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Bonnie Ora Sherk’s Eco-Art Experiments Inspire Wonder at Fort Mason

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A woman sits in a dining chair on the Golden Gate Bridge, watching the traffic go by.
Bonnie Ora Sherk, as seen in ‘Excerpts From the Sitting Still Series.’ The image is part of new exhibit, ‘Bonnie Ora Sherk: Life Frames Since 1970.’  (Courtesy of Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture)

“I dreamt I lived in a triptych — human, plant, animal … the essence of global convergence.”

These words, contained in a display case at Fort Mason Center’s Gallery 308, belong to conceptual artist Bonnie Ora Sherk. Sherk was a renegade who spent her life challenging the normal parameters of how humans use — and behave in — urban spaces. Much of Sherk’s most important work was audaciously conceived and performed in 1970s San Francisco. Now, a new exhibit at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture is honoring her legacy and demonstrating how Sherk’s ideas continue to impact the city to this day.

Curated by SFMOMA’s Tanya Zimbardo, Bonnie Ora Sherk: Life Frames Since 1970 encompasses work Sherk did in both San Francisco and New York. Viewed in one place, the expansive exhibit thoroughly maps Sherk’s transformation from an artist interested in subverting cityscapes into a landscape architect literally building a more egalitarian environment. Sherk was also the founder of Crossroads Community (aka The Farm), a now-legendary community center, art space and, yes, city farm that once stood where Potrero del Sol Park stands now. (It was an empty concrete lot next to the freeway when Sherk found it.)

The chronology of Life Frames allows visitors to follow the through line of Sherk’s concepts in a way that feels perfectly rational — even when her individual pieces sometimes do not. The exhibit opens with four large-scale wall projections, the first of which is a 15-minute loop of photographs from her Sitting Still series. These feature Sherk sitting in a chair in a variety of locations, including street corners in the Mission, North Beach and the Financial District. The artist sat for an hour at a time, inviting stares, confusion and questions from passersby. She also spent time on the Golden Gate Bridge and, most memorably, inside pens at the San Francisco Zoo.

A woman wearing a dress sits in a chair next to a huge tree inside an animal pen at a zoo.
A moment from ‘Excerpts From the Sitting Still Series,’ as seen in new exhibit, ‘Bonnie Ora Sherk: Life Frames Since 1970.’ (Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture)

It was the last location that started Sherk on her journey to explore animal behavior. She became interested in cohabiting with them — rats, chickens and pigs. She put on performances in which she and the animals observed each other in the same space. She designed self-contained chicken coops (the sketches for which are present in Life Frames). Before founding The Farm, Sherk also masterminded ways to green-ify urban spaces, moving trees to freeway overpasses, snow to San Francisco hotel exteriors and grass to concrete lots — a precursor to guerrilla gardening.

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Tranquil footage of Sherk at The Farm makes sense of anxiety-inducing footage of the artist pacing up and down a 10-foot stretch of the Broadway Tunnel just a few years earlier. It’s not difficult to see why Sherk moved from one to the other and why ecology became her life’s work. The exhibit closes out with a reminder that it was also Sherk who founded the “Living Libraries” and “Think Parks” of Bernal Heights and the Excelsior. Those projects continue to serve local children and communities in much the same way The Farm once did, even three years after Sherk’s death.

Life Frames is so comprehensive and at times immersive, it’s sometimes easy to forget where you are. That’s not a bad thing. Like so much of what the artist created in life, this exhibit is a place you’ll want to come and sit a while. Give yourself ample time to do so — the world seen through Sherk’s eyes is a beautiful place to be.

A woman casually sits in an armchair smoking a cigarette in the middle of a flooded parking lot. Urban houses are seen behind her.
Bonnie Ora Sherk in 1970, as captured in ‘Sitting Still I.’ (‘Bonnie Ora Sherk: Life Frames Since 1970’)

‘Bonnie Ora Sherk: Life Frames Since 1970’ is on display at Gallery 308 at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, now through March 10, 2024. The exhibition will close out with a pop-up urban planning symposium.

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