Part of what makes the Lower Haight such an incredible neighborhood is the people that make up the community.
Haighteration recently chatted with three artists in the Lower Haight: Ariel Fintushel – a local poet; Jesus Penaloza – a painter and neighborhood muralist; Michelle Jasso – an actress and singer. Here’s what they had to say about the neighborhood, their art, and being a part of the Lower Haight community.
Haighteration: Tell us a little bit about your writing.
Ariel: I’m inspired by Robert Haas and Wang Ping, who wrote Of Flesh and Spirit. James Baldwin has always been a big influence too. He used to write in loud bars and busy restaurants – he could write anywhere.
H: Have you ever taught poetry?
A: Yeah I used to work for Bridge the Gap teaching slam poetry to 8th graders in Marin.
H: How was that experience?
A: It was great! At first I was struck by how serious the students were. All of them were from low income and often single parent homes. But eventually they opened up and at the end of the year they performed in front of 250 people. They were amazing! I’m about to start work with a nonprofit called The Beat Within, which works with incarcerated youth giving them the ability to share their writing and life experiences in a weekly publication. I will be reading some of their work and giving them feedback.
H: You like to keep busy! Let’s redirect for a minute to the neighborhood. How long have you lived here?
A: About three-ish years, but I’m actually about to move because the rent went up. Everyone in the building is moving out.
H: Will you still be in the neighborhood?
A: No, I’m moving to the Outer Mission. Near Philz Coffee on 24th and Mission.
H: What will you miss about living here?
A: I’ll miss going to Deluxe. Technically it isn’t in the Lower Haight, but it’s my favorite place on Haight because it doesn’t look “deluxe” but when you walk in there is always something going on. I do a lot of writing there.
H: Like James Baldwin.
A: (Laughs) Exactly.
H: Is there a drink you’d recommend?
A: They make a great greyhound.
H: Have you ever seen anything crazy go down in the neighborhood?
A: (Laughs) Well once I was coming home and I heard a woman screaming at the top of her lungs. Then I hear a man yell “Cut it out!” and a slap. This woman keeps screaming so my roommates and I call the police. When the cops get to our house they ask us if they could come in and investigate where the scream was coming from so we let him in. Eventually we end up on the back deck and we see a big circle of men surrounding this woman, who is lying on the ground. The cop is just watching and at this point all the men are holding shovels. Then the cop just says, “Maybe they’re digging her a grave” like it was no big deal. The woman keeps screaming and then someone yells, “Okay! Scene two!” It was a film shoot! The cop started laughing! We were terrified.
H: Sounds like a heads-up would have helped. OK Ariel, for folks who would like to check out some of your work, where can they find it?
A: Well I recently read at The Make-Out Room for the Bang Out Reading Series. I have poems published in The City Writes and Anemone Sidecar. You can also watch me on YouTube reading my work at Velro, the graduate reading series at San Francisco State, and Writing Without Walls.
H: Thanks a lot for taking the time to chat with us!
A: Thank you!
Haighteration: Were you born in San Francisco?
Jesus: No, I’m from SoCal: Santa Clarita. Near Magic Mountain.
H: How long have you been in the city?
J: 4 years. I’ve been in the Lower Haight for 3 years.
H: And what brought you to the neighborhood.
J: (Laughs) Craigslist. And I started hanging out at the Cool Café (now it’s called Bean There). I ended up working there myself for two years and I got to know everyone in the neighborhood.
H: Are your parents artists as well?
J: No, but my uncles had a band until I was 12 years old.
H: Did you ever do any artwork for their band?
J: No, I got into art after they had finished playing music. But I did get all of their old records. I have a ton of Spanish rock and roll.
H: Is your family a big influence on your work?
J: Yes, I’m very inspired by my family and community. I am also inspired by laborers. I think a lot of my inspiration is unintentional, subconscious. When I look at all of my paintings I see similarities in theme.
H: Do you sell any of your paintings?
J: Every Friday I used to hang my paintings on the front gate of my house and some would be bought. But every Friday became too much. I’m thinking about selling my art every first Friday of the month.
H: Being next door to a bar you must get a lot of foot traffic in front of your place. Do you like living next door to Danny Coyle’s?
