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Alysanne McGaffey (1931-2018)

  • Alysanne McGaffey was a part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the late 1950s and early 60s, while studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. The name of this art movement defines a segment of the area's art production in the mid 20th century. Seen romantically at times, the period remains important in the history of American art.

    In the late 1940s and 50s, the art world had shifted its attention from a devastated and demoralized Europe to the aggressively vital New York scene with the work of the Abstract Expressionists. The culture was questioning Old World principles, emphasizing an inward looking personal expression and a rejection of the grayed landmark of the "Silent Generation". Artist on both coasts were developing new styles.

    On the West Coast, specifically The San Francisco Art Institute and the school’s surrounding neighborhood, North Beach, were the center of this cultural renaissance. It was here that this Bay Area style began to emerge, taking the expressionists' gestural handling of paint, often thickly applied, and merging it with figurative subject matter. They had worked their way through the crucible of cubism, found it wanting and began to reexamine the figure. Painters such as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Hassel Smith, and Richard Diebenkorn were the first generation of figurative painters, a movement spanning nearly two decades. Amidst this scene, McGaffey was developing as a painter, honing her craft.

    Her subject matter and her expressive, loose, and deliberate brushstrokes firmly placed her in this movement. The school's art supply store in the basement was a favorite hangout where one could exchange ideas about the things in materials and techniques. Her palette included Alizarin Crimson, Prussian blue and Cadmium Yellow, generally from Bay City Company’s paint line. Some of the paintings and drawings in our collection are from McGaffey's body of work created during the 50s and 60s. Images include portraits of significant figures of the art scene, including Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo and Flo Allen.

    McGaffey began her studies at the Art Institute in the mid 1950s. She studied with such prominent artists as Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo, Bill Brown, Joan Brown, Dorr Bothwell, Manuel Neri, Walter Kuhlman, Nathan Olivera, James Weeks, Fred Martin, Ivan Madijrkoff and James Budd Dixon. Gregory Bateson taught Scientific Method and Fred Martin opened up Art History for her. The artists/instructors often adopted an informal teaching style, encouraging their students to learn by doing, working out visual problems independently. As McGaffey explains,” You were really forced to come to terms with your own ideas of craft, get excited about doing it, the act of painting ; not talking about it, analyzing the thing to death." San Francisco’s bohemian society was small enough so that the various disciplines could interact; painters and poets, actors and writers frequently partied together, arguing “great bones of contention”. After a full day of work in the Financial District, she would take an art class, do life drawing with a small group of her fellows from the SFAI, or worked at home on printmaking projects.

    At the Grand Opening of the new Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley, McGaffey recalls seeing her first David Park painting: "He had done a backdrop for the world premiere of Dario’s Milhaud’s "Orpheo". The backdrop was a very large canvas, a gold lyre on a rich brown field. The work and the configuration of events were and still are very charged for me. It is close in feeling to the way I still relate to Rothko's painting; that a simple painting could speak so deeply to the inner person, the psyche, amazing."

    Alysanne was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, surrounded by the wild grandeur of the Pacific Northwest. The natural world has always been a great source of wonder and inspiration for her art and spirituality. She has made her home and studio in Pacifica on the San Mateo Coast. While living in San Francisco, Alysanne found ways to vacation, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to paint in West Marin and on Mount Tam, accompanied by her two poodles. As a child, she enjoyed working with wood and clay. She began her education at the University of Washington in journalism, studied with Ray Du Pen and exhibited plaster cast sculptural carvings at the school. Shortly after she moved to San Francisco, as she says: "to write the great American novel". Socializing with a group of progressive Catholic artists and writers, she was strongly encouraged to pursue art rather than writing. While working full time in the financial district, she enrolled at the Art Institute. Receiving many awards for her works, she was given a scholarship after her first quarter. Over the years she developed as an artist, attending many of the important art schools of the Bay Area; College of Arts and Crafts, the Academy of Art, UC Berkeley and UC B Extension. She completed her Bachelors degree at the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, and went on to complete an MFA in painting at the University of San Francisco (formerly Lone Mountain College).

    After completing extensive course work in art history and science, her focus turned to the education of others. She received a Community College Instructor in Art Certificate from San Francisco State University, completing a student teacher internship at two local community colleges. McGaffey helped found the Infant Development Center of San Francisco in 1978. She continues to teach art and painting; for the last several decades focusing on watercolor. She has had numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout her career, is heavily involved in various art organizations, holding offices in several, among them: the Coastal Arts League, Pacifica's Cultural Arts Commission, the Peninsula Chapter of Women's Caucus for Art, The Peninsula Arts Council (formerly ARTshre of San Mateo County) and the Peninsula Museum of Art.

    In our most recent group acquisition, the artist herself curated a group of watercolors depicting a lifelong devotion to the Pacific Ocean and its remarkable vistas.  McGaffey's roots in the Bay Area Figurative Movement are still palpable - in palette, stroke, and vibrancy; reminding us of the inherent similarities between the human figure and its environment. With titles such as "Sonoma Coast" and "Rockaway Beach", one can trace McGaffey's Bay Area route of inspiration.  Its effects are translated into vignettes of a coastal life, and ultimately, a life lead in pursuit of natural beauty.
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