Jacques Terzian, the artist responsible for founding the artists' colony at San Francisco's Hunter's Point -- one of the country's largest such communities -- died on Aug. 6. He was 94.
“The shipyard arts community has lost the person whose inspiration, vision and love for the arts and artists brought it into being," Scott Madison wrote on the Hunters Point Shipyard Artists' website. "The person who was, for more than two decades, its animated and animating spirit."
Born in 1921 in Fresno, Terzian first came to Hunter's Point in the 1940s as a shipyard worker, helping repair destroyers, cruisers and submarines that were damaged in the attacks on Pearl Harbor. After attending the Parsons School of Design in New York City, Terzian moved back to the Bay Area in 1951 to pursue a career in interior design.
A sculptor, Terzian was among a group of artists who were booted from a San Francisco warehouse space that was demolished to make way for Levi's Plaza in the early '70s. But being booted from the space did little to stop Terzian's artistic pursuits. He doubled down in 1974 and started a new company, Patterns Ltd., which created found object-based industrial design products that ranged from furniture to wall installations.
Seeing the potential in a superfund site
Two years after the Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard was decommissioned in 1974, a private contractor began subletting the leftover structures to various people, including Terzian, who saw the hidden potential of the stark military buildings. They were cheap to rent and had good light -- though not much else. The buildings were in the middle of a superfund site, rife with industrial contamination.
Over the ensuing years, with the help of his son David and daughter Paula, Terzian converted the shipyard's barracks into artist studios. By 1984, he had created about 300 such spaces, and in the process, established The Point, one of the largest artists' colonies in the United States. (For context, Carmel By the Sea, another massive artist colony in California, only houses about 100 artists.)
"I found there were so many people that I knew that needed space, and wanted to rent space and sublease from me," Terzian said in the documentary Making the Point about the transformation of the Hunter's Point Shipyard into an arts hub. "I said, 'Hell, this must be a money maker.' I really felt that."
In the early 1980s, Terzian hosted one of the first recorded "open studios" events, where members of the public could wander around the resident artists' workshops and potentially buy their art without having to go through a gallery or dealer. The Hunter's Point Open Studios has gone on on to become a landmark event in the San Francisco cultural calendar, attracting hundreds of people each year. The fall open studios takes place on Saturday, Oct. 15 and Sunday, Oct. 16 this year.
Long fight with the Navy
Despite the growing success of the colony, Terzian had to fight to keep it going. The battle began in 1985, when the Navy refused to renew its lease with Terzian's contractor landlord due to plans to start up the shipyard again and house the USS Missouri there. A coalition of artists and environmentalists came together to oppose the military's intentions, and for the next four years they succeeded in stopping evictions and derailing the housing of the famous World War II battleship. The Navy officially canceled its plan to house the "Mighty Mo" there in 1989, and in 1991 the base was officially closed.
"Without Jacques a lot of Bay Area artists could not have found affordable studio space, and that was in the 1980's before it got to be almost impossible," Karen Mangan commented on Hunters Point Shipyard Artists' Facebook post about Terzian's death. "A huge thank you goes out to Jacques and his family for helping so many artists In this very important way."
Terzian, who would joke that he wasn't an artist, continued to make art throughout his life. He participated in open studios and had a retrospective of his work in 2011. He was also a fan of opera and classical music. When he died peacefully in bed at his home in Walnut Creek, he was listening to an oboe concerto, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
He is survived by his two sons and three daughters, six grandchildren and four great grandchildren.