Artist Profile

Several months back, I was ordering a cappuccino at SFMOMA’s new rooftop sculpture garden, and I noticed a dessert offering that uncannily resembled a Piet Mondrian painting. Another looked a lot like a Wayne Thiebaud cake. Looking closer, I saw that all of the desserts had ties to artwork.

“These are beautiful, and look delicious,” I thought. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
And I was right; these unique sweets are the creation of resident pastry chef Caitlin Williams Freeman and can only be found in this singular location. And though the idea of making art-inspired treats came to Caitlin in a flash, the full-circle journey to this took a decade.

I sat down with Caitlin at the rooftop garden on a recent sunny day to discuss how she went from being a photography student at UC Santa Cruz and pastry shop counter girl to developing her own baking and pastry niche.

Caitlin Williams Freeman holding a Wayne Thiebaud-inspired cake; courtesy SFMOMA

Chérie Turner: Can you tell me about your art background?

Caitlin Williams Freeman: I was at school in Santa Cruz in the photography program, and we would come up here [to San Francisco] a lot to see various gallery shows. And we would always come to the museum. That’s when I first saw Wayne Thiebaud’s painting [Display Cakes], and I was captivated. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I just really, really loved that one particular painting.

CT: And how’d you get started with baking?

CWF: In college, I worked at this pastry shop. I was just a counter girl, but I was so obsessed with pastries. Years later, I ended up meeting the woman [Megan Ray] who became my business partner.

She had just gotten laid off at a dot com and had never worked at a bakery. But she decided she wanted a cake shop, and so, the two of us were enthusiastic enough that we would just work all hours. We would do farmer’s markets. Then we were offered a space in the ferry building. That was October 2003.

Working at Miette [the cake shop] is how I met James [Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee]. He was my next-door neighbor at the Berkeley farmer’s market. It’s a long story–then in 2008, I sold my part of Miette; it was actually the same day James and I got married.

The Ellsworth Kelly ice-cream bar (with Kelly sculpture on rooftop garden in background)' courtesy SFMOMA

I took a few months off after that and made pastries for James, for Blue Bottle. I figured I’d do that for a while, and then I’d go do my own thing–open a pie shop or something. Shortly after that, the museum [SFMOMA] asked James to open a coffee shop here [at the rooftop garden].


I thought it was really cool, but I hadn’t really thought about any connections–but we were up here and suddenly I was like, this is the reason I’m a baker! Because I was obsessed with this painting in this building. We were in this meeting, and I grabbed James and said, “Can I make Thiebaud cakes here?” He said, “Sure!”

So that was the plan: I was going to make Thiebaud cakes in the place where I became inspired to become a baker. It felt so perfect. It had taken me ten years to get here, but it couldn’t have happened better if I had planned it.

CT: But you did more than just Thiebaud cakes.

CWF: Yes. To figure out what else I was going to make, I went and soaked in every piece of art that was on display and tried to figure out what to do. And it’s fun because, with the exception of the Thiebaud cake, which we always have on the menu whether or not the painting is hanging, we really keep the desserts limited to reflecting what’s actually on display in the museum. So when a new show comes up, we make a new dessert based on what will be showing.

CT: Can you talk about the process of coming up with new desserts?

CWF: It’s generally something I’m really inspired by. But you also have to be in tune with what are the popping pieces, the pieces you just can’t miss.

We have this Agnes Martin piece right now that we’re working on, but I really wonder, “Is anyone going to get this?” It’s such a subtle piece, and it’s such a subtle product that we made, and I think it’s just perfect and delicious. But I have no idea if people are going to connect to it. In that case, then, we try to come up with something that is interesting in another way. We have both the artistic angle and the food angle, so if we have something that’s a little more abstract, we can try to make it a more beguiling flavor combo.
I’ve been inspired in many different ways. Like the Mondrian cake. I distinctly remember going past the Mondrian painting, and I kept thinking, “What can I even do with that?” I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what.

The Piet Mondrian cake; courtesy SFMOMA

Then I happened to be looking through this old cookbook of Victorian cakes. There’s this old cake called the Battenberg cake; it’s an old British cake. When you cut it, it’s a checkerboard. And I was like, “There it is!” So that ended up happening by finding a cake that was an inspiration and seeing the structure and figuring out how to turn it into art.

We’ve also been really liking these do-it-yourself art/dessert pieces, like the Richard Serra piece. We’re just about to do Alexander Calder build-your-own mobile cookies.

CT: So, what is your overall general approach to developing these desserts?

CWF: We keep two worlds in mind [art and food] and see where they can cross over. Some are really obvious, like the Thiebaud and [Richard] Diebenkorn, and those we feel like we have to have because people can connect with them really easily. But I don’t ever want to recreate a piece of art. It’s our interpretation of it.

