A Conversation with Artist Elaine Badgley Arnoux — “The People of San Francisco, Lives of Accomplishment”

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Walking into Elaine’s studio near the Embarcadero I was immediately at home amidst a flurry of shapes and colors, fanciful sculptures, containers of every sort, paintings, brushes, baskets, and books – including one of her own, a catalogue of portraits, The People of San Francisco. I was anxious to talk to her about the inspiration that pulls a portrait into being. My interest in portrait art begins with the glamour images of 1930s Hollywood, particularly the sharp black and white and carefully posed creations of photographer George Hurrell and the brightly hued sometimes garish illustrations of Earl Christy that appeared on covers of popular fan magazines. This focus on a particular era of Film and the careers and bios of a very select group of major players has been a lifelong pursuit. And whenever I come across a favorite portrait, I take an instant leap into something like rapture. There’s also a place in my heart which covets that long-ago intimacy between the artist and subject. Hurrell worked with Garbo. Imagine. What sparked the finished portrait?


Over the past thirty years, while in pursuit of this body of work, The People of San Francisco; Lives of Accomplishment – artist Elaine Badgley Arnoux has enjoyed 190 such brief encounters. (Actually, it’s more. She admits a couple of them came back twice.) The assembled Cast members are a mosaic of peoples who reflect the face of The City. Some of Elaine’s portraits hold my attention longer than others – probably because of my knowledge of the person in the frame – while others, such as the watercolor of Alvin Endlin, because it’s one of a small number of profiles in the collection. More importantly, Alvin Endlin is one of the founders of Bud’s Ice Cream. I’ve seen a lot of bowls of that stuff. Alvin loved his slogan, “The finest ingredients and too much of them.” My kind of guy. He is sooo San Francisco. And that is the spark behind her work. At the Thursday night reception, Mayor Ed Lee spoke to Elaine’s sense of authenticity. He described the working principle as “listening to the streets”. Her good friend and proponent Wilkes Bashford said of the collection, “It tells worlds about what San Francisco and the Bay Area is about. And one lady captured all that. This is a life’s work. I have followed her work on this project. It is Dedication. It is Love.”

ELOUISE WESTBROOK. Pastel, watercolor. 1985
ALVIN EDLIN. Watercolor. Pastel. 1985

BELVA DAVIS. Mixed media. 2006
CHARLES McCABE. Watercolor, pastel, charcoal. 1980

I was at Elaine’s studio when she received the call that a shipment of her latest publication had arrived. It was a rare moment packed with a double-shot of joy and relief. The books would now be available at the special reception arranged in her honor and scheduled for the following Thursday night at the Old Mint. The People of San Francisco, 2; Lives of Accomplishment is Elaine’s most recent catalogue of portraits, 87 in total, depicting some of The City’s most noteworthy and colorful residents. At this same time, the framed originals – along with some sixty more featured in her first volume – were already on display throughout the magnificent rooms at the Old Mint. Something had gone haywire and I was late to the game. It turns out – the exhibit would be closed by the following week.

Through a series of bizarre mishaps, Elaine’s show had suffered from a complete lack of media attention. That’s not the way the Art World is supposed to operate, nor any other wing of the Entertainment Industry. Press previews, “meet and greets” with the artist, strategic parties for organization members and benefactors, etc., usually happen at the outset of an exhibit – not afterwards, in the twilight, with empty packing crates ready to be filled. It wasn’t until Thursday’s reception that I was able to see the exhibit, The Faces of San Francisco, a retrospective of Elaine’s portraiture from the past thirty years. It proved to be stunning. And as I strolled past the images with other invited guests, there was a buzz circulating around the lofty and luxurious rooms that Elaine’s collection was looking like a hand-in-glove fit for the Old Mint itself. Following the tour, we would hear from Jim Lazarus (President of the San Francisco Historical Society) and noted clothier Wilkes Bashford that efforts were underway to secure Elaine’s portraits into the permanent archives of the Old Mint. All it requires is funding. The word is officially out – they are looking to be touched by an Angel. Do you know any?