J: I don’t mind, It’s lively. Actually, I do like living here because people buy my art. Once, a drunk guy leaving the bar tried to impress the lady he was with and offered to buy her a painting. She picked the most expensive one.
H: Did he buy it?
H: Do people from the bar ever try and hang out on the patio?
J: Oh yeah. If they’re cool we’ll let them.
H: So tell me about some of the work you’ve done around the neighborhood. The most recognizable would probably have to be Jerry.
J: Yes, I painted Jerry Garcia on the door. I’ve had my work featured at Bean There twice and D-Structure has had my work up in their store once. Right now I’m working on a dog mural on Page and Fillmore. It’s a mural of dogs in the neighborhood.
H: Was it easy to find people willing to have their dogs painted on a wall?
J: Oh yeah, people were excited. They wanted their dogs up there. It’s such a dog neighborhood.
H: Have you noticed any changes in the neighborhood since you have moved in?
J: Yeah, the neighborhood has become more gentrified and I notice that there are more tourists. It’s still a mellow neighborhood though.
H: What’s your favorite place?
J: When it comes to food its between Al Fanoose for a falafel and Rosamunde for a duck and fig or a wild boar sausage with peppers and onions.
H: What would you like to see the neighborhood get?
J: Another sandwich spot. Deli style.
H: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Where can we go to get a look at more of your artwork?
J: You can check out my blog: JesusPenaloza.wordpress.com.
Haighteration: How long have you been in the neighborhood?
Michelle: Not long, I moved in August of 2011 from Oakland.
H: How do you like the Lower Haight?
M: I love it! The central locality, the abundance of shops and restaurants, the access to the Wiggle, all of the public transit. I was surprised by the community and all of the families.
H: You work with families. Tell us about what you do.
M: I work as a nanny and play therapist for children on the autism spectrum. I do a number of things. I shadow children at school, facilitate play dates, help bridge communication gaps between children on the spectrum and their peers, and support the child’s therapist through play therapy.
H: How did you get into this line of work?
M: Through theatre actually. I was touring with a children’s theatre company and I was so moved by the children in the group on the autistic spectrum. Once they understood how to act, where to stand, and the rest of the technicalities of theatre they were amazing. They gave 100%. Eventually an actor friend of mine got me work in a school with autistic children.
H: When you aren’t working with children what are you doing?
M: Well, I’m a classically trained singer and actor. I love championing new work. I have a wonderful network of friends, actors, dramaturges, directors, writers, musicians. I love getting creative people together and creating something that makes it to the stage.
H: What are you involved in right now?
M: I’m involved with an ongoing cabaret at Café Royale called the Kurt Weill Project with three other singers. I am also involved in an Oakland based interactive theatre called The Lucid Dream Lounge. It’s like a bohemian Cirque Du Soleil, so I will be singing and people will be doing aerial silks around me. That’s at The Vulcan in east Oakland. Recently Allison Lovejoy and I launched a recital/concert series. The repertoire depends on the event. On May 12th we performed at the SF Arts Festival where we sang French art songs and some of Allison’s original cabaret.
H: Wow, you must be on the go 24/7. Do you have any big projects coming up?
M: Yes, I’m so excited. On June 2nd I began rehearsals for Sweeney Todd. The show begins July 13th and it goes till August 11th. Sweeney Todd was the first show I ever saw when I was nine. My uncle took me.
H: Will he be seeing you in this production?
H: Are you allowed to tell us what character you’re playing?
M: Yes, I’m playing the Beggar Woman but I won’t say anything else in case you haven’t seen it.
H: Where will the show be performed?
M: Ray of Light Theatre is producing the show and it is going to be performed at the Eureka – tickets are already on sale.
H: Before we say goodbye, let’s find out about some of your favorite places in the Lower Haight.
M: I’m trying a gluten-free diet right now, but that notwithstanding, the veggie smoked duck sandwich at Love N Haight is amazing. Kate’s Kitchen is yummy for breakfast, and I spend a good deal of time at Bean There. If I am looking for fun I go to Molotov’s to play pool.
H: And what do you think the neighborhood could use?
M: Another vintage clothing store!
We’d like to give a special thanks to all three of our artists. Be sure to check out their work online and Michelle’s upcoming performances!