Ray McCrimmon, bowl base, with signature, 1974, side view below
We’re cycling back to the 70s. Finally giving Jimmy Carter his due, albeit rather belatedly, platform shoes are back, living was easier and less expensive then, and the AIDS and Reagan boom had not yet been lowered. Nixon was gone, back to California, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Or so it seemed. (OK, let’s not talk about Altamont or Manson.) More personally, sorting through a drawer containing decades worth of papers and letters, I again came across the poem “THE FLASHER” by James Robiscoe, that likely dates from about 1976.
Yet another book about Bloomsbury has just appeared, Young Bloomsbury: The Generation that Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression in 1920s England, by Nino Strachey, one of the succeeding generations of the principals such as Vanessa Bell and Lytton Strachey. Lots of high-minded gossip about sex (all the variations), alternative lifestyles, art and literature. Bloomsbury, the fifth wave, we might call it. But, unheralded, little Bloomsberries spring up, too, outside the spotlight — seeds that alight on favorable, fertile ground, manage nourishment and water, and flourish, if only fleetingly.
I was party to one such fortuitous grouping, overlapping circles of young, would-be artists, writers, free-thinkers, libertines, and bed-hoppers, that centered around Oakland’s Laney Community College, where tuition was cheap and adults outnumbered the just-out-of-high schoolers.
Hanover Street Demimonde
My boyfriend/housemate, now husband, Alfred Crofts, and I took classes there, primarily art. Doing maintenance work for a slumlord landlord, we met and befriended the residents of a nearby apartment building on lower Hanover St., close to Lake Merritt, Laney College, and to the political gay commune where we briefly lived. A gay couple, Navy veterans, Ray McCrimmon and David Bomba, occupied one unit. Cathy Shalda, an heiress and lapsed art student at nearby College of Art and Crafts, occupied another. (The “Crafts” was later dropped from the name, Cathy substituted "Farts," and then the school left Oakland altogether, shrinking to their San Francisco campus. )
In the unit over the garage lived Steven Magenheimer and Karen Marchand. Karen was a 60s hippie of sorts. (Yes, “hippie” is an ugly word, yet “countercultural” sounds too sterile. And they had lived in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, where they were caught up in the draconian drug laws of the era.) But, relocated to Oakland, Steven “came into money” by getting a mailman job, which he held for years. Karen (who went by the name Sierra for awhile) was an opulent Mother Earth goddess, a Juno — serene, warm, accommodating. Abundance. She accepted, even, encouraged Steven’s affairs, with Cathy and others.
Tanquerary, in green grande bottles, was the liquid of choice. For its Britishness? Plenty of smoking, mostly not cigarettes. Cultivation, too. In that spirit, Al and I created a pop-up greenhouse from the remains of a garage, at the back of the apartment building, sharing it with Karen. Our cactus and succulents flourished, even managing to get the stapelia to bloom with blossoms reeking of dead flesh, to attract flies not bees. An acquired taste in scents, like Dorothy Parker who favored embalming perfumes.
An overlapping circle included David (later, Asa) Pritchet, who took classes at Laney and modeled for the drawing class for money, James Robiscoe, a writer and poet, his partner for a time (they picked each other up outside Lincoln Center), and James Dixon, professional landscaper and carpet collector extraordinaire, whom we met (at the White Horse Bar?) and who knew Pritchet. Jim lived at that time in Oakland, in Rockridge, close to us, before he moved to Kensington and Occidental. Asa, both Jims (Robiscoe and Dixon), Ray, David, and both Al and I were gay. It was the 70s, “Monogamy, who?” was the norm.
Laney Community College
But Laney College, like the far more celebrated petri dish of the UC-Davis art department, offered serious teachers like painter Bill Synder, who mixed up his “old-fashioned” painting technique (grisaille underpainting even) with Disney characters, Evelyn Glaubman, a character and now 100, and the storied printmaking teacher, Gerald Gooch. He practiced a version of photo-realism, with his medium of black and white lithography, but his behavior achieved for him a more lasting notoriety, a highlight perhaps the SFMOMA-sponsored trip to Baja, Calif., by Gooch and a group of cohorts. The trip darkened when Gooch got so sunburned while tripping that they had to extricate their car from the sandy beach and seek medical attention. Gooch later just walked out of his class, rumors trailing after still…
My favorite was the figure-drawing instructor, Shoko Miyamoto. For a beginning art student like myself, the hours-long sessions were invaluable, she hovered, and was attentive but not overbearing. The music she played, especially Japanese drumming, functioned like espresso. A practicing artist who rarely showed, she was working on a large figure painting.
