John Lindsey runs the Great Highway Gallery, out here on Lawton and 43rd. This interview comes from issue 5 of our B0ardside zine, available next week on June 17th! Interview and illustration by Douglas Gorney.
The Great Highway has been on people’s minds recently here on the west side of late. Word was that the gallery might not be around much longer. Do you have any news that B0ardside can break about its future — and yours?
I do! After clearing out half the gallery, the landlord started negotiate a little bit more. It’s not completely where I wanted it to be, but we were able to reach an agreement that’s going to work going forward. It will involve changing the gallery a little bit. I’m not sure exactly what that’s going to be. I will still have original artwork and put on little shows and exhibitions, but I might also have to start selling t-shirts, or have some other retail component to the business.
So are we going to be seeing Great Highway Gallery merch?
Yeah, something like that. I’m not sure, exactly. I’m still working through it, trying to create a holistic, big picture right now.
There’s something else coming down the pike: I’m also working on a book of all the windows that we’ve had the whole time the gallery has been here.
Fantastic! Our sources have told us that there might be some other ventures that you’re involved with — something related or at least very close to The Great Highway. Can you comment on those rumors?
Part of staying at the gallery and trying to keep it open is being able to subsidize it. I just need some help. When I moved here in the late 80s, I went to cooking school. Since August, the negotiation for the gallery included me trying to take over the Seven Stills Tap Room that’s been closed for a while. That’s the space next door to the gallery. And you know, the gallery always helped out the taproom and the taproom brought people around to the gallery. Some of their best nights were when we had events and openings here.
With my background, I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant. I’ve just never had quite the right opportunity, but this seems like the one. It’s a smaller space. It’s right next to the gallery. They’ll be symbiotic, helping each other. So I really think it’s going to be really kind of exciting.
The restaurant’s going to be called The Rusty Ladle. I’m going to be serving soups, sandwiches, some salad and something for the kids. A little dessert here and there. It’s going to be mostly to-go. There will be ten counter seats on the inside. It’s going to be pretty straightforward.
Any opening date you want to put out there?
Oh gosh. I would love to, but…you know, I would love to have it open as soon as late summer. It could be September or October. I’m really trying to go as fast as I can but that‘s somewhat difficult in the city.
You mentioned that you saw the gallery changing. Right now, it has this wonderful salon style: the west wall crammed with art, and the east wall given over mostly to temporary shows. Any broad ideas on how that might look different?
The initial ideas are that there will be a lot more work on the salon walls that’s produced in the studio, by me and the people that work with me here, and that we’ll continue to have a wall dedicated to an artist or a group show.
The big question is the window: whether we’re going to keep the window, or modify or rebuild it in a different way, maybe so people can see through the backdrop to the interior of the gallery. Because there’s a real disconnect between the window and the interior space. People will come inside the gallery and not realize the window’s there, or they’ll see the window and not really realize that this is part of that same space.
When did you open The Great Highway?
I opened The Great Highway gallery in 2013. That’s when we had our first exhibition. I had been in the space for about a year, which was basically my graphic design studio. But I slowly built it out, and once I got track lighting, it was a gallery — and I haven’t really stopped having shows. We’ve had over 100 shows and exhibits here.
You were involved with the San Francisco Art Institute, which recently closed. Do you feel that your gallery practice here was informed by that experience?
In the early 90’s, I managed the Art Institute’s cafe at night. I lived in North Beach, and started taking classes there during the day.
It was kind of an amazing time to be at the Art Institute. You had people like Kehinde Wiley, who painted President Obama’s official portrait, and who has a lovely exhibit going on in the park right now. [Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence will be showing at the De Young Museum through October 15, 2023] Barry McGee, Alicia McCarthy, Ruby Neri, Chris Johanson. All the Mission School people.
I was cooking and feeding people’s souls through their belly and then, once I went into graphic design and experienced all the artwork at the Art Institute, I saw a pathway for me to feed their souls through their eyes. And through storytelling.
And that’s really how I see myself: as a storyteller. Whether it be an exhibition that I’m putting on, or a curation of a theme, or when somebody walks in and they want to talk about a piece of work, it’s just a series of stories: things that we’re communicating to people, trying to get them to make a connection. Whether it’s a good one or a bad one, a good memory or something that reminds them of something that’s not great. And we’re hearing their stories as well. That’s really that’s really what we’re trying to do in here.
Tell me more about your vision for the gallery.
We focus on conversations where water meets land. That can be coastal, that can be beach, that can be ocean, and in our case we also have a huge urban city that is butted up against the ocean.
So that’s kind of a guiding focus as I’ve thought about how I want to keep the gallery and change it through this whole ordeal with the lease. I’m looking at, you know, what do I want to do? How do I want to continue to support artists in the community? How do I want to continue to support the community, or have a voice in the community? And also…how am I going to make it just a little bit more profitable than it was?
