“I love San Francisco,” wire sculptor Kristine Mays laughed, realizing she had just quoted a common T-shirt slogan. “But a lot of the things I love aren’t even here anymore. It’s sorta strange to think about.”
Mays likens the sensation of living in an increasingly homogeneous city to being uprooted. Her attempt to counteract the violence to the souls of black folks and others imperiled by gentrification is to construct beautiful artworks from heavy duty material that are likely to outlast all of us.
“The biggest thing I miss is the culture,” said Mays of the vibrance and color she’s seen drained from her birthplace. “There was so much ambiance in various neighborhoods. You felt a shift as you moved from one to the next.”
Amid the decline, Mays noted the slow but steady infiltration of big box stores in the region and the way they’ve influenced not only the way San Franciscans look and shop, but the way they’ve eroded her own ability to obtain specialty hardware and quality rebar tie, the tools of her trade.
“The price of steel is so high right now. Prices are two or three times more to buy supplies here,” she said. She still hasn’t gotten over the shuttering of family-owned Goodman’s Lumber on Old Bayshore almost 10 years ago. “It really angers and saddens me. I order all of my wire and pliers from a little hardware place in the midwest and they ship it.”
There is also the reality of everyday racism.
“I feel like it’s a lot easier to be dismissed and to be ‘put in my place,’ based on what I look like,” she said. “It used to be more live and let live.”
Mays described a recent rainy day, the complications of transporting her tarpaulin-covered artwork on a luggage cart to an unfamiliar address, and what she encountered when she got there.
“It took me three or four tries to get anyone to speak to me as I was trying to find the right location,” she said, shaking her head. “It was assumed I was a homeless person.”
She rejects the increasing economic and racial polarization between San Franciscans. She said she often thinks of the phrase, “by the grace of God go I.” It wasn’t always this way.
Growing up here, Mays remembers not only a more cosmopolitan and diverse place, but a kinder one.
“I miss the old Mission Street, mariachis, men selling popsicles and music coming from every place,” she said. She remembers running into Carlos Santana on at least five ocassions . “On Mission Street, on Market Street, just living his life.” That kind of thing doesn’t happen as much anymore. However, there is one place Mays says she finds common ground.
“There’s a lot of things I’ve seen play out on the Muni bus, through the eyes of the people who get on and off the bus,” said Mays who grew up in Visitacion Valley. Her family did not own a car, and so she got to know public transportation well at an early age. Her military family originally arrived from San Diego to the Haight-Ashbury at the end of the ‘60s.
“I almost feel like I was soaked in the freedom of expression there,” she said.
Attending grammar and middle school in the Ingleside where today she has a studio, Mays went to high school at Lowell and received her degree in arts administration from DePaul University. She’s lived her adult years in Glen Park and Bayview and finds community and solidarity within the 3.9 Art Collective, a group of African American artists (its name is a reference to the reduced percentage of black residents here). The artists introduced her to the African American Art & Culture Complex where her current exhibit, Brutally Soft, is on view through Black History Month and into Women’s History Month.
“On our 3.9 Facebook page, we try to do one historical fact every day of the year, because Black History Month is every month. Something happens every day and something will continue to happen every day,” she said, noting the same goes for women making history. “The human condition cannot be stopped. Humanity prevails.”
As a self-trained artist who exhibits coast to coast (her next opening is at Philadelphia’s Colored Girls Museum), she’s ever-reminded by art appreciators that wire sculpting connects her to San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa. Mays had one brief but meaningful interaction with Asawa whom her mother and sisters met while working on a public mural project.
“We talked on the phone one time and she said, “I just want to tell you keep making your art, no matter what you do, find a place for your artwork and never give up.”
It was wisdom well-taken. While Mays is strong on cultural and gender identity and her current show on uprootedness conjures black bodies stowed on slave ships and those turned out of their homes in San Francisco, her art is made for everyone.
“The beauty of working with wire and this material is that it’s been used in the foundations of buildings, it’s been used to mend fences. I know it has that durability to last,” said Mays. “I want to put my stake in the ground here in San Francisco. If I were to think of my wildest dream, it would be to have left something here that’s distinctively me. I don’t have kids…these are my babies.”
If You Go
What: Brutally Soft, Sculptures by Kristine Mays
Where: African American Art & Culture Complex 762 Fulton Street
When: Through March 24, Tuesday-Saturday 12-5 PM
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan