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Monday, April 24, 2002

Another North Beach Artist Faces Eviction

Betsey Culp interviews Redo

Walk by CaffŤ Trieste any morning, and youíre likely to see a man with a graying ponytail sitting at a table outside, engaged in animated conversation, greeting passersby. His name is Redo. Heís an artist, until recently one of San Franciscoís "successful" ones. When his work sells, the paintings fetch four figures, and sculptures five. But these days, collectors are hanging onto their dollars and Ė itís a familiar story Ė Redo finds himself on the verge of eviction from the apartment he occupies just above the cafť.

BC: You probably donít remember, but the first time I met you, you had just gotten back from India. Tell me what you did in India.

Redo: Well, I went there to paint and sculpt, and thatís just what I did. I did a lot of drawing. And I almost died of typhoid fever.

BC: What?

Redo: I had to take my holy dip in the Ganges River. And you know, you canít help getting it inside you when youíre swimming.

BC: So did you really get typhoid fever?

Redo: I sure did. Iíd gone to Rishikesh, which is a holy city near the headwaters of the Ganges, in the foothills of the Himalayas. And I thought, well, it should be safe enough to swim. So thatís just what I did. I swam. For a couple of days I went to the same spot with two friends of mine and spent hours each day swimming in the river.

The next day I went up in the north of India, right below the snow peaks. I woke up in the morning and I passed out. And I woke up and got up again and passed out. I didnít get diarrhea or the flux or anything wrong with my stomach. You know, with typhoid you lose your appetite and you donít want to drink water. Thatís what really gets you. But my friend was giving me tea. I think what saved my life before my friend got a doctor to me was goldenseal and Echinacea tea.

When the doctor finally got to me, he said, ďI think I know what you have.Ē His wife was a pathologist, luckily enough, so he took my blood sample and she confirmed it.

He came back, and he said, ďYou know, youíre about twelve hours from going home in a box.Ē

I said, ďHey, doc, I feel great.Ē The nature of the illness is that the fever is really intense at night, and then the next day you feel like youíre getting better. And of course, you donít have any appetite. Then the next night, the fever almost doubles. The fever gets worse and worse.

But for me the feverÖ I really enjoyed it. Because Iíve done so many psychedelics, maybe. It was a very hallucinatory fever, and I really enjoyed it. I was really resigned. It was OK if I was going to die then. I felt great. Iíve had a pretty good life. Iíve created a lot of beautiful things, had some wonderful experiences. So I was ready to go.

Anyway the doctor put me on a regimen of antibiotics. It took me a month to recover.

BC: You must have been really weak then.

Redo: I was very weak. But I learned lots of things while I was recovering. I had taken some binoculars with me, and I got into bird watching. And I drew all the snow peaks. In the east I could see Nepal. In the west I could see China.

It was very quiet there. All you would hear was the men with the oxen in the fields and the women in their saris working in the rice paddies. It was very pastoral. Lots of beautiful birds. Iíll show you the drawings sometime, of all the snow peaks going across the horizon. Over there each snow peak is revered and sacred to a certain deity. I donít know why, but it seems to give them personalities. What more beautiful view could you have than the Himalayas as you were recovering? And really quiet.

The only noise you would hear would be twice a day, early in the morning and near sundown, the Indian Air Force would send a couple of their old MIGs to patrol the border. So theyíd just fly over. Other than that, all youíd hear was nature. Just beautiful.

BC: You went to some place where you got a bunch of stones, right?

Redo: I found out where they got the stones that the Taj Mahal was built from. And I carved three of those stones.

BC: Did you bring them back?

Redo: No. I sold one to an expatriate who lives in London, and I left a couple there. Iím slowly having my stuff sent back here. I just got a box lately from India. Because Iím so prolific, Iíve got a ton of stuff there, so Iím gradually having it sent back, a box at a time. The box I just got contained a whole bunch of drawings, framed drawings, framed there because itís really cheaper. Only two of the framed pieces were brokenÖ the glass.

BC: Are you going to have a drawing show?

Redo: Well, thatís another one of my books Ė ďThe Artistís Life, in India.Ē It contains drawings done in the Himalayas, and the Deccan Plateau Ė haystacks and such Ė and southwest India.

I stayed in Goa for a while, four to six months, I donít know. Thatís where I carved the stones. I had a house in the jungle for $35 a month. I could afford to hire two quarrymen there, to work next to me for eight hours a day. I would chip out the design and then have them carve from it. I paid them twice what they made in the quarry. At the end of the day I would clean up what they had carved from my design and then Iíd carve more for them to work on the next day. They worked right next to me, and Iíd feed them. It was great. It allowed me to carve and finish three marble sculptures.

BC: And then when you came back, you came back to North Beach?

Redo: Well, my father had died recently, so I went up and spent six months with my mother, up in Washington State. Sheís since moved to Wisconsin, where some of my siblings have families. One of my brothers has a wife whoís a nurse, so she can watch her and get her to walk every day and let the grandkids harass her. Keeps her on her toes.

