STUDIO 17: An Empty Space

Overhead of studio 17
Overhead view of Studio 17

Talking straight, seeing straight, requires careful observation, and alertness. This seems a simple task. Look at your surroundings. Are you looking? Do you see? I think I do. Then I find out I don’t see. This is the effect of systematic erasure. It is in our language, in our thinking. I am back visiting Truong, but not in our spaces, because we have been moved out, now we meet at a cafe. This is what I will do now with the blog: find the artists of the former Studio 17 community, see where they are as they try to build and find new communities. 

As an artist “seeing” is the practice. But it is not so simple. For example, when you first learn to draw the figure, the teacher says, “Draw what you see, not what you think you see.” You don’t understand at first, so a foot that is sticking out in front of the body, you draw smaller than the body, because a foot is smaller than the body. Truong is the type of artist and writer who asks you to see. He is always alert to the language we use. He catches the language of erasure faster than most. When looking at language, it is essential to look at it the way you first learn to draw: look at what is being said, not what you think is being said.

“Do not cross.” I stand in front of these words on a museum floor. I look at my toes, I look at the floor, I look at what is on the other side. Sometimes I watch myself stand at lines drawn and I wonder what happens if I cross. Who is the line drawn for and who has drawn the line? Today the line is about zoning. How a building is zoned. Specifically how the Redlick Building is zoned, because on August 6th, there is a hearing at City Hall about the re-zoning of the Redlick Building which once housed 70 artists. “This decision will not just effect this building,” Truong exclaims, “If the rezoning goes through, it will be like giving a blue print to developers on how to displace the working class, people of color.” Studio 17 (the community of 70 artists) no longer exists. We have been disbanded. This is the final obstacle for the owner and developers to successfully shape the building to their needs. So the question is, what is our city made of? What is being lost?

in the ground, water pipes
under a high-rise building, sewage pipes
important things can’t always be seen

Aida Mitsuo

I am sitting with Truong at a cafe. “How is your work?” I am picturing his piles of sorted objects, his desk, his walls covered in bullseyes made of plates, but we no longer sit in his space surrounded by boxes of objects, we are at a small table in a cafe. “Are you able to work?” He hesitates, because the answer exists between yes and no. “It is depressing to have no community.” 

Isolation and confusion are two primary words that repeat. “There is no one to bounce ideas off of down the hall.” Like being handed a book, or a line from a poem. “What just happened?”  “There is no community anymore, even among my students, they are commuting home to places like Hayward, there is no ‘readings’ (poetry reading) that just happen because no one is in the same place anymore.”

Two artist’s from the former Studio 17 pass the cafe, “Have you found a studio yet?” This is the ever repeating question. Truong continues, “No one can afford the city anymore. I am tempted, I am really tempted to leave too.” But Truong won’t give up. “This is our last stand.” He is determined to fight; he will stand tomorrow at the public planning commission hearing and speak, it has to do with being able to face himself in the future. 

Truong sees, really sees and makes sure the people around him are looking too, he keeps you alert to the language. He asks questions, what is the meaning in that statement. I remember a story he told me about a month ago, before we left Studio 17. There was writer on Facebook who asked a question. The writer wanted to know if there was any lit on outrage and anger. Truong was indignant, “Does this poet not see all the powerful writers that are out there in front of him? Are they invisible to him? How about Claudia Rankine…a finalist for the National book Award!” Truong is watching for those places of invisibility, places where things get erased, this rezoning of this building is a line that he doesn’t want crossed, because if it is crossed it will lead to further displacements in the future. If you look as closely as Truong does, you see where the crossing of this line will lead, it will wipe out the working class in the city. So this line (the prevention of rezoning) in this specific case, is protection. 

The information about our building got parsed out carefully. Tenants disappeared, but quietly. One day the red stairwell is painted grey; the grey paint arrives in the stairwell, but you don’t know its significance, you don’t know that you and the 70 artists you are with will be displaced yet. You just see fresh paint. Change is occurring all the time – in pieces it doesn’t necessarily add up to one thing, it is only as you look back that you see that all the pieces- big and small- were leading in one direction. A painted stairwell is significant. The paint color is chosen to appeal to a certain client. By the time you really see it, by the time Plan Grid has taken over a third of the floor, by the time you have moved out of your studio, it is already too late.

About STUDIO 17: The Artists’ Space by Alex Nichols

At the end of June—a community of over 70 artists—at the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District—must leave STUDIO 17 to make way for high-cost working space. This blog will catalog the end of this community above Thrift Town (on Mission &17th Street) and what it means. To understand what is being lost—I will spend the next two months carefully observing how artists work in their space—to give an intimate look at the inside of this community.

More about Alex Nichols:

Read the feature article that was on:

Read how the Studio 17 journey began: The Artists Space by Alex Nichols

Featured Artists:

Lucinda Buxton Martin

Rick D’Elia

Jeffrey Martin


Daniel Lichtenberg

Ellen Rosenthal

Lauren Marchetti

Adam Barry

Lexie Bouwsma

Denise Laws

Andy Vogt

Qinmin Liu

Truong Tran

Kate Nichols

Published on August 6, 2015

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