Why Alison OK Frost Doesn't Want to Paint Sad Paintings that Make You Cry

Alison OK Frost

This episode is dedicated to Bay Area artist Gary Hackett, who died suddenly. He was a good friend of Alison OK Frost, and this episode was postponed out of respect for her. We are grateful for Hackett’s presence in the Bay Area: an artist precariously housed and studiously generous with his time and care. It’s a little less colourful now, with him gone.

We go with realist painter and arts educator Alison OK Frost to the Mosswood Park homeless encampment in Oakland, California. Frost is interested in humanity and creativity; she paints from photographs taken of homeless encampment citizen architecture (tents, tarps, wheelchairs, trees, mannequins, and other artefacts of ingenuity). It’s a hot day and Jozefien is feeling really woozy.* We help Frost deliver socks and bottles of water to camp residents, make friends with an artist named Rose, and find out why Frost wants her daughter and her students to learn more about the “two Bay Areas.”

*Jozefien is pregnant with her daughter, Rosie Mae. She doesn’t know it yet!

Alison OK Frost's website: http://www.alisonokfrost.com
Alison on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/alisonok
East Oakland Burrito Roll on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/east_oakland_burrito_roll

What is Social Practice Art? 

Beautiful Online Thing: the 'Flower Bae' exhibition at General Hardware Contemporary


Listen to the episode

Transcription of Alison OK Frost's interview



SV: Svea Vikander (voiceovers in italics)

JB: Jozefien Buydens

AF: Alison OK Frost

NG: A nice guy we meet

R: Rose, his artist wife


SV: We meet Alison in a parking lot and I immediately start squealing because she's wearing these huge gold sunglasses over her regular prescription glasses. She looks amazing. And then we hop into her car…

AF: Yeah, I apologise for the smell

SV: No worries!

SV: And decide to go to Mosswood Park

[driving sounds]

JB: Where is that exactly?

AF: Oh, it's at 40th and Broadway


AF: And it's sort of an interesting case because they tend to get really really nice camps there, like, people who take a lot of pride in their tents and have a strong sense of community. But then every summer Burger Boogaloo does the big concert in the park and everyone gets kicked out. Which is a bummer because I feel like, well I don't know, I guess that’s just the problem that's happening right now in Oakland, where you know, how is public space used, you know? And can it be used for housing?

SV: Alison has an adorable daughter named Phoenix

AF: She started asking when we were driving around like, "Oh, look at those people camping, that's so fun!" And I had to explain to her that's actually not what's happening. And I've been taking her with me sometimes into the camps so she's getting to know some of the residents in a couple of the camps. For a while down on Shellmound this woman Cheyenne was measuring her height on the telephone pole when we would come by, but now, now that camp has been evicted…

SV: Mosswood Park is this green space in a kind of no man's land, partially connected to Piedmont and partially connected to the Kaiser Health Buildings

JB: Yay, parking karma!

AF: Yes!

SV: And once we get there we load up on the supplies that Alison has brought with her

AF: I've got three cases of water…

SV: She has a few flats of water and several bags of socks

JB: I'll put some in my bag.

SV: Side note: water is heavy

JB: Do you want me to carry that one? I have my right hand free

SV: [struggling] No no it's ok

AF: You sure?

[street sounds]

AF: We're walking into a grouping of maybe ten or a dozen tents and um, I don't see anyone hanging out just yet, let's walk over to these tents and see if anyone's around and if not, maybe just kind of put water bottles and socks sort of individually…

[motorcycle goes by]

AF: We're looking at a green and grey tent that has a silver tarp over it and has kind of a garden out front. There's potted plants and a makeshift vase. Umm..

SV: So at this time the Bay Area has been beset by multiple scooter rental companies. One of them is called "Bird"

SV: So this is like a debris pile here

AF: Yeah, and some of the camps--[chuckling] A Bird!

SV: And there's a dead one lying in some trash.

SV: There's a scooter in the debris pile. There's the remnants of a scooter in the debris pile!

