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Color Is Pure Feeling: Paintings by Dennis Conkin, Opening Reception

The Tenderloin Museum is pleased to present a collection of new work by painter Dennis Conkin. The eight abstract canvases on display are the fruits of his largely self-taught painting practice, developed over three decades living in the heart of the Tenderloin, and communicate the artist’s emotional relationships with color. Conkin is well known in the neighborhood for his work as a community activist and as a reporter for The Tenderloin Times, focusing on issues of homelessness, AIDS, and mental disability when few would. As such, his non-representational paintings strike an intriguing counterpoint to the linear, narrative nature of chronicling the news. “Art is the story of humanity’s quest for love and awareness, for insight and understanding about our lives,” Conkin told the Tenderloin Museum. “Art is also ecstatic celebration, belonging to no one, and, fundamentally, art saves lives.”


Conkin hit the TL in 1984 when he was 32 years old, “sleeping in shelters, living on the street. You know… just living in the Tenderloin.” However, he swiftly found that he had a vital role to play in the community. A lifelong writer and painter, Conkin fancied himself a poet and was drawn to a community journalism class. He displayed an innate talent and, by the end of the year, was on assignment for The Tenderloin Times. His first published article, covering the opening of Boedeker Park, is on display as part of the Tenderloin Museum’s special exhibition, Voice of the City: The Tenderloin Times, 1977-94. Over his career at The Tenderloin Times and later the Bay Area Reporter, Conkin broke many stories, and his advocacy led to the founding of the Tenderloin Self-Help Center and the Tenderloin AIDS Network.


As someone who lives with mental and physical disabilities, Conkin possessed a sensitivity to those marginalized issues and broke new ground in local reporting through his coverage on mental illness, homelessness, poverty, and the overlooked Tenderloin neighborhood. There is an acute sensitivity present in Conkin’s parallel craft of painting as well. “Painting is emotion. Color is about the heart. The way I arrange color, deal with color, is pure feeling to me,” said Conkin. “A lot of what my job is as a painter is trying to communicate my internal experience to another.” Impactful community journalism and a robust, expressive painting practice share more than an empathetic, communicative nature. “I guess you could say I am an investigative painter,” laughed Conkin, “ but I think the synergy is that in investigative reporting, there is often a sense of urgency because you’re writing about some crisis. When I paint, I find my best work comes out of a sense of urgency. Not a pressure, but a need to share an internal state. I want to share that awareness.”


Conkin paints in his home of 30 years, located on the lobby floor of a converted SRO on McAllister St. “I guess I’m stable,” chuckles Conkin, yet he is anything but stagnant. That sense of urgency pervades his studio space, prolific output, and even extends to his materials. He has no patience for oils; instead, he prefers acrylics: “I can’t wait 3 days for oil to dry--I need instant gratification!” While studio space is tight, the afternoon light coming over the backyard from the Dorothy Day Community retirement home makes ideal light to paint by. Conkin identifies strongly as an Abstract Expressionist although he derived his practice with no formal training--an intuitive, compulsory painter. He admires the work of Lee Krasner, Sister Corita Kent, Sam Francis, and Frank Stella.

Always dedicated to furthering his craft, Conkin has been exploring a newfound interest in color theory. “Returning to the color wheel, understanding the relationships between colors, all the technicalities... all the stuff I didn’t get when I didn’t go to art school” said Conkin. This collection on display in the Museum’s gallery are from a recent, prolific period during which Conkin was reconnecting with “spending the rest of my life on art.” The exhibition “Color Is Pure Feeling” opens on Thursday, February 1st, coinciding with SF First Thursday Art Walk. The artist will be present and light refreshments will be served. Please join us in “ecstatic celebration” of Dennis Conkin’s work.


This event is part of Voice of the Central City: The Tenderloin Times, 1977-94, an exploration of the Tenderloin’s past as seen through two decades of reporting by the trailblazing neighborhood newspaper, The Tenderloin Times. Created in collaboration with community historian and former Times Editor Sara Colm, this exhibition will showcase a number of the publication’s rare archival images, articles, and political cartoons documenting our vibrant community during the pivotal years of 1977-1994.

The Tenderloin Times had its start in August 1977 when three homeless men mimeographed 150 copies of the first edition from the basement of Hospitality House. Over the next 17 years, The Times grew into an award-winning newspaper with a circulation of 15,000 that was published in four languages – English, Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian. As the nation’s first four-language newspaper, it was recognized in 1991 by the Smithsonian Institution for its groundbreaking use of desktop publishing technology (thanks to a donation from Apple computers) to produce the polyglot paper.

Exhibition Run: November 2nd, 2017 - March 30th, 2018

Earlier Event: January 25
Member Appreciation Party
Later Event: February 16
Drag Queen Bingo Fundraiser