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Joan Brown in her Studio, 1980


Joan Brown in her studio with "Portrait of Toby the Cat," 1980. Image courtesy the George Adams Gallery archives, photo: J. Martin.

I began making annual trips to visit the gallery artists on the West Coast beginning in the mid-'80s. Many on the roster at that time were in the Bay Area, including Arneson, Brown, De Forest, Hudson, Shaw and Wiley. As up till then I would only see these artists in person on their infrequent trips to NY, I was still largely unfamiliar to them even after several years working at the gallery. Despite my initial trepidation, those trips were marked by many encounters that have left me with some very warm memories.


My typical itinerary began after an evening arrival at SFO with the Shaws in Fairfax. Richard and I would stay up very late over beers and I slept in the converted chicken coop (quite nice actually). The next day’s business, after an understandably late start, was a visit to Bob Hudson’s studio in Cotati followed by dinner and an overnight with collectors Rene and Veronica di Rosa in Carneros.  The peacocks would wake me at dawn and I’d spend the day with Rene until it was time to head to Benicia for martinis and a dog walk with Bob followed by dinner with the Arneson family. After a leisurely morning lingering over good coffee with Bob and Sandy, I’d head across the Carquinez Bridge to see the De Forests in Port Costa and then drive into San Francisco for a studio visit and an overnight at Joan Brown and Mike Hebel’s home on Cameo Way. My last day would be spent visiting with the local dealers along with a stop at SFMoMA or the deYoung before catching a late night flight home.


I remember in particular two visits with Joan, the first having to do with her cat Toby. 


Joan and I were at her home/studio on Cameo Way looking at her most recent group of paintings destined for her next show with us in New York. She had pulled several large canvases out and we were talking about them when Toby appeared in the doorway. Initially I didn’t pay much notice, but after a while I realized that as each of us spoke he turned his attention to one then the other of us. It finally became unnerving and I interrupted Joan to point this out, telling her that Toby reminded me of a spectator at a tennis match.


Joan, unimpressed, casually replied that Toby understood everything we were saying and with that, continued our conversation. As did Toby's following of it. After a few minutes I concluded that Joan was correct: by every indication not only Toby did indeed understand us but, given his focused attention, would have added to it significantly had we only been able to understand him. 


In 1980 Joan painted a portrait of Toby, one of several depictions of her many pets over the years. In this large-scale painting he is posed regally, front and center against a brilliant red ground.


The other visit took place in August of 1990, also at Cameo Way following a visit to her then-new studio on Yosemite. While we waited for her husband Mike Hebel to come from work Joan offered me a glass of wine. I readily accepted, so she directed me to the space behind her painting wall, telling me to just pick anything I wanted.


I went to do so and quickly ascertained that she had an amazing collection of French and California wines dating back to the early 60s. I was stunned. I told Joan that I knew these were incredible bottles and that I could not just casually select one. Joan shrugged and explained that she was allergic to sulfites and could no longer enjoy them – but that I should. She insisted, adding that no one else was going to drink them if I didn’t.


Overcoming my hesitation, I did finally select a David Bruce Petit Syrah from 1962. I felt very guilty having a bottle like that to myself but also very excited. Graciously Joan opened the bottle, or tried to: the cork disintegrated. And then like an old pro, Joan then pulled out a coffee filter and a mason jar and began to slowly pour the wine. After the jar was half full she poured some into a glass and handed it to me to taste. Not surprisingly, it had turned. 


Joan quickly suggested I go grab another bottle. That seemed to me to be the height of decadence so I declined and suggested that we wait and give it some time.


As we chatted in the kitchen the wine did gradually begin to improve, slowly opening up, so that by the time Mike arrived home it had become even better than just drinkable. We had plans to go out to dinner but before we left Joan was sure to put the lid on the jar and left it on the counter.


The next day as I was preparing to leave Joan reminded me, "don’t forget your wine!" and handed me the mason jar, which I happily packed into my shoulder bag.


I recently came across my note to Joan following my visit, thanking her for her hospitality:


“When I got out to the airport that Thursday night, my plane was delayed for an hour or so. I didn’t mind that much, however, as I had the Sunday Times crossword puzzle to finish AND half a mason jar of David Bruce’s finest! I got some strange looks, but that was a very, very good bottle of wine for which I cannot thank you enough.”


As it happened, Joan left for India shortly thereafter, so while it was in many way my best visit with her, it was also my last.