Just Do More: Rico Solinas in Conversation with Shana Lopes
My childhood home looks onto the campus of Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA). I recall a flurry of stonewashed jeans, neon hued t-shirts, and Converse sneakers descending on our Miraloma Park neighborhood each weekday morning as students and teachers arrived — a continual source of intrigue and excitement. By dinnertime, that patch of Portola Drive would shift in demographics, as commuters trickled home.
I recently returned to that house after a decade-long graduate school hiatus from the city. The same Late Moderne homes line my block, spruced up with fresh paint jobs and expertly landscaped succulent gardens. The teenagers are still here, and ‘80s fashion has returned. But my neighbors are unfamiliar; the librarians, teachers, and nurses who frequented the corner market vanished as home prices soared, replaced by people with obscure job titles and expensive cars.
Ideas about San Francisco’s history, its shifting demographics, and what makes the city and its communities special are central to Rico Solinas’s new body of work. Before he began working at SFMOMA, where he is now a Senior Museum Preparator, Rico was one of the first art teachers at SOTA, hired by artist and ardent champion for arts education Ruth Asawa herself in 1982. How many times did our paths cross before meeting at the museum decades later?
Two or three months into the pandemic, a close friend sent me to Rico’s Instagram account, where he posts work from his series depicting the Bayview in San Francisco. Vibrant, tender, and exquisitely detailed, his gouache paintings showcase the overlooked aspects of everyday life in the Bayview: scenes of storefronts, residential buildings, and local landmarks. In Rico’s words, they portray “a couple figures, a couple buildings.” Yet each one represents a carefully crafted pictorial love letter to the Bayview, its history, and its residents, embracing the ordinary and the extraordinary that the neighborhood offers. In this time of such great uncertainty, Rico’s deep drive to paint, document, and preserve parts of our hometown made me want to sit down and have a conversation with him. –SL
Shana Lopes: So Rico, we met during a photography installation about a year and a half ago at the museum, a few weeks after I started. It was wonderful to meet another person born in the Bay Area; we’re quite a rare breed these days. How are you feeling about the city right now?
Rico Solinas: It feels empty. It’s like it used to be during the holidays with lots of parking around. But it also makes me sad that so many people are moving away from San Francisco. The situation reminds me of the stories my grandmother would tell me. Her house burned down in the 1906 earthquake, so she fled to Oakland, where I was raised. People left then, too. We are in the COVID era now, and I paint a lot of buildings. So I’ve really noticed the way this city has changed over the years.
SL: Are you attracted to architectural studies?
RS: Well, when you paint a lot, you need big ideas or a framework to keep you both focused and moving. Otherwise you run out of things to do — unless you want to do the same thing over and over, which, that’s absolutely fine. But I don’t. A graffiti artist in the Bayview just asked me the other day how he could improve his art. He showed me what he did, and I knew I only had one sentence to tell him: “Well, just do more. Do more.” But on the other end of that, is to always do something that you don’t know how to do.
SL: Challenge yourself.
RS: Yes. Do one, or three, a day, so you always have something new to look at rather than looking at last week’s like, “God, I really should get back to this.” I mean you hear it all the time. So, for me, big projects are good, and I’ve done plenty.
Photos: Austin Leong.
SL: Your new focus, as I understand it, was prompted by the museum’s closure.
RS: That’s right. We were sheltering in place like most people in San Francisco, but I was still painting. I really like to paint at picnic tables — there are a number I visit throughout the city. I started this one project, which was painting art museums on old handsaws. I did fifty of them plein air, but I can’t always run off to another museum. So I tried working from a photograph, and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference. As a compromise, I paint outside at picnic tables, which is still plein air, just a bit different. I’m up to 169.
SL: Do you have a goal?
RS: No, no. The Chronicle did an article on me and they asked me that at the end. I said, “Well, I’m going to do them all!”
SL: Good. Dream big.
RS: I left it nice and open. My wife’s from Italy, so for twenty years, every summer we would take our kid to her hometown, and I would take trains around Europe — all my paintings from those trips look the same. There would be a painting of an art museum, and then I’d paint in the room at night, usually the floor. The sketchbooks I’d bring back show the same thing, page after page: art museum, hotel floor, art museum, hotel floor.
But I was wondering, how can I get the saws to Europe? I said, “Well, if an artist asked me to design something like this for an SFMOMA show I’d do it.” It took me about five minutes to figure out how to make the box to hold eight wet oil paintings, because they take months to dry. There was hardly any wiggle room or space, no lateral movement, as they say, in the conservation department. Before 9/11, I just put the box in the overhead storage. But you can’t just run off to New York or Europe all the time — well, I did go to New York on the weekends sometimes, actually. I’ll do anything to get my painting. It’s a fact. I would leave after work on Friday night, get there on Saturday morning, go to an address, do the next painting the following day, and then fly home with two fresh oil paintings. It was fantastic — at that point, I was making paintings of artist studios.