The Jeff Koons "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" dessert; courtesy SFMOMA

Ever since Bay Area painter Nellie King Solomon had her first solo show in San Francisco fresh out of graduate school in 2001, her work has met with positive reviews, even from the hard-to-please SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker. (She’s also a three-time SECA nominee, up again for the award this year.) The final words of his glowing appraisal of that first show also issued up a challenge that many shared: “Her show is a powerful debut that will be hard for her to follow.” Solomon laughs about the gauntlet Baker threw. Her reaction? “I was like, you do not know who you’re messing with.” Almost a decade later, the work is stronger than ever.

As Is, 2001, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Nellie King Solomon

Solomon makes luscious, ephemeral large-scale abstract paintings on Mylar, addressing issues of space and environment, control and movement. They are created in her light-filled Hunter’s Point studio, on a table using handmade tools or sometimes just gravity to maneuver the paint. The imperfect surface contributes to the creation. Her early works were bright and fluid; puddles and rivulets meandered over the opaque surface resulting in meditative, organic paintings. On some, oval marks stamped with one of her homemade wooden tools, are also evident, harkening back to the point at which Solomon started her artistic journey–with the dot.

Solomon’s path to painting was indirect. Raised in San Francisco by an architect father and philosopher/dancer/writer mother, she’s known the creative life since birth. But it wasn’t clear until she’d already pursued several different avenues, including sustainable agriculture and architecture, that painting would be her primary focus. The decision to pursue art–Solomon earned a master’s of fine arts degree from California College of the Arts–coincided with a shift in momentum. “The reason for the dot was to stop traveling. Every two years I would leave some city and move to another. I needed to stop. The line, which was architecture, was also travel; so I took it away. I was in dots for four years before I touched representation and then another four years before I touched color. Then it moved to these ovals because I wanted a little bit of speed, but I still wanted it to stay slow.”

Niagara, 2000, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Nellie King Solomon

With this new work, Solomon is beginning to move. Whereas past paintings were almost self-created by the undulations of her work surface, in these, Solomon is the primary guiding force. A common feature throughout are large, thick rings that don’t quite close; the shape is created with a graceful full-body gesture, a nod to Solomon’s early training as a dancer. “I have hidden that strong arm behind my back for a long time,” she explains. “I’m just letting it come out. That’s one reason I work so large. I want it to be to some degree out of my control. If it’s too big for me to be able to handle, it keeps me from getting glib. It keeps me a little scared.” Solomon’s increased boldness is also evident in her changing palette. Pretty pinks, reds, and yellows of the past are replaced by toxic neon oranges and magentas and dark browns, black, green, and blue mixed with glitter; the edges, caked with soda-ash, have a corroded texture. The influence of Solomon’s interest in the environment, and the increasing degradation of it, is increasingly obvious. Gone are the delicate niceties of early work; these paintings are brave, brazen, and intense.

Boom Bloom, 2008, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Brian Gross Fine Art

“I always knew I had something to say,” says Solomon, reflecting back over her career to date. “I just didn’t know what I was going to say. But I knew that nobody was going to do it if I didn’t. I feel like I’m just getting started.”

John WatersOn a recently sunny afternoon, I met up with the delightfully subversive John Waters at his cozy hilltop apartment, filled with beloved artwork and a loaded library. Best known for his positively perverse films—Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom, Pecker—Waters sat down to talk with me about everything but, including his take on his sometimes home, San Francisco.
In addition to discussing his favorite aspects of the city, Waters also filled me in on his fine art career and solo exhibition currently on show at SF’s Rena Bransten Gallery (through July 9), and his new book, Role Models, which features a series of essays about people, both famous and infamous, who have had a profound impact on Waters’s life.
Reflecting his mischievously humorous personality, the ever fashionable Waters was dressed in his signature style: anything by Comme des Garçon (the label’s founder and designer, Rei KawaKubo, is one of the role models featured in Waters’s book). He dove right into the interview gregariously introducing the conversation into the recorder, setting his fabulously filthy (as only the genre’s “king” can) tone from the start.

John Waters: We’re on with the Nob Hill Gazette. You know I’ve always wanted to do a porno movie with Nob Hill in the title but spelled K-N-O-B (burst of laughter). It’d play right down there at the Nob Hill Cinema. 
I lived here when I was young. It’s the first place my movies ever caught on outside of Baltimore and Provincetown. I lived in several places in the city including a commune on 18th and Church. The best thing about living here now is I lived, in 1970, in my car not far from here; it’s about the same now, but a little different. I just pay more now for clothes that look like they came from a thrift shop.

Chérie Turner: With a start like that, I think I might just throw out my questions! I do want to talk to you about San Francisco, but I also know you have some new projects that aren’t movies, which is what most people associate you with.

