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Paul Madonna's Latest 'All Over Coffee' Collection Hits Close to Home—Literally

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 (Courtesy of West Margin Press)

A weird thing happened when I sat down to review Paul Madonna’s latest book. You Know Exactly is Madonna’s third and final collection of art and musings gathered from the All Over Coffee series he made for the San Francisco Chronicle between 2004 and 2015. And as I flicked through the beautifully rendered, hyper-detailed depictions of quiet corners of San Francisco, a house appeared that was immediately familiar. It took my brain a second to process.

There, staring back at me, were the front gates of a building I moved into in 2005 and didn’t leave until 2013. It was a two-bedroom that, at any given time, had five to ten people staying there. The apartment had so many roommates, so many couch surfers and so many impromptu parties, it seemed entirely feasible to me that Madonna might have passed through at some point.

A painting and line drawing of the front gates, garage door, and first floor windows of a classic Mission District San Francisco home. On the sidewalk sits a coin-operated ride for children, in the shape of a pink elephant.
The 18th Street home, as depicted in Paul Madonna’s ‘You Know Exactly, the Third Collection of All Over Coffee.’ (West Margin Press)
The front gates, garage door, and first floor windows of a classic Mission District San Francisco home.
The 18th Street home, as it looks in June 2022. The brown paint arrived after Paul Madonna’s original rendering. (Rae Alexandra)

The pink elephant pictured on the sidewalk out front was a bit of creative license. It must have been a reference, I deduced, not only to the copious amounts of alcohol consumed in the apartment, but also to the fact that a few of its occupants had worked at the Mission dive bar Zeitgeist. (A pink elephant mural is featured prominently the bar’s backyard.) I started spiraling—Paul Madonna had almost certainly been in my apartment, and I needed to track him down to talk about it immediately.

The next day, we connected via Facetime.

“That’s definitely your old building,” Madonna told me. “I used to live at 15th and Guerrero so that was my ‘hood.”

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I asked if the elephant was a reference to Zeitgeist.

“No,” Paul responded, sounding a little confused. “No correlation. The ride was part of a series of pieces I was doing, drawing amusement park rides and the like. I saw that one in Pennsylvania.”

Madonna hadn’t been in my building. He didn’t know anyone from my apartment. This was not the great story I’d been hoping for. But surely he had another reason to choose this particular location?

“The building is almost secondary,” Madonna shrugged. “For me, it’s really about light and shadow and composition. With your building, if it had been the morning and the sun was behind it, it wouldn’t have caught my eye. I’ll be walking down the street and the light will be hitting the corner of a building in a certain way… I see the geometry.”

A painting of a classic San Francisco home next to the wall of another home. On the wall is written in block capitals: "You know exactly what you need to do."
The cover art for ‘You Know Exactly, the Third Collection of All Over Coffee’ by Paul Madonna. (West Margin Press)

Here, then, is a central reason why Madonna’s San Francisco depictions are so timeless and popular. The artist makes renditions that capture the city in its (literal) best light, and then it’s left to the viewer to insert meaning. And that meaning, Madonna told me, almost never has anything to do with his original reasons for picking a particular view or structure to immortalize.

“They’re all random,” Madonna said. “When I used to talk about that years ago, when I first started All Over Coffee, it annoyed people! Especially if it was their block. They want me to say, ‘Oh my God, that building is important because that’s where I kissed…’ You know? The truth is, I was probably just looking at a shadow!”

I felt a little foolish to have inserted my personal history all over Madonna’s randomly chosen location, but the artist assured me that it happened all the time—occasionally with bizarre results.

When All Over Coffee was still running, Madonna had painted a wide view of San Francisco from somebody’s back porch. After one man saw it in The Chronicle, he recognized the view as being similar to the one from his girlfriend’s apartment, and immediately accused her of having an affair with the artist. The woman emailed Madonna to tell him about the bizarre situation she found herself in.

Two years later, Madonna and the woman happened to attend the same party. The artwork and the accusation that followed, she told him, had ended her former relationship. Now she was dating one of Madonna’s friends—and it’s a partnership that has endured to this day. “She’s part of my family-friend set now,” he says disbelievingly. “But how many stories like that are there that I don’t even know?”

A painting, rendered in sepia tones, of a grand old building with four columns at its entrance and a triangular roof. On the side of the building in large block capitals is the phrase: 'TAKE YOUR OWN ADVICE.'
A moment from ‘You Know Exactly, the Third Collection of All Over Coffee’ by Paul Madonna. (West Margin Press)

Other fans of All Over Coffee have found great meaning in the short phrases Madonna often incorporates into his work.

As captured in You Know Exactly, they are by turns confrontational (“You think it’s a secret but everybody knows”), reassuring (“There’s really only so much you can do”), inspiring (“Use what you have”) and silly (“Let’s get drunk and go on vacation”). The name of the book came from Madonna’s favorite: “You know exactly what you have to do.” When it was first published, the artwork prompted a public outpouring. One reader told Madonna the piece finally gave her the courage to file for a divorce.

The longer short stories featured in the book send readers on a different, often delightfully droll journey. “After waking from what he’d believed would be only a short nap,” one reads, “a confused Chet Bradley finds himself seemingly the last man alive. A fervent activist, he releases all the animals from a nearby zoo, and is promptly eaten by a tiger.”

All Over Coffee was in many ways a gift to the city. It immortalized the San Francisco that locals see every day; not the one most commonly depicted in movies and on TV. Because of its grounding in familiar corners, sidewalks and liquor stores, Madonna’s art can also ask viewers to explore their own psyche, or to suspend their disbelief, or to go on a journey with him they weren’t expecting. And sometimes, just sometimes, it’ll be so close to home, you’ll think he’s made a personal visit.

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‘You Know Exactly, the Third Collection of All Over Coffee’ by Paul Madonna comes out on Tues. June 21, via West Margin Press. Details here.

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