JB: Oh yeah, I was really looking for a bird! But it's like, a scooter

AF: Oh yeah yeah

SV: She's like “Ha, ha! A dead bird! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

AF: Oh no no, I mean, I'm all for the food chain and all but no, it's a scooter. [to a man in the distance] Hey, how you doin’? I just left some water bottles and some socks in your, in your shopping cart. Yeah, no problem!

AF: [to microphone] Alright, so there's sort of a front entryway made of luggage and umbrellas? Um, and some maybe bible scriptures written on it. So let's just uh, I think I'm gonna take a couple of photographs of this tent and then we'll leave some... I, I really love this tent, the way this is set up. Because it, it just feels so idyllic with like the Adirondack chair and the planters out front. So I'm gonna take a couple pictures and then we can leave some water and socks over here...

Nice Guy: I mean, I have my own relationship with God and I'm sure you guys are like angels

SV: Then we meet a nice guy who says that his wife, who lives with him in a tent here

NG: My wife's an artist, too!

SV: ...Is also an artist. He says he'll introduce us to her. Her name is Rose.

NG: Hey, babe! Babe!

SV: Good morning!

NG: If you can wait one second, let me get her

AF: Yeah for sure, I'd love to meet her... My name is Alison

R: Hi Alison! Hey all


SV: Rose immediately offers Alison a beautiful hand woven wall hanging that she found in a Goodwill pay by the pound outlet

NG: That's a silk embroidery

AF: That's amazing

SV: Isn’t that wild, look it's all hand done!

AF: Oh I love that

JB: Wow

NG: That's for you, man. That's for your time

Rose: That's for you

AF: Thank you

NG: God bless you. It's not a one way street!

AF: I appreciate that

R: You're appreciated, all of you, very much so

AF: Thank you so much!

SV: This is amazing. Look at all these beautiful items

AF: I know. Should I describe it, or

SV: Yeah

JB: Yeah, sure!

AF: OK so I'm looking at a really beautiful hand-embroidered Chinese landscape, right? Isn't it? Or, or—

SV: Or Japanese?

AF: It's all embroidered. I have, I've never done anything like that so I can't speak to how it's made but it's really incredible

JB: I think it's woven and then some parts are, embroidered on top of it. Like the leaves here.

SV: Yeah, yeah, they're all embroidered

R: Here you go!

SV: So yeah, I mean, this is incredible.

JB: Yeah the leaves here are definitely embroidered

R: I like how they did this down here to make it look like the water is like—

JB: Yeah yeah

SV: It's like the ocean

R: Yeah totally

SV: Good eye, huh?

R: Yeah

SV: And also a mat to frame it in

AF: Thank you so much, why don't you sell this over on Piedmont avenue?

R: Because you're an artist and you will enjoy that

AF: OK…thank you

R: I get more enjoyment out of people smiling and being able to use it than just for the money

AF: Thank you, I appreciate that. Um, I've got some feminine products here…?

R: Oh I've got plenty

AF: Is there anything that you need, when I come back?

R: No, just...nothing.


R: Just a smile. Ha.

AF: We've got those

SV: You guys seem like such a sweet couple!

SV: Then we thank her, get back in the car, and look for someplace quieter to do the interview.

R: Alright, well you guys enjoy the weather!

JB: You too, bye!


AF: I...I would almost like welcome some criticism just because this feels like a, it's really easy for me to set myself up as some kind of like voice for people who are less privileged than me. If there's a way I could be doing it more responsibly or more ethically than I would definitely wanna know about it.


AF: So I grew up in LA, on the East Side. And I always did art and my parents are really supportive of that. So I was a pretty weird artsy kid and I would go through, we always had museum subscriptions and things like that. So I would go through the museum pamphlets and just ask my mom to take me, "Oh there's a Toulouse Lautrec movie at the LA County Art Museum this weekend, can we go to that?" when I was eight or nine and my mom was so sweet. She never said, "No, that's a super weird thing for a nine year old to ask," you know? She was really accommodating. So I've always been interested in art, I've always been encouraged.

