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The Man in the High Tower

Jeremy Fish’s latest arts residency occupies some hallowed ground.

Artist Jeremy Fish pauses outside Coit Tower, where he’s converted a former caretaker’s apartment into an art studio

 

Shortly after Coit Tower opened in 1933, its designated caretaker, Col. William J. Brady, moved in to a second-floor apartment inside the landmark with his wife, Marie. The reason, in part: to keep an eye on the muralists downstairs, employed by the Public Works of Art Project and painting the frescoes that now adorn the interior walls of the tower.

“There was some concern that if you turned the tower over to 26 muralists and 19 assistants, there’d be some hanky-panky going on,” says docent Val Hendrickson.

Fast-forward 84 years, and oh, how things have changed. For the second time in its history, Coit Tower is serving as an art studio. But this time, the artist is the one in the tower—without any spies on the lookout.

Fish in his studio working on Turf War.

Jeremy Fish, the beloved street artist known for his ubiquitous North Beach murals, has since early August been holed up inside the iconic building creating new drawings, in what is for him a second only-in-San Francisco rent negotiation. In exchange for his unusual new studio space, Fish has agreed to produce artworks for Rec and Parks to use free of charge—including prints of Coit Tower that will be sold in the gift shop. He’s also been jointly commissioned by the Chinatown and North Beach business associations to do a drawing that will be displayed on a billboard encouraging unity between the neighborhoods. An exhibition of his works titled Civic Beautification will be on view beginning October 28 at the Haight Street Art Center.

The whole arrangement is in many ways a spiritual sequel to Fish’s 2015 residency at City Hall, which was funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission, and during which he created 100 drawings in 100 days. (The resulting book, O Glorious City: A Love Letter to San Francisco, was published by Chronicle Books in June.) Fish says these unique setups offer two things. First, a change of scenery: After working in the same North Beach studio for 10 years, Fish says, he was ready for something new. Second, and perhaps more important, they’ve given him a chance to deepen his bond with the city he loves. “At a time where most guys who are my age that make art for a living are moving away, I’m somehow getting this really weird window into having this communication with my city and my community that I didn’t have 10 years ago,” Fish says.

On an early-September day, Fish—wearing a brown-and-orange vest that reads “Coit Tower Artist-in-Residence” (he had it custom-made down the street at Al’s Attire)—leads the way up the tower’s staircase to the 350-square-foot apartment he’s using as his studio. As we enter the peculiar residence, Fish points out his tiny, curving workspace to the right, the bathroom to the left, and the living room that tower staffers use as a break room in the middle. There’s still a niche in the rear wall for a Murphy bed, and a porcelain tub in the bathroom.

For the most part, Fish says, he keeps to himself inside Coit Tower. Besides the crowds of tourists lined up outside the building for a peek from the top, the most action he’s seen working in the tower is from the coyotes living in the bushes around Telegraph Hill. He memorialized their battles in a drawing called Turf War, a sort of allegorical San Francisco real estate story. The piece is emblematic of Fish’s work, with clean, intricate, cartoonish lines rife with local iconography and symbolism. “They’re all trekking across the Golden Gate Bridge,” Fish says of the coyotes. “All fighting to live up here.”

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco 

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