46. My own 'TALES OF THE CITY'...and more

SAN FRANCISCO IN THE 1970s...and my 'Tales'

San Francisco in the 1970s was a great place to learn about myself and about life.

1960 Hyde Street, my Russian Hill apartment address, consisted of six units...three on the second floor and three of the third.  The occupants, including myself, were almost all in our late twenties and early thirties.  We each, in our own way, were trying to 'find ourselves.'  And we all seemed to be living out that story recounted in Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City.'

We happened to inhabit one of an infinite number of '28 Barbary Lanes' existing at the time...but, like most of these 'Barbary Lanes', we had no 'Mrs. Madrdgal'; we were on our own.  

Armistead Maupin really didn't make it up...he simply observed, exaggerated, and caricatured what, in fact, was going on all over the city.  It was just that most of us were living that story without reflecting on it.

At our 'Barbary Lane' was John...the young architect next door to me...who apparently had his sights set on the Guinness World Record for sexual prowess.  Our studio apartments were separated by a thin adjoining wall and while I was doing my thing...basically reading or attempting to get some sleep, it was clear that John and his guest were doing his thing...working toward that Guinness Record.

Upstairs lived a young woman named Mary who introduced me to her literary obsession...the magical writing of Nikos Kazantzakis.  After reading 'Zorba the Greek,' I found myself...like Mary...searching for every book he had written.  His probing passion for life, and for life's meaning, was infectious.  'Zorba' was a great companion to Henry Miller's own Greek odyssey, 'The Colossus of Maroussi.'

Thanks to Mary, I added Kazantzakis to the authors who inspired me, and consoled me, and who came at the right time in my life...like Henry Miller, Hermann Hesse, and Rainer Maria Rilke.  These writers echoed my own passion and yearning for life and experience.

I was particularly drawn to Kazantzakis and Miller because they had a way of looking at the most depressing and challenging circumstances with humor, wisdom, and a deep love for life...with all of its absurdities.  Exactly what I needed!

Hesse created magic and mystical worlds that, in many ways, mirrored the ideal of my own experience and longings.  

Rilke's 'Letters to a Young Poet' was particularly helpful and inspiring to me.  Like the recipient of his letters, I shared the same doubts, loneliness, and impatience for love, relationship, and development.  Rilke's reassuring words of being patient with and persevering one's knawing growing pains rang true and necessary.

These authors of wisdom, as well as many others, became my de facto mentors.


After six months, as I got accustomed to my life in the city and as I gained confidence, I grew tired of spending my days cooped-up inside a retail business and being beholden to managers.  However attractive Flax's was, I was left with little time, or energy, to pursue more creative and rewarding activities.  And I had purchased all the art materials that I needed at the moment.  

It happened, almost without realizing it, that I was becoming more comfortable in my role as a teacher.  'It takes two to tango' and part of my growing confidence as a teacher was that the students in art school were more motivated and more experienced than those I had been teaching before.

In the fall of 1973, as my impatience with my two-job situation mounted before the end of my first semester teaching at the school, in desperation, I approached the president of the Academy, Richard Stephens, with an ultimatum: either I would be hired full-time for the coming semester, or I would leave the school altogether.  I had no idea what he thought of how I'd been doing so far; nevertheless, I wasn't bluffing and he sensed it. 

To my relief, he accepted my ultimatum and agreed to give me a full-time position.  He then offered, in addition to my watercolor class, putting me in charge of all the basic drawing classes for the school.  Every new student would be taking one of my classes.

This full-time teaching position (which amounted to about three days-a-week) was to change the dynamics of everything in my life: professionally and personally.  I could make a decent living and have time to pursue recreational and creative activities on the side.


I was given much more responsibility, and I took it seriously.  I had to learn teaching from the ground up.  In order to teach and communicate effectively, I had to master articulating what I knew, more than I ever had before: I had to pare down my ideas to manageable concepts, and I had to organize my knowledge and have some idea of where I was headed.  

These insights, and my determination to teach well, made all the difference.  And it was a great boost to know that the administration had some confidence in what I had done so far.

With my new responsibilities, my idea of what makes a good teacher began to take shape.  Prior to my new experience at the Academy, I had thought of a teacher as someone who had mastered a subject and then passes that mastery and knowledge on to his students...as if there were some 'finished' product to instill in a student.  But as I never really felt I had mastered the subject I was teaching, I never felt that I had very much to pass on to a student.  

And, on top of that, I was always self-conscious to the point that I could hear myself talking as I was teaching...very disconcerting.  And it all sounded phony to me...like I was play-acting.  It was like trying to walk while micromanaging the movement of each foot.  Eventually, it trips you up.

One of the dynamics of a comprehensive art school like the Academy of Art, including both a commercial (applied) arts department and a fine arts department, is that there is a knee-jerk antipathy between the two fields.  The Academy had been originally founded as an exclusively commercial art school; expanding to fine arts was a relatively new enterprise.  And I was one of the fine arts faculty.

My education and experience had been exclusively in the fine arts.  Exposure to commercial art was foreign to me.

I embarked on my new path with one primary goal: to learn...wherever that might take me.

As the majority of Academy students were headed for a commercial art career...mostly illustration, fashion design, and advertising...and as I had absolutely no commercial art experience, I approached the head of the illustration department whom I respected, Barbara Bradley, the backbone and 'star' of the institution, and asked her what things she might wish her students to know in order to be prepared for her classes?  

That was sheer inspiration and the move made all the difference.  Nobody had asked me to do this, not even the head herself.  I was simply curious and wanted my classes to be a foundation for any student, no matter where they were headed.  I wanted to bridge the chasm between the two departments.  

But I had the odd feeling of having betrayed the fine arts department, though none of the faculty mentioned it.  I just wanted to know what the two departments might have in common that would bridge the gap.

Through my discussion with Barbara and through my contemplating the art of drawing in general, I felt that the essential thing would be to develop each student's ability to see as well as to record what they saw with precision and accuracy...no easy task.  I personally had never had such a class so I had to form my ideas and my curriculum from scratch.  I developed a series of exercises and projects which would promote these skills.  It was a tempting challenge and a first start in fulfilling my primary goal: to learn...'wherever that might take me.'

Copyright (c) Donald Archer 2020  All rights reserved.


  1. Don - Very much enjoyed reading about your Academy start in SF- and I'll keep on reading-- having lived a loosely parallel life, myself! Was SO elucidating talking with you on the trail last week-- Dena


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