Asa, Al and I all took etching and lithography classes from Gooch. He was a counter-culture guru, surrounded by acolytes, and I was ruined for lithography, too little instruction. But we took to etching, I bloomed in the even more well-furnished etching studio at UC-Berkeley, after I transferred, under the tutelage of the teacher, Sylvia Lark, and later still I taught etching classes at UC-Davis.
Fortuitously, the Oakland Museum of California, with its celebrated connection to the Bay Area Figurative Movement, was just across the street from Laney. I was thrilled by the 1975 Elmer Bischoff retrospective there, the immense (to me) figurative and landscape paintings were set off by the enveloping cement bays.
David Turned Asa: Tall, Dark, Handsome
In the life-drawing classes, Asa modeled nude, as did most of the models. I’ve saved many of my drawings of him, and he gave me the vamp lithograph. An astute artist friend who viewed some of the images commented upon their suggestive undercurrents.
Asa and Jim Robiscoe, also tall, dark, and handsome, moved in together into a then inexpensive penthouse loft in nearby Emeryville. But when they split up, we lost touch with Jim, who moved back East. Google searches suggest he now lives in Florida, his Gay Fire Island Murder Mystery was published in 1995, which I’ve yet to find and read. I doubt that Al and I will appear as thinly-disguised characters. Asa moved often, but we stayed in touch, with gatherings and drop-overs, early on checking the progress of his large commissioned cloudscape. He was a serial monogamist, and bought his first home with Jeffrey Smith, the Fulbright employee who switched to his passion, working at Butterfields Auctions, and its later incarnations. Jim Dixon designed their front garden on Francisco St. in Berkeley, starting with saplings that turned into a forest in the small space. We lost touch with Asa after he moved to Santa Rosa, after his twin brother died of AIDS. We never met his keeper husband. Recently, I started looking through my flat files, and collecting, photographing many of the images here, including the figure drawings of Asa. We debated sending them to him through his website, advertising his production pottery business, but decided against it. Do reunions ever work? But he died in 2022, so it’s another “What if?”
We did hear Jim’s version of their last visit, in Occidental. There seemed to be a bit of a falling out, maybe the issue was over acreage, Asa’s obit mentions his 40 acre spread in Cazadero, wine country. We never saw, but heard about, the entry Asa made in Jim’s guest register after the visit. But Asa and Jim were both peacocks and roosters. Jim never made a serious romantic commitment (even to a pet!) other than to a very early one he told us about.
Cathy dropped out of her straight day job at PG & E, a job arranged for her by her father after she left CCAC, but took classes at Laney and did art work at home, where she posed for drawings and a portrait painting by me. She was as difficult a model as Sargent’s society ladies, and the painting is stilted, more so than the sketch. We still have work of hers including the uber-60s/70s type-case artifact, and the haunting little landscape.
Cathy moved to a condo in Benicia her parents bought for her, to get her away from the “bad influences” in Oakland. But she took her habits and psychic pain with her, and died in Palm Springs on a parental visit in 1981. She was only 31, the same painful way out as Jack Kerouac. A carefully rendered grasshopper, which we’d loaned back to her, disappeared. Her condo was sold, the belongings removed by family, and her cats euthanizid. Her ex-husband died a violent death about the same time, victim of the underground economy.
AIDS Comes Calling
David Bomba came from privilege, a Washington, D.C. family with a father in government service who, we understand, did not approve of his lifestyle. He was the more urbane one. Ray McCrimmon, Karen told us, came from the hollows of Kentucky and was the gay version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover — earthy, quiet, subterranean. Ray made ambitious ceramics, attended Cal State-Hayward, likely on the GI bill, and gardened expansively, greening an immense vacant lot next door.
The large repaired square planter originally occupied his garden acreage. The stoneware pots were gifts--he made marvelous glazes which I envied as a terrible ceramicist. The clay lightbulb must be his — was he riffing on Jasper Johns’ Pop bronze beer cans? A functionless tea pot we own may also be his—it echoes Peter Voulkos’s ground-breaking vessels that shook up traditional ceramics.
Ray and David were among the first casualties of AIDS among our circle. They went very quickly, there was no treatment, no “cures.” Their families were not supportive. Steven nursed David at home. Did Kaiser even admit AIDS patients then? I do have a lovely, lasting memory of David, a chance visit when he was living on Garber St. in Berkeley. I don't remember how we ended up visiting at his apartment, but it was during a rough patch in my relationship with Al. He cheered me up immensely, by introducing me to the music of Linda Ronstadt, in her most melancholy Heart Like a Wheel period. My garden variety, prosaic misery was mirrored, transformed by Ronstadt's art, and I walked back home, revived. I'm reminded of the Ronstadt story thread by the now famous (or infamous, in some quarters) Murray Bartlett episode of the Last of Us, with its touching use of the Ronstadt "Long, Long Time" ballad/lament.