I have an art career, and I wrote this book, which took two-and-a-half years. I have this live show I do called Filthy World, which I tour all over. I just did Australia and sold out the Sydney Opera House, I’m proud to say. So I’m always on tour doing that.

Let’s talk about your artwork. What got you into the art world?

I collect contemporary art, and I went forever to art galleries. I’ve collected since the sixties. I had this one dealer I really liked in New York named Colin de Land, and he had a place called American Fine Art. I always went in there, and he finally said to me, Do you ever do art? And I said, I have these little pictures, but I hadn’t told anybody. He came and saw them, and I had my first show. Colin de Land was known as such a, to use the most overused word in the art criticism, rigorous art dealer—he was really a respected, insane art dealer, who was anything but commercial. I don’t think I could have done it without him. He hooked me up with Rena Bransten—and this is my, what, fourth show with her. I love Rena.

I’ve been doing this since 1992, so it’s not especially new; there are three or four books out about my work. One thing I like—in the art world, you don’t have to reach everybody. In fact if you do, it’s bad. So it’s the opposite of movies. It’s so exciting to not have to pretend you’re commercial.

John Waters's "A Passion for Audrey"

Tell me about your exhibition there.

I’m showing new work. Some is from a lot of different shows but also new work that hasn’t even been seen in New York or L.A. And none of the work has been seen here. There’s a piece called A Passion for Audrey, which is Audrey Hepburn in every movie but with hickies on that beautiful neck. I alter film knowledge—that’s basically what my work is about, the film business and film knowledge.

How’d that start?

I started doing it because I needed a still from one of my own movies that I didn’t have. So I thought, How can I get this? Can I take it off the video, on the TV screen? And it worked, but in an arty, weird way. Then I became like a bad publicist looking for movie stills that would never be released as movie stills. I went so far into that that I did a series called “The Marks,” which is just the marks on the floor that actors have to hit. I focus on stills of details you’re not allowed to see in a movie—the opposite.

And then my writing career, I’ve always—you know, everything I do is about writing. My artwork—I think it up before I do it. I write it, basically. My books I write. My movies I write. My journalism I write. My standup I write. So basically, I’m a writer. And every morning I’ve gotta think of something, and every afternoon I sell it. That’s my life. I start at 8 a.m. every day; I get up at 6. I walk out to get my papers, and every morning the cable car goes by at the exact moment I step out the door; it’s really to the second.

That says a lot about our cable car system and your schedule.

I love the cable car system. They are my mode of transportation. I live in a Rice-A-Roni commercial. It’s like a joke. It’s like getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl to go to the store. They’re great! I love the—I take the bus here everywhere. I think the transportation system here is really good. I said that and it was on a blog: Has John Waters lost his mind? I can say I want one of the Manson family paroled [Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted for murdering Leno and Rosemary LaBianca; she’s another of the role models in Waters’s book], and it didn’t cause controversy. But saying that the public transportation was good—there was outrage!

Let’s switch gears. I know you have a very fashionable reputation.

I understand the ludicrousness of fashion. I follow fashion as I follow art, and I follow it as an art form. I think everybody can have a fashion if you even find it in the gutter. I don’t think it has to be about money. Matter of fact, if you’re young and buy designer clothes, you’re an idiot. It’s for over forty; you need help then. But at twenty, if you’re spending money on designer clothes, it’s ridiculous. You should be wearing the things they copy.

What are some of your favorite places to go here, your favorite bar and restaurants.

My favorite bar is Delirium. And I love lots of restaurants. I like Zuni, which my friend Billy West started; he’s long dead. I like Foreign Cinema, Range—I go out to eat all the time here. It’s a great food town.

Tell me what you think about the art scene here. Any favored artists?

Brett Reichman and Vincent Fecteau are my two favorite local artists, and they’re also very good friends of mine. Of course, I love Rena, and I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Fraenkel—talk about a beautiful gallery, beautiful catalogues, great stuff there. I think you have great film festivals here. I’ve also been active with Frameline, the gay film festival.

Culturally it’s a great town, but at the same time there are crazy people here, too. You can go down and walk through the Tenderloin and think, Wow, this is like what the Bowery was in the forties. It’s amazing to me. But it doesn’t seem scary to me at all. But I don’t scare easily. The Mission I like, but the mission is very different—and it’s completely mixed. I’m for gay and straights mixed together; I’m not so much for separation of anything. This used to be a gayer town in a weird way. When I was here when I was young, South of Market was 100 percent gay. When you don’t know who’s what, that seems much more exciting to me.

Let’s talk about your book, Role Models. What inspired you to write it?

I wrote the Tennessee Williams essay when his memoirs were released. New Directions [Publishing] asked me if I’d write the introduction, and that gave me the idea. It’s telling my story through others.