While you’ve mentioned that your window may change, it’s a unique feature of this gallery. Tell us about its history: How did the window and its installations evolve? What role does it serve in the way you present shows?
If anybody’s been in here and has seen my desk, they know I’m not the little-white-table-with-a-laptop-in-the-corner kind of gallerist. It’s a working studio, along with a gallery. The first five years, where we did solo shows and group shows using the whole room, were very difficult financially. I’ll have somebody’s show and you know, sometimes you don’t sell anything. Sometimes you sell a lot — but it’s…it’s a grind. It was very limiting insofar as I could only put on eight to twelve shows a year in the big room…
So I was looking for different ways to configure the gallery, to change it. I stumbled upon the Wind and Weather Window Gallery in Rekjavik, Iceland: it’s a woman’s studio, and she had a window and did a really wonderful job curating it. It was non-commercial. The rule is that whoever shows there has to give her a piece of their work. Then it became very successful. She had a second window. She had a portable window. I don’t know how well it does financially, but it’s very popular, and a really wonderful community thing.
So I’m like, yeah, I’m gonna build a window. Then I took inspiration as well from Madrone Art Bar, Right Window at the ATA Building on Valencia…I’m not the first person to ever do a window.
What the window allowed me to do was to speak to the community, 24 hours a day. Sometimes people get to the door of a gallery, any gallery, and there’s like a beam of light that they just can’t pass through. It’s very intimidating. I’ve always tried to make the gallery as unintimidating, homey and inviting as possible — but it’s still a gallery, and some people don’t know about art or they think they’re just going to get a hard sell wherever they go. So the window is a way to communicate to people in this way.
It also allowed me to put up a salon wall. You know that I have a hundred artists on the wall? If one of the neighborhood kids comes and has a little photo, painting or drawing they made, I’ll tape it to the wall. I could say yes, more than no. And it wasn’t always about the work but about the people and the community. And then I had a main wall where I also had little group shows and solo shows, and then I had the window. The window sometimes was slightly commercial but a lot of times it was non-commercial. That took a little bit of pressure off of everyone. It also created a very unique space for artists to work in.
It’s a kind of a large window with that odd-shaped wall. Some artists don’t want to be put on display [as they’re doing the installation], but a lot of times they have fun when they do it because all the kids come by, smear their faces against the window and look at the artists — and the artist is interacting with the community. They’re seeing them install their artwork over a period of days. It’s a special little moment in time for people.
Your name so often comes up when I talk to artists and people in art organizations throughout Northern California. I’ve met artists here at your gallery who come from way up and down the coast just to work with you.
Gosh, that’s very nice to hear. Um, I’m voracious in my appetite on Instagram and on the web, looking at work, researching people and finding all these connections.
[And] I’ve been here since the late 80s, so I just know a lot of people.
You know some people call this an artist’s gallery. I am very artist-forward, for good or for bad. Sometimes my first thought isn’t the commerciality of everything; as much as we all like to sell our artwork and we like recognition, it’s also very difficult to sell your artwork. It’s an expression of your feelings and your vision and all those things. It’s a piece of you. That comes very easily for some people and it’s a little more difficult for other people. I’ve always tried to make it a very safe place for artists, whether they’re selling or not selling or their prices are maybe not very accessible or incredibly accessible. I also just enjoy helping people out, trying to share the knowledge and the connections I have and the way I do things. I try to pay that forward a little bit.
We’ve talked a bit about John, the gallerist; let’s talk about John, the artist. I’m familiar with your wonderful photography, which finds its home at the edge of the world, where the land meets the sea. I know you work in other media, though. Tell us a little bit about about your oeuvre.
Art by John Lindsey.
I was born in Long Beach, and we spent a lot of time at the beach as kids. And then we moved to Washington, DC when I was six years old. So I had this kind of idyllic 0-through-6-year-old life — pretty fun and pretty amazing. I really fell in love with the ocean and then we moved away from it.
My dad worked for the government. So I moved to DC, Virginia, Utah and Colorado, which I all loved very much. I skied quite a bit. Then when I got back out here and went to cooking school I couldn’t really afford to ski. I’d befriended a surfer who lived on the Lower Great Highway, Dennis, who…dragged me around and I picked up boogie boarding and…coming home, or whatever it was, it fed my soul. So I fell in love with this beach and was here as much as possible.
[With] skiing you pay the lift ticket, you go up, there’s snow on the ground the conditions may be better or worse but you can go skiing. Surfing, you come out here, it’s blowing 32 knots onshore — you’re not going surfing. You have to chase weather, chase conditions. You are not in control. You’re trying to grab this moving object and hop on it. Which is really amazing, a force of nature. I just found it incredibly satisfying.