Departures and Continuance
Karen and Steven separated, he apparently never got around to writing the Great American Novel he intended. He lived for a time in a house nearby that he bought, after dismissing our neighborhood as dangerous. Our last visit with Karen occurred when we handed over the self-portrait she’d once given us which we’d hung onto. She was desperate to reclaim it. The drawing was naive, a young, nude girl but for the adult hat with veil, looking in mirror. Her father had embedded the drawing in resin, which had partially cracked away but added to its character. Unfortunately, the regifting back of the portrait seemed to also end the connection, come full circle. Karen and Steven both died in 2022, as did Asa. Both Karen and Steven had underlying health issues, but Covid may have pushed them over the edge. The uncounted wages of the pandemic.
But, luckily, we’ve been able to connect with Sam Marchand, her son (b. 1978?). Sam was fathered by an artist, Doug Wilson, who lived in the same studio building on Blake St. in Berkeley as Karen, and where the Blake St. Hawkeyes, performed, and Whoopi Goldberg got her start. Wilson moved to Marin to work as a carpenter at George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic, later served for a time as mayor of Fairfax.
But Steven seems to have played a far greater father role in Sam’s life. Sam remained close to Karen emotionally, often living with her as she moved about and, at the end, taking care of her. She graduated from Vista (now Berkeley City College) and tutored math, but always did art. She even took to digital work, which fits with her unpretentious, voracious approach to creativity, and life.
I lobbied to get Karen into Curator Robbin Hendersons’s brave, under-the-radar, X-Rated exhibition at the Berkeley Art Center in 1984. (Maybe lending Karen's Why is this Woman Smiling? which we owned by then.) I also managed to get Richard Caldwell Brewer included, with Steve in Red Shirt, but too late to be on the announcement. My painting Al and Modigliani Nude was included, along with work by far better known Jim Albertson, included in the Marcia Tucker New Museum 1978 Bad Painting show.
Jim Dixon’s Occidental “Carpet Palace’/Garden
Our longest connection, broken only by his death in 2019, was with Jim Dixon, who went to Stanford, not Laney, but who typified the era. The Los Angeles Times article, “Called to the Carpet,” by Chris Fager, Dec. 28, 2000, is a noteworthy contribution to the Jim Dixon biography, but perhaps too like a press release, repeating Jim’s claim to have lived in a garret, in a bad neighborhood, skimping on food to buy rugs. I knew Jim from that period, he lived in the top floor of the duplex he owned in Rockridge, a nice part of Oakland, then and now. So I wonder if Jim’s bona fides mentioned in the article are real: degrees from SF State and UC-Berkeley, and teaching at State. Jim had secrets, locked doors as it were, but in his recounting, his real life—collecting—began with the decision of a wealthy benefactress in Belvedere to pay him to acquire on her behalf.
Jim’s father was a hard-drinking, brutal Nebraska farmer (in the There Will be Blood, Year of the Dog tradition), but Jim became a teetotaler mystic who believed he had healing powers, who developed elaborate gardens for the very wealthy, his most lavish in Marin on an ever-expanding estate, with a Gainsborough trophy inside the main house. But the clients refused to allow his work to be photographed, or even shown to his friends and clients. He anxiously snuck us on a tour, we were told to speak in whispers since he believed even the grounds were bugged. Even when he was dying of pancreatic cancer (a stoic at the end, he declined pain meds, any palliative care), he couldn’t quit the clients or their garden. He was mortified to have been discovered by the staff to be napping in his car on the estate.
Dixon designed and had built a grand house for himself on a sloping property in Occidental, in rural Sonoma County. The hillside garden was terraced with holding ponds for irrigation (the source of our now nativized Pacific chorus frogs), with grand stone steps and walls, his specialty. The residence interior was designed, oddly, with few views of the grounds from inside, but high walls to display his celebrated collection of carpets. Jim made the aesthetic connection of the abstracted plant and garden motifs in Islamic rugs with the plantings outside. We were already familiar with the charms of Occidental, with its redwood forests and views of the ocean. Even with a brief rupture in our relationship with Jim (not seeing the construction of his house, nor his show of carpets at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek), we’d been visiting nearby Western Hills Nursery, developed by gay academics turned ambitious gardeners, Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich. They’d created a garden with mature trees (if only we had the room for a majestic variegated copper beech like theirs!), windy paths, and an immense lily pond; the sales operation was almost incidental. Jim was not part of their set.