SL: Would you tell the artist about your project?
RS: No, no, no. All I would have would be an address. I’d just get in a cab. I wouldn’t take the subway, because it would take too long.
SL: You only had two days.
RS: I needed all that time to paint. I would sit on the sidewalk, and set up on the box that I carry the handsaws in. You hardly need anything to paint, even oil paint. I was doing Louise Bourgeois’s studio and these two guys looked at my painting, and started arguing: “It’s Max Ernst.” “No, it’s Duchamp.” “No, it’s —” And they said, “You know, she lives right there.” “Yeah, that’s why I’m doing it.” “Well you ought to go up and show her.” “Nah, I don’t —” I wouldn’t go bother the artist, even though I’ve worked with some of them. But the guys say, “Nope, you’re going to go show her.” Eventually she came to the window, and I showed her, and she was like, “Oh my! Oh my! Come back tomorrow at four and I’ll sign it!” But I had another painting to do the next day, so I didn’t go. That’s when she had a salon every Sunday. But I didn’t go. Like an idiot. [Laughter] But I did get another painting done.
SL: That’s how you used to work until March 13th, when everything changed. Did the pandemic and sheltering in place impact how you paint?
RS: Well, not too much. I was still going out painting, working on this one museum at a picnic table in the Presidio. I’d paint for maybe four hours and then I’d come home, through vacant streets. It wasn’t doing it for me. And there was a lot of time left in the day. So I decided, “I’ll do one quick painting in my sketchbook, and then I’ll be satisfied.” I ended up downtown near the museum. I was just lost. No one was around because people were terrified, and I thought the police were going to stop me.
SL: Were you terrified?
RS: No, no. I wasn’t. I took advantage of the fact that there was nobody around. I started making these other gouaches in the sketchbook, and ended up painting the Salesforce Tower. I was downtown and you know, there was a lot of tech going on before COVID, and there still is. There’s a lot of money in San Francisco, and I don’t have very much of it. They’re beautiful paintings, but they aren’t satisfying.
SL: They’re not warm or inviting. At least that’s how I interpret them. They’re cool and distant.
RS: They’re cool, distant, rather quick, and they were missing something – the people. I was driving around looking for places to paint. I went to the Bayview and noticed Sam Jordan’s, a very famous old bar there, had a “for sale” sign on it. I thought, “Aw man, that’s so disappointing. I’m going to come back tomorrow and make a painting of it.” I did one, and I put a couple figures in there that really weren’t very accurate. It was just from memory, seeing a couple of guys walking down the street. But it was so satisfying. A couple figures, a couple buildings.
SL: As a viewer, I can actually enter the picture, whereas your paintings of the Financial District feel so far away. This painting of Sam Jordan’s feels like I could be standing across the street. Especially with the level of detail you provide. There’s a plaque on the bar’s façade that mentions the Mayor of Butchertown, right? Sam Jordan was a boxing champion, and the first African American to run for mayor in San Francisco.
RS: Yeah, I think it’s that rectangle right there in the painting. And in addition to the plaque and the “for sale” sign is the main neon sign that’s broken.
SL: The “for sale” sign speaks to this moment in San Francisco. It points to gentrification, about the changing of hands, of property in this city, to new people moving in and others not being able to afford life here.
RS: I meet a lot of people when I’m out painting on the sidewalk, especially when the painting’s seventy-five percent done, that’s when they’re going to stop — I hear a lot of stories. But when I paint, I’m not thinking about saving the world or gentrification. I’m just making a simple painting, and if we start talking about it when someone comes up to me, that’s great because I’ve got a lot of opinions. [Laughter] And San Francisco talk does end up going that way naturally. You can’t make a painting of a building in San Francisco without addressing gentrification.
SL: You live in the Mission District, right?
RS: That’s right. I’ve been in the same place in the Mission for forty years. I was very lucky. Even in 1981, it was difficult to find a place to live.
SL: What has your past relationship with the Bayview been?
