Scott Donahue, Public Artist

Jerry Cimino, Eugene Tssui, and Scott Donahue
Jerry Cimino, Eugene Tssui, and Scott Donahue in front of the Buon Gusto Sausage Factory

Scott Donahue entered my life at just the right time. I didn’t even know I needed someone like him to get involved in the new Beat Museum project, but sometimes Fortune smiles.

I introduced architect Eugene Tssui in a previous article. A few weeks after Eugene and I started talking about possibilities for a new Beat Museum at the site of the former Buon Gusto Building at 535 Green Street in North Beach, Eugene made the suggestion of featuring public art at the new building.

My initial reaction was, “This is North Beach, Eugene. Graffiti and defacement are real issues in this part of town. I can see art on the roof and inside the building, but would art on the street really be a good idea?” 

Scott Donahue in his studio

“There are ways to mitigate that,” Eugene assured me. “Public art can be quite inspiring in conjunction with a museum, there are many modern materials that can be used, and the actual placement of the art can be a deterrent as well. I’ve got a good friend who is a recognized public artist, whose studio is not too far from mine in Emeryville. His name is Scott Donahue. I’ll send you some photographs of his work and a link to his website.”

A few weeks later, Eugene and Scott met with me at the Beat Museum to talk about what might be possible. After a long and invigorating discussion, the three of us walked up the street to the Buon Gusto building to draw further inspiration to the vision we were forming.

Another few weeks went by with the three of us exchanging emails and phone calls, and in early January we decided to meet at Scott’s studio in Emeryville so I could hear his story and get a better look at his work. I wanted to understand precisely how we might bring Scott’s skills to bear in better telling the story of the Beat Generation.

On the drive across the Bay Bridge into Emeryville, I marveled at the fact I was now working with a second professional who might prove integral in bringing forth the ultimate vision of the Beat Museum I’ve been carrying in my mind for over a decade. I’m a firm believer that when synchronicity sends a stranger into your midst who might be able to assist you in a long-held vision, you should pay attention.

One of Scott Donahue’s “flying” sculptures

I arrived early at Scott’s studio in a low-slung artists’ collective and immediately started snapping photographs. Eugene arrived right on time a few minutes later, and the three of us all started talking at once. 

We spoke about living and working in the Bay Area and what it’s meant to all of us. Over the years at the Beat Museum, I’ve heard hundreds of stories about what brought people to San Francisco from all over the world. On this day, however, Scott related to me a story no one has ever told me before: “When I was 16 years old I rode my bicycle all the way to San Francisco from the small town in New Jersey where I grew up. I had to see what was going on in this city in 1967. It took me a while to get here, but I had to see it for myself.”

Walking around Scott’s studio I got to know a little bit more about his work. He’s built projects all over California, from Huntington Beach to Stockton to Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. The Berkeley “Big People” project he created in 2008 for the Berkeley Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge crossing Interstate 80 at University Avenue, while free-standing, is of a scale similar to what we’re talking about for the Beat Museum. 

THE STORY OF PG&E ON DISPLAY IN EMERYVILLE

Just a few blocks from Scott’s studio stands another one of his larger projects. It’s PG&E’s Emeryville Repair Facility that’s been around for almost 100 years. In 1993 Scott worked with people at PG&E to tell the company’s history in both low and high relief from 1849 until 1993 when the project was installed. There are six panels, one each above the six large bay doors.

Eugene Tssui and Scott Donahue at PG&E Repair Facility Emeryville

Left: A linewoman with turbine; wind and other alternatives are the future of energy.

Center: Transformer electrifying the grid.

Right: Farmer with tractor, irrigating the agricultural fields of California.

Eugene Tssui and Scott Donahue at PG&E Repair Facility Emeryville

Left: Logger with timber.

Center: Gas brings light to the cities of California.

Right: ’49ers harnessed water power with the Pelton wheel.

TRANSITION FROM A FINE ARTIST TO A PUBLIC ARTIST

“I used to be a fine artist,” Scott told me. “Years ago I sold a 3-part piece, ‘A Tree Fell in the Forest,’ but because I liked it so much, I eventually bought it back when the original buyer put his collection up for auction. Today it hangs in my living room.  It means a lot to me because this piece was instrumental in my transition from fine art to public art. I did fairly well as a fine artist. I received good reviews and I was busy with a lot of commissions.