I went to a public art high school in East LA and then UCLA which at the time was a very conceptual program. It was very unpopular to be a realist painter there. But I feel like that was kind of good for me because I really learned to defend, I learned to talk about why I was doing realist paintings from photographs, what that meant, and sort of define my process at a much younger age than a lot of artists. And then I got my graduate degree in New York at SVA, the School of Visual Arts, an art school in the Chelsea neighbourhood.

And I had this idea that I was gonna be a New York artist for the rest of my life. But after living in NY for 5 years I just wanted to be back in California. So, um, I ended up in the Bay Area. Yeah. And then actually my parents moved up here too because both of their children live here. [giggle]

JB: That's sweet!

SV: Are you close with our parents? Are either of them artists?

AF: My parents were both lawyers and my mom retired maybe 15 years ago and she's been doing brush painting ever since, and she's wonderful. She's really good. And my dad is not an artist but  he plays trumpet. Every day. And he did the whole time I was growing up. It's like when he wasn't at work he was making music. So they're like the responsible version of me. [laughter]

JB: And is your brother an artist?

AF: He's a lawyer

JB: Oh he's also a lawyer!

AF: Yeah, yeah

SV: So he's also the responsible version of you. [laughter]


JB: And once you arrived in the Bay Area how did your art practice take off?

AF: You know it always takes me a minute where I'm just processing life changes, so it took, it took me a little while to figure out what my art practice was and who my art community was. But I find in the Bay Area and in Oakland especially, artists are so welcoming. And they're not competitive the way artists in LA and especially New York can be. Like I feel like I was really welcomed. And I was right away invited to come draw with people and spend time with them. A lot of my work when I lived in NY was looking at how women were historically portrayed and just working in this really historical context and once I got here it's like I sort of switched gears and I wanted to make art more about what was going on around me. And kind of what I was seeing in the world and locally.

SV: It's a little hot in here

AF: My hot little car!

SV: OK it's a lot hot in here

JB: Isn't it insane how hot a car can get? Even when you are in the shade?

SV: Poor pregnant J-fine.


SV: And can you talk about this project and what it's called and…?

AF: Yeah in my head I just call it the Tent Paintings. I've been working on this for about a year. Although there was probably a year or two before that when I was trying to figure out what would be the best way to make, to make art about the problem of the unhoused. There is sort of a landscape in the Bay Area, I feel like, it's almost like there are two Bay Areas. There's sort of the, you know, Uber, Google, FaceBook, money landscape where everyone has apps to do these scavenger hunts and other ways of spending their money and fill their time.

And then that is completely separate from this other part of the landscape where people are really struggling and the success and prosperity brought on by tech and finance and financing tech, is pushing people further to the margins. And it seems almost like a whole segment of the population is becoming invisible. You know, just sort of thinking about landscape painting in terms of these two, these two landscapes being laid on top of each other. Was something I wanted to work with for a long time before I actually started making the work.


AF: Maybe a year and a half ago or something like that, I was driving by—actually, Mosswood—and there was this grey building, one of the Kaiser Buildings and there was an orange tent against it and the way that the grey kind of activated the orange was really exciting to me and I thought that would make a really great painting.

But I didn't feel right kind of, you know, hopping out of my car and taking a picture of someone's tent without them knowing. So I came back a few weeks later with water and socks and, um, so that I could ask permission. And talk to people and not feel for myself like I was being exploitive. Taking the aesthetic qualities of the landscape without giving anything back.

And you guys came with me to Mosswood Park today so you, you saw that a lot of my process: I start out wanting to go to the camps and take a tonne of pictures and then go back to my studio and have a bunch of material for paintings. But what ends up happening is I start talking to people and I get a lot more interested in that process! And then it ends up that I have to go back, take more pictures, and I kind of like that though, because I end up making connections with people.

This last year I started doing some interviews and talking to people about their experience and how they ended up living in the encampments and what their experience of the encampments was like and I think moving forward I would really like to do some portraits. We've ben talking a lot about portraying the ‘other’. What I really don't wanna do is do paintings of people looking sad, or looking something where I can create a catharsis experience for people in the art world who might feel like they're not doing enough. Because I don't think it's about catharsis for people who have everything that they need or close to everything they need. I think it's more about presenting, presenting the humanity and the beauty of the people who are living in this other way right now.

