieces that thrived on dynamic tension and sinuous form. As a young artist in Seattle, he had clumsily moved forward until he encountered the works of Malcolm Roberts, a largely forgotten Surrealist painter, and studied briefly with the Ukrainian-born Cubist Alexander Archipenko during a residency in the mid-thirties, according to David F. Martin, curator at the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, Washington. Then a new sense of form and purpose began to emerge.
The war had kept Lemon (and countless others) quite bunkered, but with the new postwar optimism, he set out to expand his practice. “I had never taken the arts seriously,” Lemon said in a 1951 article in the Daily Independent Journal. “Maybe because I grew up in the art game, I didn’t have this burning ambition to be a great artist that a lot of my friends seemed to have. But I did considerable thinking about the subject when I was working and realized I hadn’t really produced any important sculpture at all. Yet I knew I could if I took the subject more seriously.”
The early fifties saw Lemon honing his craft with a substantial series of wooden tabletop sculptures, the best of them bristling with an intimate yet ascending dynamism. Then in 1954, he unveiled his commission of a larger-than-life Christus Rex, carved for St. Stephens Episcopalian Church in Belvedere. Another religious figure, Hosea, with its supple and restrained lines, would be acquired by San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1957.
At decade’s end, Lemon found himself with some unexpected notice. An old Seattle friend and collector, architect Victor Steinbrueck, received the commission to design a soaring tower for the 1962 World’s Fair. Struggling with the concept for “The Space Needle,” Steinbrueck gazed upon a nearby sixteen-inch teak sculpture, The Feminine One, its tripodal base supporting abstracted ascendant arms. A few major engineering modifications, the addition of a circular restaurant, 9,500 tons of steel, and Lemon’s artistry would rise 605 feet above the fairgrounds.
The formal unveiling of The Space Needle coincided with the waning days of the codfish wharf. Luckily, a year earlier Beat poet ruth weiss used Lemon and O’Day’s digs as a location for her only film, The Brink (1961), immortalizing the boho site. In this artisanal undertaking, shot by artist Paul Beattie, Lemon is seen approaching the wharf by sailboat; there he encounters He (painter Sutter Marin) and She (painter Lori Lawyer), the narrative’s protagonists. They gambol along the rocky shoreline, then join in a wordless soirée inside the weathered bunkhouse. Painter Mel Weitsman, weiss’s husband at the time, Marin, Lawyer, Lemon, and O’Day play out a mute testament to the scene that had transpired in that seaside situation over the decades.
Soon landfill would replace the codfishery, building out the shoreline to accommodate first a roadway and then the cantilevered manses of the very rich. Lemon and O’Day would move westward to Sausalito, living on side-by-side sailboats, the Space Ship and the Nomel, for another two decades.
Earlier, I had pondered, “How did Dave Lemon run aground in the privileged littoral of Belvedere?” But more importantly, perhaps, is to ask, “How do we ponder Dave Lemon, one of thousands of artists, dedicated, inspired, overlooked, then forgotten?”
Throughout the later forties and fifties, Lemon, and less frequently O’Day, would be admitted to the annual exhibition of the San Francisco Art Society, staged at SFMOMA’s Van Ness building. From the roster of literally hundreds of selected artists would rise now-recognizable names: Ruth Asawa, Elmer Bischoff, Robert Colescott, Bruce Conner, Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, William Wiley, and others — exhibited widely, immortalized in glossy catalogues, and collected by esteemed institutions. But what of those whose obscure trace is but a flotsam of objects marooned in memory? Were they meaningful artists detached from a more critically astute scene? Or lone artists content to engage some sense of beauty without the risky revisionisms of their more popular peers?
Alfred Kay may have already divined the answer way back in 1949 when he wrote about the scene at the codfishery: “Just as important to this area as art for a living, however, is living as an art.” Dave Lemon, Jerry O’Day, and their peers lived out their lives in pursuit of the arts, but also in pursuit of an aesthetics of living that placed them on the threshold of the unconventional, the unexpected, perhaps even the uncontrollable, like the ever-changing Bay waters slapping beneath them.
And what of Dave Lemon? In 1997, a decade after O’Day’s death, while sailing back to Seattle, Dave, a sailor aged eighty-nine, suffered a heart attack off the coast of Oregon.
by Jerry O’Day (date unknown)
Steps down down
Weatherbeaten like our sighs
Against the hills
The Codfishery lies.
Oh sweet peace, sweet rot
And leaning walls
Is all we’ve got —
Oh give us new supports,
Oh give us fire extinguishers
Long live our rickety home
Long live the plumbing fixtures.
Special thanks to: David Martin, Curator, Cascadia Art Museum, Edmonds, WA; David M. Gotz, Archivist, Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society; B.J. Bullert, Filmmaker, Seattle; Katie Riddle, Reference Archivist, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley; Peter Steinbrueck, Architect, Seattle; Peggy Tran-Le, Archivist, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.