RS: I would go to the 49ers games with my roommate who was from San Francisco. One day, he said, “We’re going.” It was 1981 – that was the year they turned it around, and I was right there with all the firemen and regular folks, screaming our lungs out. To get to Candlestick Park, you would pass through the Bayview. And of course, when they moved to Santa Clara it was a big hit on the neighborhood, this comes up a lot in conversations there. Because one, there were huge fans in the Bayview, for both the Giants and the 49ers. And two, they would make money, they could rent their driveways. After the games, they would go to the bars. One of the last paintings I finished was the Pinch Hit Club — people told me, “This is where everybody went!” But they say that about a lot of bars over there. It was a community, and the players would stop by, too. This one guy I know had a club at 3rd Street and Williams. He told me that the players would wait for the traffic to dissipate in the parking lot across the street and then come. I can’t imagine what that would be like these days, because things are a bit more high-pitched.
SL: And since UCSF moved in. Not to mention the “T” line, which they had been talking about my entire childhood. It took the city twenty years, maybe, to build it.
RS: I’ve done sixty-nine paintings in the Bayview, so that’s a lot of time sitting on the sidewalk talking with people. And I have had a lot of conversations about how the Bayview has always been neglected. But Willie Brown did a lot for the Bayview. Rebuilt the swimming pool, put in the “T” line. When the baseball and football teams moved out though, it was a matter of pride for the Bayview. Just like the Warriors leaving Oakland. That was a hard one. Even though they say, “Oh well, it happens all the time.” That doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. San Francisco’s a small town. People tend not to leave their own neighborhood. Especially in the Bayview, which was predominantly Black after World War II, and it’s far enough away from San Francisco’s center that it was easy to neglect it.
SL: Without the “T” line, it was difficult to get from the Bayview to downtown on public transport. The bus lines weren’t as direct, and to have that light rail —
RS: Made a huge difference.
SL: One of my favorite aspects of your sketchbooks is that they’re diaristic. They are more than a group of images bound together in a book. You take extensive notes on the facing pages, detailing the people with whom you spoke, your conversations, the day, time, weather, and little things that happened. Looking through these books is like an overview of the past six months of your life.
RS: That’s right. It is a journal. I would do just one painting a day, and I went every day after April 12th, I think it was. You know, nothing else was going on. It was really quite satisfying.
SL: You weren’t going into the museum for installations at this point, right?
RS: Right, we would go in once in a while. Certainly, not full-time. People would see me on their way to work and then they would see me on their evening walk. And they appreciate it. “I like the way you take your time and nothing’s rushing you.” And in fact, the more I painted, the more I realized how important this project was to people in the Bayview. After I had done my first painting of Sam Jordan’s, it occurred to me that I had never seen a painting of the Bayview before. And I moved the entire contents of the museum’s vault from Van Ness — there were five vaults of paintings, many were of San Francisco. I go to galleries, museums, just like most artists — and I’ve never seen one. I’m not saying that there’s never been one.
It’s interesting; artists are always trying to find a void. The last thing you want to be saying is, “Well, everything’s been done.” I’m certainly that way. But I always find a little twist here or there.
SL: A new angle.
RS: A new angle. And I have worked with a lot of artists at the museum. They’ve been my mentors and teachers.
SL: Is there anyone who comes to mind?
RS: So many! Well, I have to say Sigmar Polke — was that ’92? I noticed a big change in my sketchbooks after I worked with him for two or three weeks. The Berlin Wall had come down, and reunification had just happened. We were showing lots of German art, and the artists were all super impassioned about the change in Germany. John Caldwell was the curator then — a lot of artists he brought in hadn’t shown in the United States before. It was an amazing time.
SL: How long had you been at the museum when you met Polke?
RS: Maybe five years. But Polke was one of the first that really impressed me. He was quite a magician and very irreverent. Kippenberger also. If you went to a Kippenberger opening and had the nerve to walk up to him and tell him you liked his work he would just nonchalantly say thanks. But working with him for three weeks on an installation, you really get a sense of how he thinks. You’re going to see how he works — you learn so much just by seeing how serious an artist takes it, whether they’ve shown many times already, or the new ones that are nervous. Andreas Gursky was that way. Oh my. He was very intense and focused on the dialogue between his photographs in the galleries.
SL: I love this.
RS: They were huge, huge photos, Andreas Gursky’s. Some of them sixteen feet long by eight feet, and so heavy. They tended to have heavier plaques in Germany, heavier glass even, in the frames. Two people could barely lift it. One person could probably lift around 200 pounds straight up, so that would make it around 400 pounds. There were maybe twenty-five of these enormous photos. What you do is open the crates up and spread the photos out before the artist gets there according to the map provided. And then when the artist arrives, okay, you do a little rearranging. Well, in his case, it was not a little rearranging. In fact, he cut maybe five or six of these huge photos, left walls blank, and would move entire galleries. Let’s put this gallery over in that one, and that one in this one. Our arms ended up looking like Popeye, we got so strong. But the thing is, when we would go to lunch and he would be there just crouched down, looking at these photos, he would still be there one hour later. He hadn’t moved. Still looking, trying to figure it out, until it made sense to him. He was brand-new on the scene at that point.