Jim described his designs for clients as “the English-style perennial garden (a la Gertrude Jeckyl) in a Mediterranean climate,” the borders edged with the careful sprinkling of large boulders. The kitchen and bathrooms were adequate but secondary — Jim didn’t cook or raise vegetables (practical plants), and for him food was supplements, although he had a weakness for ice cream and cottage cheese, and touted Wendy’s salad bar. The house was stuffed with statues of Boddisattvas and Buddhas, ceramics, lacquerware, and objects d’arts — everything fine and exquisite to his opinionated eye. Jim hoped the carpets and grounds might be maintained and preserved as a carpet/textile study center. He’d also gotten initial acceptance of his carpet collection at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. The Garden Conservancy (the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek among their holdings) was interested in keeping his garden for posterity, and proposed an easement for future public viewing.
The best laid half-plans…..
Ultimately, Death hovering, Jim bequested the house and its contents and grounds to the Krishnamurti group, for their private use. The carpets are being dispersed through auctions, under the rubric of the “Hebredes Collection,” a posthumous branding. Skinner Bonhams is holding a series of auctions — the first, April 25-May 5, 2022, in their Boston gallery and online yielded a total of $1.376 million in sales, with a Ming Imperial Dragon carpet selling for $324,500.
No books or scholarly articles* exist about this little collection of rebels and artists, ones who diverged from the straight and narrow, at least for a time, but for musings like this one. Al and I lived to "tell the tale" and celebrate the artifacts and traces that remain.
*An exception: Jim Dixon, “Oriental Rugs in Occidental,” by Murray L. Eiland Jr. Hali Magazine, Issue 109, March-April, 2000
Also, Jim Dixon on Gardens,” by Noelle Caskey, The Monthly, June 1986
Memorable quote: “Often it’s possible to extend a garden beyond lot lines. If there are two liquidambers in the neighbor’s yard, you can plant one of your own and get a grove.”
Credit: Tamara Thompson for her invaluable research assistance; Sam Marchand for his generous, lengthy, written recollections; and Judy Cuttler, for her unrelenting support for my prose efforts.
Jim, Al, and Beauregard, in Jim's Occidental house, 2017
Robert Brokl, Untitled (Asa Reclining), ink/paper, 18"X2,'' ca. 1975
Cathy Shalda, Untitled, acrylic/masonite, 13"X16," ca. 1976
Karen Marchand, Why Is This Woman Smiling?, watercolor, ink/paper, 30"X22," ca. 1976
Alfred Crofts, Blue Angel, etching, 6"X5,"1975
Cathy Shalda, Untitled (This is Art), handpainted, unfired clay (?), 1979
Robert Brokl, Untitled (Asa and Manequin), "charcoal/paper, 18"X2,' ca. 1975
"Be afraid of gaining the sense of the superficiality, Bob. I know you will understand what I mean. 8/10" Shoko Miyamoto, written on the back of a drawing of mine. ca. 1975
Ray McCrimmon, glazed planter, 3" heightX 22" wide, ca. 1974
Ray McCrimmon, glazed porcelain, approx. 7.5" lengthX3.5" height, ca. 1974
Robert Brokl, Bicentennial Karen, oil/canvas, 1976
Robert Brokl, Cathy, pastel/paper, 2'X18," (irregular), ca. 1975
Robert Brokl, La Dolce Vita -- Marin Beach, acrylic canvas, 5'X46," 1977 (Al and Cathy)
Cathy Shalda, typecase/found objects/illustrations, 15.5" X32," ca. 1975
Ray McCrimmon, glazed stoneware bowl, 12.5" diameterX5" height, 1974
Karen Marchand, Untitled, ink, acrylic/paper, 2'X18," ca. 1976
Robert Brokl, Cathy, oil/canvas, 3'X49.5," ca. 1975
Notes for a Memoir of the '70s
"THE FLASHER,"Why Is This Woman Smiling?, and Jim Dixon's "Carpet Cathedral": Overlapping Circles of Artists, Friends, and Lovers in Oakland
Alfred Crofts, Untitled, etching, 6"X5"," 1975
Robert Brokl, Self-Portrait, oil/canvas, 46"X37," 1975, from the Snyder class. Snyder seemed to prefer the verso painting on the scavenged canvas--gray rocks, green grass, blue sky
Asa Pritchet, Untitled (vamp), lihthgraph, 13.5"X5," ca. 1975.