Why are role models important?

Everybody has role models. Basically I’m always really interested in people’s lives that have survived with grace and dignity and have had a life more extreme than mine has ever been. That’s what the book’s about. And every person in my book I do look up to for different reasons, for many complicated reasons, and there’s not an easy answer to any of the people I bring up. I mean like Madalyn Murray O’Hair who couldn’t be more unlikable in a way even though I believe in what she fought for—taking prayer out of the school. But people forget what she was like. Certainly Leslie Van Houten, which is the only chapter in the book that is completely serious. There’s no fair answer to her situation. I’m fascinated by someone who did something so terrible when she was young and is now so obviously better and rehabilitated and beyond it. But what is the fair answer? To me, if you’re raised in a system of jail where for forty years they tell you there is a system you can participate in to get parole, and you have done every possible thing for forty years and they admit it—she didn’t get life without parole. But I understand the victims, what they say. But they’re talking from a personal viewpoint and I’m talking from society’s viewpoint. And those are two completely different things.

Is there anyone you haven’t met whom you’d like to meet?

Mostly they’re dead. I have met many of my role models. David Plante, the writer—not people who are instantly famous. I’ve never met Ned Rorem, the classical musician and diarist—people like that. I’m not dieing to meet someone who’s a big famous rock star. Around here, I want to meet the guy who wrote that book [points to Oh, The Glory of it All]—Sean Wilsey.

A LARGE AND DISTINCTIVELY whole-body Waters laugh followed, and then soon it was time to quit this questful Q&A. But even after the door closed and the goodbyes were waved, I indulged thedelight of the wickedly wonderful Waters worldview just a moment more. And instead of taking a taxi to my next destination, I caught the coming cable car.

This interview originally appeared in the Nob Hill Gazette.

Patrick Dintino's "Bubble Yum"

Patrick Dintino has created an artistic lens through which he looks at everything that interests him: consumer culture, news media, karma, advertising, endangered species, and now, leisure. The products of his process are mesmerizing spectrum paintings. He’s been making them for over ten years, and in his mind, he’s just begun. “I’m very much interested in color codes and how we react,” he explains. Every one of Dintino’s paintings features a series of vertical bands of various widths and colors; each strip blends into the next, forming hazy boundaries. From afar the works look airbrushed. They are not. Each is made by hand with a house-painting brush. “If you look close,” he says, “you’ll see brush marks, hair and dirt in there. I want these to challenge people about the idea or concept of painting.” The physical process of making the work is straightforward. “I go up and down, up and down until the colors blend.”

Dintino will research an idea for weeks or months before he commits it to canvas. “I get imagery from the Internet,” he says, pointing to a recent work, which will appear in his upcoming solo exhibition at San Francisco’s Andrea Schwartz Gallery. “I’ll have a concept—for this one I searched for ‘vacation’—and see what images pop up. I’ll sift through thousands of images and see what color vibrations speak to me.” Dintino notes that once a painting is started, he finishes it in one sitting. “I’m a control person,” he explains, “but in this type of painting, you can’t control; it’s a forced spontaneity. There is difficulty in combining colors, but I like that tension, that idea of a certain amount of clash. If it’s comfortable, then it becomes predictable. I want it to be a bit uncomfortable but beautiful at the same time.”

Though abstract, Dintino’s spectrum paintings each feature a distinct rhythm and narrative—a melody, he states. (He used to be a full-time musician.) And even though there is an engaging dis-ease in these works, they are meditative.

Dintino grew up in the Bay Area. He earned his undergrad and master’s degrees at California College of the Arts, where he now teaches painting. He began his artistic explorations in the Funk art tradition, turning trash into sculpture. This evolved into collage work, which he still does today. His material is mostly packaging or junk mail. “I like the idea that it’s delivered to my house,” he says with a mischievous smile. “I’m playing with that idea of information that’s delivered. I like taking information that’s supposed to go into the mind and distorting it, changing it and reflecting it back on itself.”

In its minimalist approach, Dintino’s work falls outside of current fashion. Although he doesn’t align himself in particular with any of his contemporaries, he notes having been influenced by Op art painters such as Bridget Riley, color field artists, à la Mark Rothko, and perceptualists, such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell. As is, Dintino’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. He was a 2002 SECA finalist, and is up again for the award this year; he was awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2004. Working out of his converted garage studio at his El Cerrito home, Dintino is free to clear his mind and mull over what lies behind the various tones, hues, and images we’re bombarded with. “I am distorting people’s views with these spectrum paintings, their perception of things,” he says. “That’s what’s driving this work.”

Patrick Dintino’s work will be featured in an upcoming solo show at Andrea Schwartz Gallery, in San Francisco, from June 16 – July 30, 2010.

This profile appears in the May/June issue of art, ltd magazine.