A San Francisco Houseboat That Once Hosted Jack Kerouac and Maya Angelou Is Now an Artist Residency

  • Photo by Erea Azurmendi.

In a quiet bay off the coast of San Francisco, a boat rocks unassumingly. Its weathered hull doesn’t look like a haven for the last century’s most radical artists. But history reveals otherwise.

In the 1940s, Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford and avant-garde artist Jean Varda transformed the former passenger ferry, dubbed the SS Vallejo, into their studio, and docked it permanently. Not long after, Allen Ginsberg would read his searing poems onboard. Agnès Varda made an experimental film there. Beat generation writer Jack Kerouac was rumored to have built a fence on the dock during a drunken frenzy. And sculptor Ruth Asawa, painter Lee Mullican, and poet Maya Angelou shared ideas and gleaned inspiration inside.

But the SS Vallejo’s relationship with art didn’t end there. Today, the boat’s role as a creative sanctuary is being resurrected through an unconventional residency, called Varda.

  • Photo by Erea Azurmendi.

“As humans, when we discover a place with such magic, we feel responsible for it—we take care of it,” the residency’s founder, Carla Gullichsen, tells me one sunny afternoon over Skype. Bay water shimmers through the window behind her.

Gullichsen happened upon the boat five years ago. She had recently arrived in northern California after a long-term stay in Japan. There, while living in a small village that she describes as spiritual, she made a list of life goals. They included living in a big house surrounded by creative people, being close to the sea, finding a serious partner, and owning a cat. She left these wishes in a temple in Taiwan “to let their energy cook,” she laughs.

Not long after, Gullichsen attended a dinner party on a houseboat—the SS Vallejo—outside of San Francisco. There, she met her future husband, who told her about the boat’s history as a hotbed for creative and intellectual collaboration. Before long, they were making arrangements to bring artists back on board. (They acquired a cat, too.)

  • Photo by Erea Azurmendi.

  • Photo by Erea Azurmendi.

The day I speak to Gullichsen, three artists are working and living on the boat: a textile designer, a printmaker, and a digital artist. Like each of the 40 residents Gullichsen has invited to the boat since 2015, they’re given a bedroom and studio space (together, their “cabin”)—plus a box of local produce each week, and personal views of the Bay. “Then, we just give them a key to the boat and free them,” Gullichsen says, smiling.

The concept of artistic freedom lies at the core of Varda’s mission. There are no requirements to make or present work while on board. Instead, artists are free to craft the experience they desire from the SS Vallejo, and its unusual surroundings—the sea, fishermen, fellow creatives, and perhaps even the ghosts of artists past.

“The most important aspect of the residency is autonomy—and respect and appreciation for everyone’s intellect,” says Gullichsen. “When we grant freedom, without trying to control people’s actions and thoughts, it means we believe in their capacities.”

And while Gullichsen doesn’t set expectations around the work artists make or how they interact with other residents, rituals and patterns have developed over the past two years. Namely, a strong spirit of friendship and collaboration has emerged.

  • Photo by Erea Azurmendi.

Brooklyn-based textile and fashion designer and painter Caroline Kaufman, a recent SS Vallejo resident, had planned to focus her time at Varda on a series of paintings inspired by site-specific colors and shapes. But after experiencing Varda, she found that it was “just as much about soaking in inspiration, reading, and doing research, as about producing work,” she says. Kaufman dedicated her time to generating new ideas, knitting textile swatches, and “sharing laughs and conversation with the other artists on the boat,” in equal measure.  

While sometimes the collaborations are tangible—“maybe one will help another’s film, for instance,” says Gullichsen—most are more organic, based on an exchange of ideas, as in Kaufman’s case.

Mexican performance artist Claudia Cisneros, an early 2017 resident, found inspiration not only through the other artists on the SS Vallejo, but also from those who forged the boat’s artistic beginnings.

  • Photo by Erea Azurmendi.

During her time at Varda, Cisneros became fascinated by her new home’s past, and the creative energy that seemed to linger in its cabins and common spaces. Carvings left in the boat’s walls by Jean Varda and accounts of Onslow Ford’s, Angelou’s, and philosopher Alan Watts’s experiences there “really made me feel the time and significance of that place,” Cisneros explained. By the end of her residency, she’d written a text and completed a performative dinner inspired by Varda and its history.

Gullichsen only invites artist who, after extensive research, she believes are not only “extraordinarily talented” but also excited by, and respectful of, SS Vallejo’s unique structure and story, which she describes as both “abnormal” and “magical.”

There is no open call for applications. When the letter arrives offering a place at the residency, “they make you feel chosen,” says  Cisneros. “And in a way, I think the boat does choose us.”

—Alexxa Gotthardt

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