One of the last shows I installed before shut down was the Dawoud Bey exhibition. He was on my mind when I was painting the Bayview. He really embraces community in his work. So what I’m saying is, you learn a lot by watching artists engage with their own work in the galleries.
SL: People have probably learned something from you, too. You’ve talked to so many people throughout your whole project.
RS: Yes, yes. Most artists paint behind closed doors, so people only see the finished work hanging on a wall. I find that people are drawn to watching a painting being created. One of the best parts is that when someone does want to stop, we immediately start talking about art. On Third Street in the Bayview.
Above: Rico Solinas looking through sketchbook. Below: Rico showing finished artwork, Da Corner; the building is visible behind him.
SL: Are there particular pictures that people gravitate toward?
RS: Well, most people laugh at them because the image brings back memories. For instance, this one here is called The Greater Abundant Life Church. It’s a small building on Third Street. I was doing the YMCA, and the pastor lived nearby and saw me painting. He said, “Why don’t you paint my church?” So I made this painting. When I would show people this one, the older gentlemen would just start laughing and laughing, because it used to be a notorious bar.
SL: And now it’s a church.
RS: It was called Waterlou’s: one co-owner’s name was Wat and the other owner’s name was Lou. I’ve done a lot of bars, but this one must have been wild. Their eyes rolled back, they’d just start laughing. If there was someone else around, they’d start telling stories about it — there’s very few paintings that I’ve done that if you live in the Bayview, you would not recognize.
SL: Are many of your paintings made from the “T” Line platform?
RS: Yes, that’s right. The “T” Line’s been mostly closed since COVID, so it was the perfect place to makes paintings from. But for instance, for this one that you’re looking at now, Auntie April’s, I was leaning against a palm tree in the median. There are these gorgeous palm trees in the Bayview, and I’ve leaned against plenty of them for my back.
SL: I can only imagine. You’re sitting on the concrete for eight hours, and it has been hot this summer and fall. Hotter temperatures than I remember San Francisco ever reaching. Which brings me to my next question: what is it like to be a plein air painter during the apocalypse with burnt orange skies and smoky air?
RS: That’s right, the fires. To get from the Mission to the Bayview — which is only maybe two miles — you go through the industrial part of San Francisco. You could see a wall of smoke that you leave — the Bayview was blue skies. San Francisco’s like that — it’s so funny, as you know, when you see the news and they tell you what the temperature’s gonna be the next day.
SL: I know! In my neighborhood, it’s always so much colder than it is in other parts of the city.
RS: So consequently, I wasn’t really bothered at all by the smoke until that Wednesday, when it was too dark to paint. I was going to go, even for an hour, but it was just too dark.
SL: In a way, I’m glad that you didn’t go out on that apocalyptic day —
RS: Oh, I should have gone.
Images of the Bay Area sky. Left: Shana Lopes. Right: Rico Solinas.
SL: Really? It was one of the first times I’ve been frightened for the future of the Bay Area. I was here for the ’89 earthquake when the top layer of the Bay Bridge fell, and this was more frightening to me than that moment. Hearing about the acreage of land on fire surrounding the Bay Area – it made me wonder if it will be inhabitable in ten years’ time. Because ten years ago, twenty years ago, there was a fire season, but it wasn’t like this. I had never smelled smoke burning in the North or South Bay at this house until a few years ago. The color of the sky really made me understand how close we are to the fires.
RS: It was so memorable. The orange was like a constant sunset. But the air quality was good that day so I should have gone out. Like everybody else, though, I stayed in bed.
SL: But back to your project in the Bayview. I want to hear more about the pictures.
The Old Skool Café, for example. This is one of my favorite paintings because of the different periods of architecture present, in addition to the absolutely stellar sign on the café.