"A Tree Fell in the Forest"
“A Tree Fell in the Forest”

“Then, one day in 1988, I was told I had bone cancer in my left tibia. I had two surgeries and my doctor told me, ‘From this point forward you have two years to live, guaranteed,” so I started thinking, ‘What can I do in two years? What do I want to do? What do I need to do now?’ And that’s how I got into public art. It’s what I needed to do. Maybe it was a primal thing, to leave a mark of some sort? I don’t know. But I was no longer satisfied with just the fine art. I needed to work in the public arena. 

“And here I am, thirty-something years later and I’m still not dead. And I’m working very hard at not being dead!”

Eugene and I couldn’t help but laugh along with Scott at that comment.

GOOD DESIGNS HAVE TO EVOLVE ORGANICALLY OVER TIME

Scott continued, “I was struck by a quote of yours, Eugene, about needing to live a long time to see the fruits of your labor as an architect. I look at this project we’re discussing here and it’s going to take a long time. Jerry’s got to raise the money, win over the community and the city officials related to our designs, and it’s going to take years. For my contribution we’d start with a small model, that might take a few months, and then we’d make a larger model. A design has to evolve. Someone might say, ‘But what about the shadows?’ or something else. We’re all going to see something different about it. We’re going to make tests, so the design flow is a significant part. We’ll take input from all sides and make changes until we eventually have a winner.

“Like the work I did for PG&E: I had a lot of design failures on that project, but they were all at a small scale. Finally, I had a breakthrough when I focused on exactly how people were going to be viewing it from out on the street. Some people would be walking by and others would be driving by. 

“So design matters. You make your failures in the early small-scale models, and the design continues to evolve until it starts looking right, and eventually you get to an agreement. It’s a process that builds. Things evolve over time. It’s collaborative. That’s what it takes to come to a great design. Each physical site has its issues, and every client has different priorities and needs.

On my way out of Emeryville, I thought of my two new companions in this unlikely journey. An architect with big ideas and an artist who made a life-changing choice to live life on his own terms. From what I discerned, the three of us have two things in common: we all love the work we do, and we all believe in the inspiration of the Beat Generation to help people change their lives for the better.

Passing through the toll booth on the Bay Bridge back toward the city I reflected on the day. I wondered how this big idea, this impossible dream, might be received by the community of North Beach and the people of San Francisco. I know it’s big, I thought to myself, I know it’s bold. And I know it may not be for everybody. But how do I show what might be possible unless I take the shot?

“You never make the shot you don’t take,” I said out loud.

As I passed through Treasure Island and San Francisco came into view I thought back to Chapter 73 of Desolation Angels, that famous line where Jack is entering the city on a bus from Seattle, after coming down off Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains, where he’d worked as a fire watcher:

It’s the bridge that counts, the coming-into-San Francisco on that Oakland-Bay Bridge, over waters which are faintly ruffled by oceangoing Orient ships and ferries, over waters that are like taking you to some other shore, it had always been like that when I lived in Berkeley—after a night of drinking, or two, in the city, bing, the old F-train’d take me barreling across the waters back to that other shore of peace and contentment—We’d (Irwin and I) discuss the Void as we crossed—It’s seeing the rooftops of Frisco that makes you excited and believe, the big downtown hulk of buildings, Standard Oil’s flying red horse, Montgomery Street highbuildings, Hotel St. Francis, the hills, magic Telegraph with her Coit-top, magic Russian, magic Nob, and magic Mission beyond with the cross of all sorrows I’d seen long ago in a purple sunset with Cody on a little railroad bridge—San Francisco, North Beach, Chinatown, Market Street, the bars, the Bay-Oom, the Bell Hotel, the wine, the alleys, the poorboys, Third Street, poets, painters, Buddhists, bums, junkies, girls, millionaires, MG’s, the whole fabulous movie of San Francisco seen from the bus or train on the Bridge coming in…

–Jack Kerouac Desolation Angels, Chapter 73

Jack was a dreamer who loved this town. And I realize I am, too. And I want to help keep this dream of Jack Kerouac’s San Francisco alive for all future comers.

Now all I’ve got to do is raise the dough to make it happen.


Scott Donahue has another obligation for the weekend of our Open House on March 12th, but examples of his work will be on display and we’ve already discussed holding a separate event for him to come to the Beat Museum to discuss his work and vision.


Read the press release here.