India was very productive for me. But then everywhere I go, Iím productive. Thatís what I do.

BC: You decided at an early age that you were going to support yourself by your art.

Redo: Well, it was never really a conscious choice. I was gifted, so I was a natural. And what else was I going to do?

BC: But you must have also had a business sense of some sort.

Redo: Well, I suppose. Minimally. Because itís lasted this long. But I never had a doubt about what I was going to do, or what I was going to be, or why I was here, what my work was. It was always obvious to me. Of course, when I was younger, it was very cute. As I got older, it wasnít so cute.

I made sure, also, that I couldnít do anything practical, so there was no choice but to live by my work.

BC: So how did you start making it a business? Thatís the thing that artists have trouble with.

Redo: Well, I think itís because I like people, and so I can talk to people. I like to talk to people. And that helps one facilitate any kind of business, right? So thatís how I could support myself, by networking with people. Iím self-taught. Iíve never been in any institutions, so Iíve always been an outsider. Iíve done it that way.

BC: Your paintings sell for Ė what? Ė about $5,000?

Redo: Yes, now. Iím 60 years old, almost, and so Iím a master painter. And I charge for my skill. I sell a painting every several months or so. Because I donít have any expensive habits, itís allowed me to flourish. Iím not very interested in distractions, so all my time pretty much goes into my work.

BC: I remember a while ago you told me about what a day was like, how youíd get up, and come hereÖ

Redo: I go to sleep about three in the morning. I get up automatically about 8:30, and I come down to the cafť and wake up very slowly. And then I like to spend the daylight carving stone outside. When I come back from that, I take a shower, have something to eat, and do some drawing and then paint, and after Iíve painted for a while, either in water colors or oils, Iíll get into my drawing again, which is my main discipline. Everything comes out of the drawing. And then I go to sleep again about three in the morning.

BC: Thatís a nice day.

Redo: Yeah, really full. I usually take a siesta for about an hour, not necessarily to sleep, just to turn everything off. Lie down and shut it all off. I like to take my siesta around five in the afternoon, and that way I have a whole night of energized time and I can really concentrate again. Itís a great way to do things.

BC: Tell me about the black rock.

Redo: The one Iím working on now? Well, itís from India. Thereís a guy in Oakland who brings in stone from all over the world, and he lets me know when thereís something I might like to carve. Iíve known him for years. He got this load of stone from India and it all smelled like curry, because evidently in the same container that they sent the rock, they sent a bunch of curry.

BC: Does it still smell of curry?

Redo: No, no, no. Iíve skinned it pretty well. Itís a black stone. Itís become a stone flier Ė thatís the title of the sculpture. A stone flier is a guardian angel of the earth spirits, so Iím carving a home for the stone flier.

BC: So is it concave?

Redo: Itís carved in the round. Itís 150 pounds or so. I canít lift it, but I can muscle it around the table so I can get to all the angles of it.

Iíve been working on it all year. I can usually do a couple of stones a year, because Iím consistent, Iím always at it. Itís not a question of deciding what to do one day to the next; itís just a continuation of yesterday. Iím always tuned in to it.

BC: What happened that youíre so behind on your rent?

Redo: Well, I havenít sold anything for a while. For several months. I donít know if itís the economy or what, but I suppose that has something to do with it. Weíre all affected by that.

BC: Art is a luxury, and when people start scrimpingÖ

Redo: Art is a luxury and on the other hand, itís a necessity for anyone who wants their consciousness raised. I feel like Iím needed here.

BC: You are, but it would be nice if they would pay you to be useful.

Redo: Although itís difficult living from your art at the best of times.

BC: Have you ever had this kind of down period before?

Redo: Oh yeah, it goes up and down. I donít have a gallery or an agent. That makes it more difficult. I just havenít been able to find anyone that I could work with.

BC: It sounds like youíve done pretty well without it.

Redo: Yeah, I like being independent. I like not depending on anyone to sell my work but me. But itís difficult when you spend most of your time doing the art. If youíre going to be selling your work, you have to be talking to people. Like I said, I like talking to people, but I just donít have all the time in the world to do it. So I tend to pass up a lot of opportunities that I would otherwise have had.

My work is very pure because Iíve never done it for commercial purposes.

BC: Which is interesting, because I can see some of your paintings being used commercially.

Redo: And thatís fine, too. If itís after the fact, itís OK. But I donít feel right Ė I donít know, itís a quirk in my personality, I suppose Ė I just canít do the art for commercial purposes, although it can be applied to commercial purposes. Thatís fine.

BC: It gets diluted, I think, if youíre thinking half commercially and half artistically.

Redo: Well, it depends on the artist. For some artists, this is not the case at all. Some artists I know are purely commercial artists. And theyíre motivated by the money. Thatís them. And thatís fine. Thatís what gets them going. But for me, I guess Iím idealistic and art for me is a spiritual process.

[Portrait at the top of the page is by Ed Brooks.]