RS: Oh my God. That was some painting to do. My philosophy is anything to get the painting. And I’ll do quite a bit to get the painting that I’m after, even though I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. The Old Skool Cafe is painting number sixty. It’s in Mendell Plaza, near a 24 bus stop. At this point, I know quite a few people — not know them, but they know what I’m doing. I’m sitting on a blanket, on the sidewalk. I’ve got holes in my shoes. I’ve got a sketchbook and some colors. For three days, I painted at the Plaza — basically nine to five. People would sit next to me and start talking, there were people drinking and there’s lots of music in downtown Bayview — sometimes there would be five different cars blasting music. There’s a lot of action. They have an outdoor sermon on Sundays, and Pastor Palmer drives up and pulls out these big speakers, not twenty feet away from where I was painting. There’s a pianist, Greg, who I had already put in another painting. He told me he played here, but I didn’t know he played for a church service. It was so emotional for me. Painting is very spiritual, and especially after six or seven hours in the sun, you get even more spiritual. Here was Pastor Palmer talking about, “You’ve got to find a purpose in life.” And a fight broke out right behind me that went into the street. He’s trying to talk to them [Laughter] — trying to talk them down. And at this point, it was so hot — the fight was way beyond being talked down. I’m just painting through all this. I put in the little dog, and just yesterday, the guy who owns this dog, he said, “You made a painting of my dog!” So I’m going to bring him a copy. I make photocopies of all these paintings, an 8×10 color copy, and take it to the building owner or sometimes the workers there, depending on whom I’ve met.
SL: I didn’t know that you gave people a copy of the pictures you make.
RS: Yeah, every single one. Unless it’s Walgreen’s. Sorry.
SL: It’s okay.
RS: Well, I’m the curator, curator. [Laughter]
SL: So what is your goal for this project?
RS: Well, through most of this project, I’ve heard, “You ought to show these.” Especially the church ladies were very impressed; I’d give one to the pastor, and they would see it, I don’t know how. Some of these churches are rather large, and the families have been going for generations; church is really important in the Bayview, and I get blessed all the time. Ladies pulling up in cars, “Bless you, young man!” Young man, great!
SL: You’re like, I’m in my sixties. I’ll take it.
RS: I always need a blessing. That’s for sure. But there’s so much history there, and I’m trying to tap into it. This picture here is of the Arthur Coleman Medical Center. I had seen it before, a really nondescript sort of medical building with a ’60s mural on it. A guy from the painting before this one told me more about Arthur Coleman. He was the first Black doctor in the Bayview. He came in the ’60s and realized how economically disadvantaged the Bayview was — they were really being given the business by the city. So he went downtown to Hastings and got a law degree on top of his MD to help the people out. I mean, that’s just a wonderful story. Although you would never know it, just by looking at this painting. But when I would show it to people; “Oh yeah, he was my doctor. Yep, and you too?” “Yeah, and him too?” “Yeah.” He delivered all the babies in the Bayview for quite a few years.
SL: You’re really interested in the history of the Bayview — is it because you think some of these neighborhood institutions and shops might go away? Like, how Sam Jordan’s bar was for sale.
RS: Yes, that’s right. It is in transition. I’m just trying to do as many pictures as I can — you were asking me what I was going to do with them. Well, I want to show them, but I don’t want to exhibit them downtown; downtown doesn’t make any sense to me because the people that I want to see the show would be here. So, either the Opera House or the library.
SL: The Opera House in the Bayview?
RS: Yeah, it’s from 1888. They have quite a few programs. Due to Covid, I decided that a book might be easier to manage than an exhibition, as far as getting it into the hands of the people. I started telling everyone, “Yeah, I’m working on a book.” And in fact, I was. It just came out yesterday.
SL: That’s a big deal!
RS: With sixty-seven paintings of the Bayview inside. I tried to keep the price down, which was really important to me and not easy to do, I did the best I could. But they’re all there. There’s a lot of interest, and I’m excited.
SL: Are you still painting every day in the Bayview?
RS: Yes. I’m making a painting of Metropolitan Church and the old police station from 1911 — I just came here from there. You know, every block is different in the Bayview. And sometimes people don’t even leave one side of the block. Like, if you go on the other side, it’s different people. And they don’t leave either. And of course, you’re sitting down and looking at life as life goes by you, and what people are doing — the camaraderie is fantastic, just the process that I’m going through to make these paintings is really quite special. And you know, I’ve done a lot of teaching in San Francisco —
SL: Right across the street [Laughter] from my house.
RS: I was the first teacher they hired at the School for the Arts; Ruth Asawa hired me. She liked my sketchbooks and had me teach an intense sketchbook class that summer. Five hours a day, five days a week for a month. We would go all over the Bay Area. We would sketch inside a grocery store, then go to a warehouse in Oakland where they were still hand painting huge billboards, and then come back to San Francisco to sketch from the top of the Transamerica Pyramid building. All in one day. I like teaching a lot — I mean, the handsaw paintings of museums is all about education; if you went to these museums, you would be a better artist, because you would see what had been done. But I always envisioned a course where the entire class would go out to the Bayview and their homework would be to make a painting of one building. Then in one day you can have thirty paintings of the Bayview, with all the stories. I always thought that would be a nice assignment.