On a typical overcast July day in 2003, Kevin Brown, a retired international airline pilot turned artist, was strolling along in North Beach and noticed a “For Rent” sign at 1345 Grant Avenue. It was the site of an old neighborhood landmark, Figoni Hardware, which had occupied the premises since the early 1900s but had gone out of business. Brown needed a place to paint and display his impressionistic and abstract oils and acrylics – bold canvases with a lot of built-in tension.
“I found the owner and took a look at the place. It was perfect, a large deep space with a very high ceiling,” he recalls. He made a deal on the spot and a few days later brought his stuff over and moved in. While rummaging around and cleaning the place, he found a small black slate blackboard. On it in chalk were the words, “‘Live’ Worms.” Remember the days when hardware stores sold live bait?
What a great name for my gallery, he thought at the time.
So Brown, who had retired in 1996 after more than 30 years as a 747 captain with Pan Am and Delta, put the “Live” Worms blackboard in the window and hung some of his own paintings on the walls. They were wildly leaping abstracts with heavy strokes and squiggles and splashes of intense color. Almost immediately he began selling his work, which at that point he called, “old-fashioned modernism.”
Now, eight years later, Live Worms is a popular hangout on upper Grant Avenue, and Brown is a well-recognized North Beach character in a neighborhood overflowing with loopy artistic types. Not only is this modest and mild-mannered artist showing and selling his own work for $500 to $5,000 or more, but he makes his gallery space available to other artists and charges them a small fee – $150 per day weekdays, $250 per day weekends, and $750 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If they sell any of their work, which they almost always do, Brown doesn’t dip into their pockets for a commission. That’s almost unheard of in the high-powered art world.
Soon Live Worms began attracting artists, who came not only from North Beach, but also from all around Northern California. Suddenly there was an art scene on upper Grant Avenue where once the Beats had gathered to drink red wine, recite poetry to jazz backgrounds, and to celebrate their benevolent, but urgent lifestyles. Today the old neighborhood is renewing itself and once again becoming a center for artistic expression. Other galleries, live music and unusual shops are cropping up and attracting a lot of foot traffic. To suggest that Live Worms is providing a high dose of cultural nutrients to a reviving North Beach is not an overstatement.
Now a youthful 73, Brown has been exercising his creative juices with paint and brushes since he was a kid – with time out in the cockpit of course. His father was a U.S. Navy officer and the family moved around a lot. When young Kevin attended Arizona State University on a scholarship, he majored in art, but not believing he could make a living as an artist, he also took pilot training and then spent five years in the U.S. Air Force. Well, one thing led to another and that led to Pan Am and Delta.
Yes, we all know retired airline pilots are not particularly known for being eccentric free spirits who open art galleries and have smudges of paint on their pants. But Brown made that unlikely transition. He executed a 180-degree power turn from using the left side of his brain to using the right side. Mathematicians and airline pilots use the left side and artists and dreamers,
the right side. Everybody knows that, right?
So this eccentric and brainy left-side-right-side guy has led a somewhat skewed life, and now he’s moving on from the “old-fashioned modernism” of his earlier work and is painting what he likes to refer to as “eccentric skewed rectangles.”
On a recent afternoon, Brown was in the gallery taping burlap to its white walls and applying more tape to create his skewed rectangles into which he happily splashed gobs of acrylic. Technically, he acknowledges, these shapes should be called quadrilaterals, but Brown prefers “Eccentric Skewed Rectangles” and that’s what he’s calling his one-man show of this new work, set to open Friday, March 18 in Live Worms. “You can just call it the ‘Skewed Rectangles’ show if you want to,” he says.
I like to think of Kevin Brown not only as the Skewed Rectangle Guy, but also as the Gertrude Stein of North Beach. If that’s a reach for you, try this: Brown has become an important benefactor of artistic expression in the old North Beach neighborhood just as Stein was in Paris. Brown operates an art gallery called Live Worms on upper Grant Avenue. Stein operated a salon in 1920s Paris. Now if we could only bring back Allen Ginsberg to give a reading of Howl at Live Worms.
Ernest Beyl is a North Beach writer who likes to hang out at Live Worms. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org