So that’s how I started hanging out at the beach, and that’s what brought me down here [to the outer avenues]. All that informs my work. I’ve watched the beach change over time, and I try to keep those recollections of it, But I try also to search out the greater forces of who we are as modern humans, through our consumerism, through what actually has to happen for us to lead our lives: tanker ships, cargo ships, gas ships, fuel ships, and car-carrier ships all fascinate me. They’re so large, yet they move so slow. Or seemingly slow, unless you’re very close to them. So that’s been a huge subject of mine for quite a long time.
I also just find the whole scene here of an urban beach to be hilarious and fun—and quirky and sad and beautiful. I’m walking my dog out here or I’m at the beach pretty much five days a week. So I’m constantly soaking in and absorbing what’s going on on this weirdo beach that’s considered a wilderness area by the national government, but is right on the edge of San Francisco with all the graffiti and all socioeconomic groups coming to it because it is free and you don’t have to pay for parking. That all fascinates me very much.
In addition to photography, I do installation work: I tell stories in the window. Those can be commentaries on society and politics, or things that have shaken us all. I always try to present them in a way that’s telling a story, but also opening up questions and connections for people to really make them think and wonder, to question what’s going on. I also do some sculptural work. I do a little oil painting. I wish I had more time for it, but that’s something I really cherish and love.
And then some of the sculpture involves photo transfers. I’m shooting photography and then I’m adhering it to objects, maybe a piece of driftwood that has paint on it. My favorite is when I find a piece of a boat or plywood that has paint that’s somewhat deteriorated; then I’ll do a photo transfer…
Are we going to be seeing a John Lindsey show here at The Great Highway or perhaps some other gallery in the near future?
Possibly late summer. I will be at Sweetie’s Art Bar. That’s owned by Flicka [McGurrin], who owns Pier 23, and is an old family friend of my wife, Kristen. They have art shows, and I’ve been invited to present there.
I’m also in a show right now at the gallery at 245 Post St. that doesn’t really have a name; it’s being curated by Peter Shaw, a San Francisco artist who’s been around forever and knows way more people than even I do. He’s curated a lovely show in there: it’s Bayview to North Beach, and now he’s adding the Outer Sunset. Then he’s looking to expand it to have a show with all neighborhoods in it. It’ll be up for probably another couple months.
Finally, let’s touch back on the community here on the west side. I’ve really been seeing the Sunset as a creative hotspot. What’s your take on the art scene here in the avenues?
I don’t know if it’s quite a scene yet. Maybe… I think a nod to what you’re saying is that there have been people out here way before me producing work. The fathers of some of the Sunset surfers I know there are artists that were very prominent in San Francisco, then you have the surf-culture art that has spawned out here. There are some incredibly talented surfer artists. There’s just people who paint or photograph or do sculpture that are pretty low profile but have been out here forever.
You know, just as San Francisco goes, we’re constantly reinventing ourselves. We go through these boom-and-bust gold rushes here. That really affects things. What I see right now, not necessarily just in the Sunset, but all over the city, is that — even though I had some lease-negotiation issues because I’ve been here 10 years — there are also quite a lot of open spaces, maybe not in the Outer Sunset, but all over town. And right now you see a lot of galleries opening, a lot of art spaces opening up, and that’s very heartening.
It’s because they’re finding cheap rent, free rent — space opportunities. You also have the city offering $8000 right now to activate spaces downtown. There’s all this stuff and it’s going to grow more and more and more. I really see that right now everything is kind of artistically exploding again here in the city. Because you have a lot of young people that can afford to show their work, produce their work, and find studio space here right now. That’s what’s really interesting and really exciting for me, and that’ll spill over into the Sunset.
We do have a space limitation issue out here. There just aren’t enough studios. There’s not enough retail space. There’s not enough commercial space. That’s part of why we love it so much out here, but it’s also an issue for it to grow and get bigger. But what I also see happening in the Outer Sunset is that it used to be a club, but now it’s kind of a community… During Covid, this area was an escape for people, and now there’s just a lot more people coming here, searching out the community here. So the community’s growing. And it’s not just our community but all communities on the west side, and that’s a good thing.
Because ultimately, you know, there is strength in numbers. We support each other, and there are more opportunities. The Great Highway Park does some great programming on the Great Highway. There have been some other people that have put on little festivals and events. i know that there’s one coming up that B0ardside knows about and that i might be involved in here —
So, because of that community, you have something like StokeFest, where people are trying to invest back in the community, right? Have an event that’s gonna create even more community, give something back to the people in the area, have activities for people — and what’s really awesome about all that is that it creates a sense of ownership, beyond someone owning a house, a community ownership, a community pride. That creates opportunities for people.
You know, I’m a firm believer in a high tide lifts all boats. And if there are boats that don’t get lifted up, we need to make sure they do get lifted up. It’s not just easy, but that’s how it is, you know? The more opportunity, the better it is for everybody.