Foot wash—

Ellen Rosenthal studio foot wash sign
“Foot Wash” sign

Out in the Boneville salt flats—overlooking a vast white expanse is a single sign—“Foot Wash”. What we can’t see is a small basin on the desert floor with a water spigot.

Out of context a sign begins to seem absurd—

As I watch all the studios get cleaned up for Open studios—I always miss the mess of the working space—as if we hide our methods—and what hangs on our walls is the final product—it almost seems too clean—we don’t know the context any longer—it reminds me of all the the clean, new buildings on Valencia street and Mission. The historical, old buildings are like a process of thinking—a history of the work.

Ellen Rosenthal in her studio
Ellen Rosenthal

For Ellen the idea that this space, her studio will be taken away— makes her realize that she has had a false sense of security—“You don’t have control. You believe it is yours and then its not… Unfortunately.” Unfortunately things disappear—they begin to be hard to trace.

She glances around at all her work, “The thought of taking this all out of here is terrible—distressful—but you can’t expect things to stay the same.”

This pulsing between something controlled and uncontrolled—is the artists territory—the idea that something is fixed and the recognition that nothing is fixed. As I watch my studio mates clean their studios—prepare for the fight to hold on to their studios— I can see them adapting to a situation in which impermanence feels imminent.

Ellen Rosenthal studio space
Ellen’s space

Ellen is taking photographs of places she visits—“Sometimes the color is extraneous—it gets in the way of the image,” and other times, “The color is the focus.” There is an image of a dog on the street—the photo was originally intended to be about light—but the dog sitting in the middle of that street— “The back is so straight,” she says “And the dog is so young…it seems to be saying ‘I am in charge of this space.’” And locked in stillness by the photo, it is true—an attitude of holding space—of holding a boundary—can be manifested by gesture of a body.

When I walk around during open studios—down the halls of all the open doors—wine and chips on tables—I see that each artist inhabiting his or her space with that same straight back—that same determination.

I pick up something small on Ellen’s desk—a tiny handmade book of photographs that fits in my palm. On the walls are large photographs—in back are frames and mats. Her space is clean. “The type of impact—the quality of the image,” she pauses, “I have discovered that some images are better small—intimate.” It is intimate to hold a book of images the size of your palm—as if you are opening secrets—like opening the short, concise poems of Emily Dickinson—trying to tell a story but at a slant.

Ellen Rosenthal handmade book of photographs
Handmade book of photographs

The streets in the Mission are filling up with new construction. Walking at night on Mission Street—past the taquerias—the occasional blue tiles on the sidewalk—the abandoned old movie theaters that are almost all gone—torn down—and steel skeletons stand in their place—to become something—and yes—they were empty for years—but held the space—held the idea of what was—and as they disappear there will be no sign—not even out of context—to let us to know where we are.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The truth’s superb surprise

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Emily Dickinson

More about Ellen Rosenthal:

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 more:

Feature on Alex Nichols and STUDIO 17: The Artists’ Space

How the journey began… STUDIO 17: The Artists’ Space by Alex Nichols

More 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 April 24, 2015

Published by Alex Nichols

Alex Nichols is a San Francisco based interdisciplinary artist and writer who deconstructs the experience of self, tracks the perceived and performs the narrated idea of self through a disarming physicality, rigor and humor. Her current projects utilize video, monologue, performance, and installation, reconstructing the physical boxes, strings and language of constraints.


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