A participant works on a drawing to trade for a print in the 'Southeast San Francisco Artists Portfolio' at Book and Wheel's last 'Chispa' event before the pandemic halted community gatherings. (Photo by Sibila Savage; courtesy the artists)
When Kate Connell and Oscar Melara, also known as the artist collaborative Book and Wheel, unveiled Chispa, they had big plans for the future of their colorfully painted, roving art cart. (“We like to think of it as an independent float,” says Connell.) On its first outing in August 2019 at the Visitacion Valley Greenway’s Peace & Unity Festival, Chispa was the centerpiece of invocations, music and artwork, including a display of botanical drawings by one of the Greenway’s founders, Anne Seeman.
But the giant, teal cart would only appear in public once more before the pandemic put a halt to community gatherings.
“We were pretty excited after that event,” Connell says of the second, even larger production, a September 2019 Autumn Moon festival in McLaren Park. “We had a lot of momentum going—and then COVID happened.”
Now Connell and Melara, whose collaborative name is a shout-out to their former positions as a librarian and bus driver, have rethought one of Chispa’s central projects—building a portfolio of work by artists from Southeast San Francisco—into a format suited to pandemic-mandated restrictions. With We Trade, they’re exchanging artwork by residents of Bayview/Hunters Point, the Excelsior District, the Portola and Visitacion Valley with anyone who mails Book and Wheel a creative work of their own.
“One thing we really like about this that we couldn’t do with Chispa is the range of things that people can trade us,” Connell says, naming playlists, recipes, photographic prints, poems and song lyrics. “Someone sent us a short-run artist book. Someone else in the neighborhood made neighborhood-specific stickers.”
The Southeast San Francisco Artists Portfolio now contains the work of around 50 artists. “The artists range in age, from their 20s to their 70s, and that’s something that’s really important to us,” Connell says, adding they also work to make the cohort “culturally reflective of the Southeast.”
The plan is to build a cultural archive of a part of San Francisco that is often quite literally left off the map. (Many, particularly those meant for tourists, stop at Cesar Chavez or even farther north.)
One of the prints We Trade participants can choose from is a direct response to that omission: a participatory map of Southeast San Francisco created by Connell, Melara, Sofía Vivanco Airaghi and over 200 participants since 2016. It identifies art and performance spaces, parks and athletic fields, as well the locations of significant historical events. The map visually groups the four Southeast neighborhoods as an interconnected corner of the city.
Connell says when she and Melara first moved to the Portola District from the Mission over 25 years ago, it took them time to adjust to the lack of nearby cultural institutions—or what they thought of then as cultural institutions. The Cultural Map of Southeast San Francisco demonstrates that a “cultural institution” isn’t always a formal, physical arts center.
While Connell in particular enjoys visiting their post office box and checking on submissions, for artists rooted in the social aspect of social practice, exchange-by-mail isn’t quite the same. “When this was with Chispa, we would be out in the street posting posters, talking to people, handing out postcards—just having as many conversations as possible,” she says.
“Right now it’s several steps removed,” Melara agrees. “There’s this weird tension between public projects and sheltering in place.” They miss the excitement of explaining Chispa to people, hearing what they think and encouraging them to engage.
Thankfully, building the Southeast San Francisco Artists Portfolio while in isolation has been an outlet for these desires. Part of Chispa’s funding, from Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure grant, was earmarked for artist commissions, and Book and Wheel was still able to make use of that money over the past year.
“There were dark days when we realized we couldn’t take Chispa back out for the foreseeable future,” Connell says, “and just the idea that we still had money to build the portfolio, get money to artists who needed it—even though it’s a modest sum—is kind of what really made it possible to think about where to go with it.”
And even without an event on the horizon, they’re still putting up posters (currently featuring the work of Kaiya Canja Wong Jones, a young artist from the Portola), to spread the word about We Trade beyond the confines of social media and email inboxes.
Running out of prints to exchange is a problem Connell and Melara welcome—with 500–1,000 copies of each artwork made in expectation of large public events and regular Sunday Streets appearances, Book and Wheel is excited to get the Southeast San Francisco Artists Portfolio into wider circulation.
And what will they do with the objects they receive? “Kate has talked about a—what would you call it?” asks Melara.
“A stately zine!” she says. “An exhibition would be great.”
Some of the artworks sent in for prints may even come from farther afield—a classroom in northern Quebec has promised to send drawings—but Book and Wheel is fine with that.
“Sending out art from the Southeast lets people know who’s working here,” Connell says.
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