Red Poppy House stimulates artistic explosion that spills into the streets for adults, kids
Story and photos by Beth Renneisen
On any given afternoon on the corner of 23rd and Folsom Streets in the Mission District, some form of art is either being made or being planned behind the bright yellow doors of the Red Poppy Art House. The Art House, now in its fifth year at this corner location, serves as a creative hub for local artists and musicians, but also offers a bridge to other cultures “from Persians to Peruvians,” according to Todd Brown — founder, director and resident artist.
On a foggy Tuesday in November, Brown, co-director musician Meklit Hadero, and coordinator Noemi Castro are seated on mismatched vintage furniture in the cluttered studio space, laptops open, discussing fundraising plans for their upcoming tour in the Pacific Northwest. Brown, a painter and guitarist, and Hadero, vocalist and songwriter, perform with Nefasha Ayer, a multi-cultural jazz and blues synthesis group. Both have infectious enthusiasm for this “intimate artistic space” and the neighborhood that surrounds it.
“We hope to be a hub where artists can find each other,” says Brown, who is always looking for collaborative artistic opportunities with the community. To this end, Red Poppy offers its 650-foot space for exhibits, art classes, lectures and concerts that are mostly supported by donations, and the efforts of an army of volunteers. In September, Red Poppy artists participated in “Bay Area Now 5” at the the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts “Big Room for Big Ideas,” where they constructed a replica of the Art House interior, and presented a typical month’s program of performances and workshops.
The youthful and energetic Brown — whose background includes training in health realization, education and dance as well as painting — exudes enthusiasm for his work. As his own art work has morphed into various forms over the years, the Vermont native has seen innovation as the key to the long-term success of the center. “Our diverse local sphere is representative of a global perspective,” Brown said, “and all types of people resonate with this space."
Evidence of Brown’s many interests litter the stripped down former storefront. His large, brightly-colored paintings hang on the walls and are stacked along the corridors. A high ceiling is draped with cloth, and a jumble of interesting knick-knacks and sculptures of other artists are nestled among musical instruments along the walls. In fact, it would be a challenge to find a blank space anywhere in the building, including the bathroom, which features a printing press, an antique bicycle, and a plethora of eclectic objects as well as more canvases and instruments.
“Our bathroom was voted one of the most interesting in the city by a travel magazine,” said Brown — and it’s easy to see why.
On Saturday afternoons, Red Poppy offers Family Art Day for anyone who wants to pick up a brush and poster paints and be creative on paper tacked on the side of the building. The regular event mostly attracts neighborhood children, but their parents are also encouraged to give it a go.
On a recent Saturday, Mission resident Dawn Langston and her twin 8-year-old sons were having a great time putting the finishing touches on their paintings, while volunteer Ada Pinkston tidied up the art materials. The Langston boys are occasional artists in the monster genre, said their Mom, but when asked if they wanted to be artists when they grew up, Ruben emphatically nodded “no” to Mateo’s “yes.” “We give them the opportunity to try,” said Pinkston, wiping a glob of donated pink paint off the sidewalk.
The small center accepts donations of everything from books and art supplies to furniture, which tends to accumulate in their shared basement. Hadero, Brown’s collaborator, is marketing a CD of her songs, and has been commisioned to write music for the Brava Theater Company’s new play “Over the Mountain.” Brown continues to sell paintings and play music, as well promoting art events in Mission studio spaces. With the help of small stipends and volunteer efforts, the rent gets paid and the art keeps flowing. Friday night performances — which generate a bit of income — are usually packed, but growth is not in the plan.
Eschewing the tendency to pair success with expansion, the Art House crew prefers to keep it small. At this time, Brown said he would only consider the possibility of adding another small space that retained the intimacy of Red Poppy. “We don’t want to put all our energy into fund-raising, and not doing much art.”
• For a schedule of Friday night performances and monthly films, see www.redpoppyarthouse.org.
• On December 13, the Mission Arts & Performance Project (or MAPP) - a bi-monthly gathering of artists who share the group’s enthusiam for small interpretive spaces — will offer a full day of activities and performance art to the public at 13 locations in the Mission, including the Red Poppy Art House. For a full schedule, see http://sfmapp.com.