Focus on local artists

An artist’s studio is a sacred place that no amount of open studio tours will ever reveal in all its emotional complexity. That is why M. Lee Fatherree’s candid photographs of local artists at work in their studios, currently displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Craft+Design, are a singular opportunity to enter into the artist’s sacred space, where canvases, floors and jeans are equally covered with paint.

Fatherree was privy to the otherwise private work sessions at these Bay Area studios because he was commissioned by museums and galleries to photograph works of art and their creators for catalogs and curatorial records. Luckily, out of that perfunctory task came riveting portraits that bring to light the studio life of people like June Schwarts, Dennis Leon, David Ireland, Squeak Carnwath and Manuel Neri.

As a photography exhibit, “M. Lee Fatherree: Evidence of Artists at Work 1978-2008” may seem an unusual offering from the Museum of Craft+Design. But the works of this long-time Bay Area photographer are so much about the artists’ craft that, in fact, there couldn’t be a more ideal place for this show.

Besides, the photographs often don’t hang alone; some artists’ portraits are complemented by their artworks. Next to a large color print of Robert Arneson in his studio, for example, sits a bronze sphinx with the smiling head of Arneson himself. Although the focusof the show is Fatherree’s photos, adding such a sculpture puts the whole idea of showing artists in their studio into an enlightening context.

Most of Fatherree’s images are black and white. Some are grouped in pairings that show the artist in the 1970s and later, in recent years. Some photos are pure catalog shots, where a painter sits — pensively — in front of his canvases or stands in, on or amongst her sculptures. In other shots, the artists are fully at work — Marvin Lipofsky is busy blowing glass and Mark di Suvero is looking up at the giant sculpture he just built. Such action shots are especially effective as they clearly demonstrate both the creative and physical labor that lie behind the scenes.

All the photos are very crisp. Fatherree not only has a knack for portraiture, but an eye for surfaces. As any tourist who likes breaking museum rules by using their cameras inside would tell you, paintings and sculptures are extremely hard to photograph. In Fatherree’s photos, however, both paintings, sculptures,and their creators all seem to stand in the best possible light.

M. Lee Fatherree: Evidence of Artists at Work 1978-2008

Where: San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design, 550 Sutter St., San Francisco

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 30

Tickets: $3 suggested donation

Contact: (415) 773-0303; www.sfmcd.com

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