JB: I saw on Instagram that you've also been drawing and painting the rescuers from the fires... Is that also something that you're thinking of as a project or is that something that's..?

AF: Yeah yeah, so I got a few of those in progress. It's such a crazy time to live in California. In the fall you know, we had fires and it was hard for everyone to breathe. And! And the light got so interesting. I don't, you know, this is a problem I have, I look at these terrible tragic things and I see so much beauty in the colours [laughter]

JB: Yeah the sun gets really amazing

SV: I don't know if that's terrible

AF: Yeah yeah, there was just this rosy quality to the light and I really like Chinese landscape painting. Rather than using like a one or two point perspective, they're using atmospheric perspective. So everything that's further away from you, it's in fog. And you see a lot of that with pictures of the rescuers from the Camp Fire and the, you know, the search and rescue teams.


JB: Are you, you're always working with watercolour. right?

AF: I think watercolour works a lot better with my style and subject matter but I think...

SV: So why were you using acrylic then, for the tents?

AF: Well, I taught a colour theory class in, last spring. And I got so excited about the acrylic colours I was getting that I just wanted, I just wanted to work with acrylics for a while honestly. Sometimes when I'm teaching I just get so excited! [laughter]

SV: In doing this project, this Tent Painting project. What do you like most about the, I guess, what do you like most about your studio?

AF: OK, so...

SV: Loosely interpreted, I guess, like do what you want with the question

AF: Well I'm used to the studio practice being really lonely and isolated. And it's kind of, it's been really nice actually to have a studio practice that involves a lot of being outside and talking to people and just being sort of engaged with other people. I've gotten more interested, too, in sort of the in-between, I've been going more to train cars, i mean, to the train yards, and doing drawings like on tankers and things like that. Just because I like, you know I like the spontaneity and I like the being outdoors and it's, I just feel like my practice has really been changing through this process.

JB: Yeah so then our question is usually like what would you change about your studio space?

AF: Ok?

JB: But maybe in this case...

SV: I mean, I suppose if there were not homelessness, that

AF: Yes, I mean, I think that the best thing would be if I didn't feel the need to be an artist at all because the world was going so well. That everyone had what they needed. And um, yeah, if there wasn't, if there was, if I didn't have to do this project, or if I didn't feel like I had to do this project, that would be my ideal. If the city and state and even FEMA could step in and create like a basic, a base line quality of living in this country. That would, that would be my ideal studio practice.

SV: Would you consider this a social practice project?

AF: I don't have an answer. But I think it's interesting, which part is the art? Is the art the finished paintings? Or is the art the practice of going out and talking to people and recording their experience? Or at least talking to them about their experience? Because if that's the art and the paintings are just a remnant then it's definitely a social practice. And it's also interesting that a lot of the people who are interested in these paintings are more interested in what's being depicted than how, how it's depicted. And I've, had a lot of interest from people who are working more on the activist side. They're not a great money maker [laughter] I'm definitely spending more money on socks than I'm making! But that feels OK for right now. I mean, I have a couple teaching jobs, so.

JB: Would you consider starting to work for social practice organisations to make it happen?

SV: You mean like social justice?

JB: Yeah, that's what I meant, social justice.

AF: You mean rather than be an artist, be an activist?

JB: Or maybe both, instead of teaching you would be in social justice

AF: I've worked in the nonprofit world in galleries before and it's very exhausting. So I'm not sure, I'm not sure I'm up for it right now. Maybe someday. I also really get a lot out of teaching. I teach high school. They're fourteen and fifteen and I don't think I'm ready to give up hanging out with teenagers and trying, just the challenge of finding artwork and creating projects that makes art accessible to their lives. I teach a really diverse student body. I'm just not ready to give that up.

JB: Would you go with your students to the camps?

AF: I did take a group of students to the Albany Bulb a few years ago, back when that was a massive encampment. We were ostensibly there gathering sour grass and other botanicals that we could use to make paints. But in actuality I really wanted to expose my students to how people were living and have them talk to people and get that experience as well.