Spirits of the City

A Spirited Collab Between Paul Madonna and Gary Kamiya

By Nob Hill Gazette

Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna.

When acclaimed artists working in different mediums — journalist, historian and bestselling author Gary Kamiya (Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco) and award–winning artist Paul Madonna (All Over Coffee) — joined forces in early 2019 to create the illustrated storytelling series Spirits of the City for the Gazette, a unique collaboration was born. This month, the duo celebrates the debut of the book Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City (Bloomsbury Publishing).

Based on their beloved Gazette feature, the 224-page hardback tome tells untold San Francisco tales via Kamiya’s eloquent historical knowledge, complemented by Madonna’s poetic illustrations. On the eve of the much-anticipated book launch, we checked in with the authors to learn more about their collaborative process.

Is the book’s genesis visual or literary?

Paul: My drawings are new work, reported by Gary. He’d send a list of ideas, asking me to source a site. I’d do the same, telling Gary I was dying to draw some corner with a crazy building, like the Rock House [at Mariposa and Utah streets]. Gary researched and wrote the untold stories. We even scouted together driving around the City. Gary would be telling great stories, then just as quickly, tell me to pull over so we could check out a spot.

Gary: Some ideas were good but didn’t work visually, like Nobby Clarke’s Folly on Caselli and Douglass in Eureka Valley. It’s the largest, most bizarre Victorian in San Francisco. But when light hits it, the shadows wash out. Paul is a real artist and can’t pretend to see shadows. So we swapped in the more famous Haas-Lilienthal House, which also has amazing stories.

How do two artists, accustomed to working solo, collaborate?

Paul: Spirits is 50-50, the most collaborative work I’ve ever done. Working with Gary was a perfect dance; we have great respect for each other. Our choices are determined by ‘Will this work?’ as opposed to, ‘I want this.’ My previous Gazette feature, Quotable City, was drawing San Francisco scenes with female-influenced stories. But the research became way too much. I approached Gary (then executive editor of San Francisco Magazine) to collaborate on the Gazette’s new Spirits series in conjunction with making a book. We met in my studio where I was working on a large San Francisco-scape. Gary immediately identifies its details, with stories about each spot. What takes me three months of research, Gary tells in just two minutes.

Gary: The oversize nature of the Gazette and the quality of paper is really special for our work. You don’t get that everyday in publishing. And working with Paul was just total fun zany times, like illegally entering places we weren’t supposed to be. We share similar, slightly twisted sensibilities. We both love the quirky, offbeat, very personal elements of San Francisco. It was a match made in heaven. A lot of our stories are serendipitous: We’d drive around, looking for the sweet spot between a great story and a great visual.

And what’s it like to publish a book in the time of COVID?

Gary: In April, the shutdown was still in place but we hadn’t gone to press. I realized we had an opportunity to address this health pandemic. So I wrote a preface (“Deserted City of the Heart”) and Paul agreed to create another drawing. It would’ve been a missed opportunity to have a fall book about a major world city launch in 2020 and not mention this calamity.

Paul: I think Spirits will be a perennial book. Fast-forward 10, 20 years, this contemporary preface will be part of history for the future. And that in-the-moment story will resonate for people who lived through this time — but may not have experienced other eras in Spirit.

Three favorite San Francisco spots?

Gary: Land’s End is the most spectacular natural walk in San Francisco city limits. Very few cities in the world have anything like it. It’s stunningly sublime. My favorite place is Coit Tower/TelegraphHill. I live in the neighborhood so I’m very partial. But it’s a deeply urban, magical place. Especially on the eastern side where small streets, like Napier Lane, are framed by these incredible gardens. Glen Canyon is a bit of wild card. It’s not as well known, yet surreal: an enormous natural gash in the city, right in the middle of town.

Paul: Land’s End is also at the top of my list. Followed by Lone Mountain. Then McLaren Park. You can see it on a map but unless someone takes you, you may never go. It’s an enormous feral park — one of San Francisco’s undiscovered gems. In this tiny city there are so many magical places, often completely hidden, unless you stumble upon them.

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