This Oakland artist life unfold and captures its essence in her art.
For Oakland painter Lynn McGeever, becoming an artist was not a choice but something she just had to do. And as an artist, her aim is capturing the essence of her subject matter, of life as it unfolds, whether through figure studies, landscapes, or abstract works.
McGeever creates such art in an art studio in the Montclair district of Oakland that was originally one of the cottages built for San Francisco residents to escape the cold and fog. Her studio is small but provides exceptional light, and from the deck she can watch the weather coming through the Golden Gate Bridge.
Growing up in Hope Ranch, an area outside Santa Barbara, McGeever spent her days riding horses along the cliff sides and beaches. Coming to the Bay Area for college, she completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies at UC Berkeley under the tutelage of Elmer Bischoff, one of the original Bay Area Figurative painters. She was also influenced by sculpture icon Peter Voulkos, whom McGeever described as having pushed the boundaries of ceramics into a fine art form. “It was a very exciting and wild time. The Vietnam War protests raged in Berkeley, and my roommate, who was a psychology major, investigated LSD as a potential medical therapeutic method when LSD was still legal,” she said. After college, McGeever relocated to Denver, Colorado, where she helped start an artist co-op then later moved to Ketchum, Idaho, to work as an artist and co-direct the art gallery for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. “At that time, the Sun Valley Center had an internationally recognized summer art program. We brought in internationally known artists including Christo, William Wiley, and Joseph Raphael,” McGeever said.
In 1986, McGeever moved to the Bay Area with her husband in search of a bigger, more vibrant art scene. The couple moved to the East Bay for the weather and because parks in the East Bay hills welcome dogs off leash. The two settled into an artists’ loft building on Ford Street in Oakland, the first studios of Jingletown. To move into the building, McGeever had to submit an artist portfolio along with a résumé verifying that she was a working artist. Her application was juried by the artists in the building. At that time, Jingletown was filled with heavy manufacturing — plating plants and metal pouring factories. McGeever recalled that walking her dog at night through the streets was an eerie but beautiful sight, with dark, deserted streets and huge warehouses pouring liquid metal into enormous vats late into the night.
McGeever remembered an unforgettable welcome to her studio. “Our loft was on the fourth floor and there was no elevator. To move our heavy things in, we rigged up a pulley system to haul up our furniture. Our artist neighbors leaned out windows and cheered us on, helped us move, and invited us to a party in another loft space that evening,” she said. The loft she had leased was raw space with a rudimentary bathroom and kitchen. “Everything was old, rough, and filthy — but it was big,” McGeever said. With 16-foot ceilings and 2,000 open square feet of space, McGeever would roller skate while working on her paintings. For months, she and her husband worked to improve the space by sanding and painting floors, ceilings, and beams and installing a more functional kitchen. The first two winters were very cold and there was no heat, so the two dressed in down jackets, long underwear, and hats inside. When McGeever became pregnant, the couple was forced to figure out how to pay for and install a wall heater in the loft themselves.
Eventually moving out of the space with their daughter to a house with a yard in Montclair, McGeever said some of her closest artist friends today are those she met during those times. “We call ourselves ‘The Ford Street Girlz,’ and for 34 years, we have buoyed and supported each other to continue making and showing our art,” McGeever said. In October 1991, the Montclair house burned in the Oakland hills fire and all her and her husband’s artwork was destroyed.
Just about everything inspires McGeever to create. When she hikes in the East Bay hills, she said she is stimulated by the shapes that the shadows in oak groves create, the pungent smell of bay laurel, and the slant of sunbeams streaming through redwood trees. In the urban environment, the sight of pomegranates stacked at the farmers market or the curve of the chin on the person sitting next to her on the BART train will instigate a new series of work. As for particular mentors or influences, McGeever particularly like painters who push paint around in a lush way, especially artists Willem de Kooning, Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, and Joan Brown.
Days in the studio vary for the painter depending on what needs to be done. Working from live sketches, never photographs, prep work begins. For her Boundary Crossings series, she works from sketches collected while flying in airplanes of intriguing aerial views and patterns. McGeever also never tires of painting the human figure and works with a live model once a week. “Once I decide on the particular theme, prepping the substrate is a huge part of my creative process. I stretch canvas the size I feel is best for each piece. Gessoing, sanding, and getting the panel ready to accept the paint is important,” she said. Next, she decides on the color palette that pleases her and begins to paint, often working on multiple canvases to keep things fresh and active. McGeever’s pieces range in size within a 3-foot to 6-foot range as it gives her a chance to use her arm to fully move the paint around but still fit in her small studio. Ultimately, what drives her work is achieving a sense of awe and beauty for the environment and the people in it.
In her spare time, McGeever enjoys riding her horse Bingo and hiking with her dog Zoe in the East Bay hills. She also skis and scuba dives. “I like to travel with my husband and always draw or paint while we are on the go. Last year I went on safari in Africa and I just recently got back from rafting the Colorado in the Grand Canyon,” she said. McGeever’s work was most recently shown at Gray Loft Gallery in Jingletown in Oakland in December. She will be showing new work at the gallery in spring 2020. For more information, visit her website at LynnMcGeever.com.