GABRIEL NARDI. Graphite, watercolor, pastel. 1984
IRINA R. BELOTELKIN. Watercolor, pastel. 1984

During our interview, Elaine and I chattered like old friends. Elaine is 85 and seems to have energy to spare. I wanted to know what keeps her going.

Elaine: My Brother, Max Kozloff, says, “Elaine, there are two parts of you – the light and the shadow.” He said, “I prefer the shadow.” So, the folks are my light. But each one of them is done in a very different way. Because I never know until somebody walks through the door how I am going to portray them. I think it’s the spontaneity I’m able to get. Plus – and everybody knows this – we talk while I’m working on them. Often times, intently. I think I’m able to grasp a more human element of the person by being able to do that.

Sean: That is a gift.

Elaine: It is a gift. Most painters want that person to be absolutely still. But, to me, that’s not the way to do it.

MONROE GREENE. Gonache, ink. 2009
ANNA DONNELLY. Mixed media. 2008

Sean: You have a fascinating group of San Franciscans in this collection. How did all this happen?

Elaine: It couldn’t have been more fortunate. I had just returned from France. I lived in a tiny village for three years. I couldn’t speak the language and I was desperately lonely. So, I designed a way to meet the people by having an exhibition of them. I did 65 people of the village, none of them had ever experienced being drawn. It was a stunning experience for me. When I came back, I showed the work here. I was asked, “Why don’t you do the people of San Francisco?” So, because I’d had this experience, I could embark on this. I transported myself into another world. At the onset, Caroline Drewes – who was a brilliant writer at the Examiner for years – had a friend, very much of a society person, Patty Costello. She did wonderful things for people. Patty saw my work and decided she wanted to be my angel. Along with Florette Pomeroy, they were the ones who taught me how to find people. They sponsored this whole exhibition of 100 people of San Francisco for me. This was in 1985. I knew I had to get a balance of folks – like the shoe man, Monroe, right up the street. These women had much more experience and expertise in meeting the politicians and the socialites.

CAROLINE DREWES. Graphite. 1981
PATTY COSTELLO. Watercolor, pastel. 1983

Elaine: They had determined that we should call the exhibition, 100 People of San Francisco. They were able to get people to come and sit for me. It was really quite a miracle and it kept me very busy. I had also started a school at the same time. I’ve been on my own as working artist since 1973. Through one miracle after another, I’ve been able to do this.

Sean: Who did you start with for this big event?

Elaine: Charles McCabe. I was so green, I was shaking. I knew what I had to do – and did it in a very strong way. Pretty soon I was doing Cecil Williams. Then he told Willie Brown, who was not yet mayor, that he had to come and sit for me. He came in a very docile fashion and sat for me. I did Dianne Feinstein right after Mayor Moscone had been shot. She gave me fifteen minutes of her time. I was really in the thick of it, worked very hard for the next five years and got my one hundred people. It was shown at the old California Historical Society on Jackson Street. It was a monumental occasion – big parties, limousines, lots of coverage. Patty had to then stop helping me because of her energy and money. So, there was never a first catalogue. The people from that show carried on over into the next series that I did, which was shown at City Hall in 2001 right after 9/11. My spirit was gone out of me, just like with everyone else. I didn’t see how there could even be an exhibition. But this catalogue came out at that time. My friend, Grants for the Arts Director Kari Schulman, got some money for me – and that was a miracle. The show was there for two months. Then I had a very large exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – of my shopping carts. They were made into covered wagons and were circled on the terrace. I did portraits of the men who pushed the carts, twenty five of them, and wrote their stories on the seats.

CHARLES FRACCHIA. Pastel, watercolor. 2006
CECILIA CHIANG. Colored pencil, watercolor. 2011

Elaine: In 2009, I met Charles Fracchia – the man who kept the Mint together for about ten years when it was just a fragile entity. I was given a show that lasted about two months. Carl Nolte from the Chronicle wrote a wonderful article about it and people poured in everyday. The next miracle was funding for the new edition of my catalog which included new people – like ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan and Helgi Tomasson. He came over twice to pose for me.

