Thursday, August 16, 2012

All Around the World: Paint it San Francisco

 Paul Madonna

Paint it San Francisco
Paul Madonna

Asheley Gao

            San Francisco Arts Commission could not find a better person to design their latest project of posters on Market Street Muni stations. Paul Madonna is an artist who packs all his ink and brushes in a backpack, measures the city by his feet, and captures the most intimate moment of San Francisco with his eyes. When the arts commission found him, he had already published more than four hundred sketches and strips of the cityscape of San Francisco through major media like the San Francisco Chronicle. The winding alleys, Victorian rooftops, power lines and cable car tracks stretch out endlessly on his small rectangular sheets, rendered with black, white and gray ink. It is the San Francisco that every Muni commuter sees through the bus window; yet it is presented in such a way that none of the commuters have ever seen before.
            Paul Madonna’s strip All Over Coffee premiered in The Chronicle back in 2004. It was even published later in book form by the famous beat poet hub of City Lights Books! Before this book collection was released (, every Sunday he would contribute a small black and white sketch of San Francisco (later he added other cities as well). His ink is often so light and diluted that the bumpy texture of ink paper is revealed under the thin layer of ink. And, given his angle of viewing the city, there is always space on his paper left open for the sky-- sometimes even the rolling clouds peek through. The light ink and open space give his sketches an airy feeling as if his subject can breath through the paper. Instead of absolute black and white, he prefers different gradients of gray to illustrate the contrast between light and shadow, a color decision that softens the rigid architecture he depicts. For this reason, even though he clearly outlines all the details of his subject, the whole sketch often turns out to be extremely soft, smooth and airy with great attention to depth and space. 
            As if the sketch itself is not dreamy enough, he always accompanies his work with a story, sometimes a whole paragraph, sometimes just a single phrase. The stories are told from the point of view of two fictional characters: Sarah and Maurice, wandering around the city, gazing at the buildings and houses, reaching for the sky and falling in love. Paul Madonna would often slip in some of the stories of his own life as well, like the time he had to sleep in the coffee shop during the day since he didn't have a place to live, or the time he caught a cold for underestimating the fog and wind of a San Francisco summer... as Mark Twain said, "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." These intimate texts, along with the dreamy street corners of San Francisco, resemble scenes from an old black and white romantic movie.
            Paul Madonna’s sketches create its own category. It is not a pie-in-the-face cartoon strip next to Garfield in Sunday papers, nor sophisticated humor found in the New Yorker, nor famous landscape and cityscape paintings framed behind UV proof glass that hang on the walls of museums. The subject in his work breathes and communicates with the audience through a unique thin layer of ink and a few lines of words. It is the kind of art that gives you warmth and comfort on a Sunday morning when the city is still swallowed by the fog. It is the kind of art that makes you think about what really surrounds you and how it applies to your own life. And, through Madonna’s delicately applied light and shadow, you can finally see through the fog and discover the San Francisco you have never met before.

 The Culture Columnist, Asheley Gao:

My name is Asheley Gao and I’m a junior at Cal, majoring in History of Art and minoring in French. I grew up in Asia, the land of dragons and jasmine green tea, as a kid with too much imagination. Indulging myself in exploring different cultures and what they have to offer (art, movies, cuisine, you name it!), I’m on my way to becoming a woman whose country is the whole world. Along with all the excellent writers at Unleashed, I would love to share with you my adventure and take you all around the world.

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