Will Bohemia Arise In Oakland?

Lake Temescal in Oakland became a Mecca for Poets and Plein Air Artists. The poet, George Sterling met Ambrose Bierce at a campsite on the lake where the Presco children used to go swimming. These two men would found the Bohemian Club where some of the richest men in the world would come to camp out. There is something to be said for living a frugal existence, a Bohemian life around a campfire, in the good company of creative men and women. These early Bohemian campers would prepare the way for the Hippies that were born in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. The ideal was to live in a little shack, pay next to no rent so one could concentrate on what truly matters.

One could say my grandfather was a Plein Air Poet. He must have taken the photo above of his wife camping on Santa Cruz Island that was also made into a post card. Did Royal try to become a photographer in order to earn monies to support his craft and family?

I did three Plein Air paintings in the course of my life, and have plans to make it a big part of my life. This is why I purchased my classic Ford truck.

Jon Presco

Copyright 2011

In 1892, Sterling met the dominant literary figure on the west coast, Ambrose Bierce, at Lake Temescal and immediately fell under his spell. Bierce — to whom Sterling referred as “the Master” — guided the young poet in his writing as well as in his reading, pointing to the classics as model and inspiration. Bierce also published Sterling’s first poems in his “Prattle” column in the San Francisco Examiner.
Sterling also met adventure and science fiction writer Jack London, and his first wife Bess at their rented villa on Lake Merritt, and in time they became best of friends. In 1902 Sterling helped the Londons find a home closer to his own in Piedmont, near Oakland. In his letters London addressed Sterling as “Greek” owing to his aquiline nose and classical profile, and signed them as “Wolf.” London was later to depict Sterling as Russ Brissenden in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1908) and as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon (1913).

The Society of Six was intensely devoted to a self-imposed set of rough-and-tumble attitudes that they found necessary for the maintenance of the visual purity in their works. They sensed that they were not making new art merely for the sake of newness, but with an exhilaration that was born from an overthrowing of subservient visual posturing over various sanctified art modes. Although they were a part of the San Francisco Bay Area modernist art scene in the 1920s, they had an allegiance primarily to themselves, and they were forced to be their own best audience. Influences upon them ranged from nineteenth century Impressionism to European Abstractionism. Although it is fairly easy to trace the more obvious influences, “The Six nonetheless, managed individually to fashion their own painting styles into fresh and ingenuous outdoor paintings which appear generally American and specifically Californian. They were regional painters in the best sense of the word.
“Will Bohemia arise in Oakland,” was the question asked in an article in the Oakland Tribune on April 22, 1917. The reporter told of the formation of an artist’s club of the East Bay with a membership of more than 30 painters, sculptors and art students including Selden Gile, William H. Clapp and William A. Gaw (1891-1973). Many of the things that made the area seem so desirable to “The Six” were mentioned in that review, such as the picturesque waterfront and the sunny rolling hills above the Bay. Oakland was depicted as “…a Bohemia where kindred spirits meet with art and the great adventures that stimulate art to color its atmosphere.”
For almost 10 years, 1917 to 1927, until Selden Gile moved to Belvedere,[2] his cabin on Chabot Road in Oakland was the weekly meeting place for “The Six.” The “Chow House,” as it was called, had electricity but no toilet or bath.[3] What the accommodations lacked in convenience was more than made up for by the heated art discussions and garlic-laced meals that Gile, the generous host, provided. He frequently offered a formidable home-brewed beer to wash down his famous meals and, occasionally, the proceedings were enlivened by the bottles exploding. In addition to the beer, they fortified their meetings with at least two gallons of “dago red” wine which were delivered to Gile every week by an Italian bootlegger friend.[4] Occasionally, von Eichman showed up with his “San Jose Cheer,” a prune whiskey that helped to lubricate their discussions.[5] Clapp, the sedate curator, was dubbed “Ho-Ho-Ho” by Gile because that was Clapp’s usual exclamation when he arrived at their meetings. He was considered to be the gentleman of the crowd.[6] As Siegriest recalls, “Clapp was a very quiet sort of fellow, polite and quiet.” He also remembers with discomfort, “the way these guys would talk in front of him…he looked embarrassed but he would join in.”[7] “The Six” friends rarely missed a Saturday or Sunday evening get-together at Selden Gile’s place..[8]
William Clapp was the only member of the group who had received formal instruction in France.[9] Born in Canada, in 1879, but reared in Oakland, Clapp returned to Canada, in 1900. He studied there and at the Académie Julian in Paris under Jean-Paul Laurens, as well as the Académie Colarossi and at the Ecole de la Grande Chaumière. Before returning permanently to live in Oakland, about 1917, Clapp had been considered a radical painter in Montreal. In fact his studies in Europe and Paris, and his later familiarity with the modernist Canadian “Group of Seven” who showed for the first time together in Toronto in 1920, contributed immensely to “The Six’s” cohesiveness. Not coincidentally, “The Six” had initially been called “The Group of Six,” undoubtedly prompted by Clapp’s knowledge of the Canadian painters.[10] His previous studies in Paris and Montreal had acquainted him with an attitude that considered manifestos and closely-knit groups to be essentially supportive of art. An Oakland Tribune critic finally named the Oakland-based group of artists “The Society of Six,” perhaps cribbing the title from a contemporary group of vanguard French musicians led by Eric Satie, “Les Six,” who had been in the news as musical innovators.[11] In 1923, Clapp initiated a policy of annual shows for “The Society of Six” as part of a progressive exhibition program in the Oakland Art Gallery.


About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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