Sean: Any faces from City Hall?

Elaine: I have included seven mayors.

Sean: So, Mr. Newsom sat for you as well?

Elaine: Well, he sort of sat. He walked around and talked. But I did glean something. It’s a beautiful portrait, with the inside of City Hall. I have George Christopher, Dianne Feinstein, Frank Jordan, Art Agnos, Willie Brown, and Ed Lee.

WILLIE BROWN. Graphite, charcoal, watercolor. 1984
DIANNE FEINSTEIN. Oil on canvas. 1983

Sean: Do you have a favorite anecdote about one of them in particular? During your initial exchange and then the actual creation of the portrait, what influenced the end result?

Elaine: Willie Brown was not yet mayor. He came to my studio, by himself, without an entourage, and hardly said a thing. I loved doing him. It was interesting because the next time I saw him, he was the MC at a big event at City Hall. He said, “Yes, she did me and I should have stayed longer because I would’ve had the other side of me painted as well.” For Willie’s portrait, I wanted to get the grandeur of his presence and have the image be as long as possible. He wasn’t the frolicking person that he is now. So, the shock of “Early Willie” and “Willie the Mayor” was amusing to me.

Sean: Who else stands out in your memory?

Elaine Badgley Arnoux, The People of San Francisco, Lives of Accomplishment.
Photo, S.M.

Elaine: Let’s look at Charlotte Schulz. I love what she does for the City. The picture is a double image. The first, the background, was done in 1983. I did two of her. I went to her house and did a drawing. Then she came out in this Grecian dress. I drew a kind-of silhouette and then did her younger face from the previous time. Charlotte didn’t really like the first one because she thought the Grecian dress made her look too fat. She was as skinny as a rail. So, for the exhibition at City Hall, I said to myself – “I’ll do another Charlotte. I’ll put the present Charlotte on top of the other Charlotte.” Well, obviously, she didn’t like that either. She’s always gracious and she comes to each event. A portrait is seldom liked by the sitter – unless they commission you. Then you work with the person and it’s not just me being myself. I’m not a crazy artist, I don’t have to have my way. But I’m going to stand for the principle of what I do. With her and especially with other women, they want to be seen as how they are seen now. But I say, “Fifty years from now or a hundred years from now, people will be looking at this and thinking about you and what you did.” So, that is what happens with portraiture in your own time. I know this. It’s a gift. I can draw you sitting there and you would come alive. The only thing I take credit for in doing all these people is honing my craft. I did my first portrait at 13. It looked just like that little boy and I’ve been carrying on until — here I am.

EDWIN M. LEE. Watercolor, pastel. 2011
WILKES BASHFORD. Graphite. 1985

CECIL WILLIAMS. Watercolor, chalk. 1984
ROSA AGUILAR VISALLI. Mixed media. 2009

Sean: If you were to do another series, who would be first on the list?

Elaine: I will not do anymore of the City. I know that. I have to be able to breathe. That is, I have to be able to do a painting, a drawing, or a sculpture with time – time on my side. I know that I’m going to be doing Alice Waters after she comes back from China with Cecilia Chang.

Sean: So, it’s not over.

Elaine: No! But it’s going to be different. I still have the facility at 85 to draw a line as I could when I was a young woman. But that can’t go on forever! And I’m realistic. I would like to abstract my subjects a little bit more.

Sean: Well, the impetus of that will certainly keep you alive.

Elaine: Oh, yes! It’s like poetry, you know? But the pressure of knowing I have to create the likeness is something I really don’t want to have to deal with that much anymore. I don’t want to pinned down to as much reality as I have been.

Sean: You have to be open to what is coming. Here’s this new voice that’s coming to you – for however long it lasts – and already you can conceive of what it is that you want to do and the people who will be your subjects. They will benefit from you.

Elaine: I can keep painting until I die.

BARBARA BOXER. Gouache, watercolor. 2001
LAWRENCE HALPRIN. Watercolor. 2006


The Sentinel’s own editor Sean Martinfield is interviewed by David Perry on Comcast. Catch the Action!
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