Artist and activist Miguel Gutierrez is the subject of the charming short film “My Neighbor, Miguel.” (Courtesy photo)

Artist and activist Miguel Gutierrez is the subject of the charming short film “My Neighbor, Miguel.” (Courtesy photo)

Miguel Gutierrez makes treasures from trash

Short film showcases quirky 72-year-old artist, AIDS activist

If you’ve had the chance to wander through the Western Addition, you may have seen one of 72-year-old artist, costume and set designer Miguel Gutierrez’s labors of love.

The retired landlord with a glassy flat top and handlebar mustache who’s lived in San Francisco since 1980 decorates his house with sculptures, sizable mobiles and unique installations created using discarded materials he finds around The City.

Gutierrez’s handmade pieces – spectacles made from trash — have captivated onlookers strolling down McAllister Street for years.

He especially inspired one of his former tenants, Danny Navarro, a first-time filmmaker who encapsulates the artist’s legacy and spirit in “My Neighbor, Miguel,” a delightful 13-minute short accessible online.

Whimsical works of art hanging from Miguel Gutierrez’s house on McAllister Street have made passers-by happy through the years. (Courtesy photo)

Whimsical works of art hanging from Miguel Gutierrez’s house on McAllister Street have made passers-by happy through the years. (Courtesy photo)

During a interview around World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, Gutierrez, whose works reflect the world and time around him, was making a Christmas tree out of masks and gloves. When gay marriage was legalized across the country, he immediately set to work on a big hat that looked like a wedding cake “topped with a plastic married couple and colors galore.”

Gay and HIV-positive, Gutierrez is an activist who uses his art as an outlet to cope with the loss of many of his friends to AIDS. Some of the costumes he made in the Castro’s heyday in the 1980s were sold to fundraise for AIDs memorials for people he knew.

Filmmaker Navarro was intrigued by the stark juxtaposition, or contrast, between the tragic deaths and the artwork by somebody “who’s just so whimsical and so magical and so quirky,” calling it the thing that made “My Neighbor, Miguel’s” story “more real.”

Guiterrez, who isn’t creating art to make money, said there is beauty in the trashy materials he uses “if you put or fix them in the right way.”

“That’s the kind of message that I would like to convey, that art is everywhere if you pay attention to it,” said Gutierrez. “Andy Warhol said, ‘Art is everything that you can get away with.’ And I completely understand that. Some of the things I do might not be what others like. Art is very individual to each person.”

Around three years ago, Navarro and his partner, desperate for housing, stumbled upon a Craigslist ad for a place in the Western Addition. When they went to look at it, Navarro was amused by what he saw in the front window in the living room: a massive snow globe with a leaf blower attached and cotton balls being blown into the air.

“I was like, ‘This is it,’” Navarro said, laughing. “There was a fireplace on and there was Miguel, attaching Barbie dolls to a Christmas tree he was hanging outside. It was kind of a sure thing from that moment on. I was like, ‘We’re going to live here.’”

Last year, Navarro and his partner had to move to Boston. Wanting to say thank you to the community he loved, Navarro began his film, a farewell letter to The City, with a focus on his beloved landlord Miguel, who, he said, “is San Francisco.”

Danny Navarro made “My Neighbor, Miguel” as a tribute to his beloved and quirky former landlord. (Courtesy photo)

Danny Navarro made “My Neighbor, Miguel” as a tribute to his beloved and quirky former landlord. (Courtesy photo)

His collaborators include Brooklyn-based filmmaker Jason Harpe, Bay Area composer William Fritch and Mission artist Cystal Vielula.

“When we started filming myself it was very humbling that somebody thinks of you and your contributions,” said Gutierrez. “To me,it’s like giving something back to The City. The City has been very nice to me, so by doing something as simple as hanging a piece of artwork made from recycled materials it makes people notice or think that San Francisco is a magical place. So it’s very important to have art around, it’s a pleasure to enjoy.”

Visit myneighbormiguel.com to see the movie.

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