Artists are the “antennae” of the human race, someone once said. They’re the mind readers and the prophets who scope out the future. And sometimes they’re also complex recording instruments that gage the seismic shifts in society. That last description would probably fit Paul Madonna, a native of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, who lives and works on Brazil Street in the Excelsior District in San Francisco. He and his wife recently moved there. They had no choice. High rents booted them out of the Mission, as they have booted out many others. Madonna tells that story in his new book, On to the Next Dream ($17.95), just put in print by City Lights, his favorite publisher.
If Madonna has moved on, he also feels that he has moved back in time. “The Excelsior is what the Mission, my old neighborhood, was ten years ago,” he told me. Paul and his wife have a whole building to themselves, though it’s only a one-story building, and there isn’t a room with a view, a hardship for an artist accustomed to views. When he first arrived in the City in the early 1990s, Madonna couldn’t sell his art. So he gave it away. Now, he’s famous all over the San Francisco Bay Area for his comic strips and his books, one of them an illustrated novel, Close Enough for the Angels. The title seems apt for an artist who isn’t angelic himself but whose editors at City Lights and The San Francisco Chronicle have behaved like angels and kept him working like a devil.
These days, Madonna and his wife pay twice as much for their Excelsior home as they paid for their third-floor flat in the Mission. They both work, they both make money and they both save it. If they didn’t they probably wouldn’t be living in San Francisco. The old apartment in the Mission had windows that looked out on the world. Then, their landlord sent them an eviction notice and Madonna nearly lost his mind. At times, he says, he wanted to go to the roof of his building and just scream. Then he got hold of himself. He funneled his rage into his art and connected his own personal hell to the shared experiences of others, like himself, who face evictions and are forced to find new places to live almost everyday in a topsy-turvy city where money calls the tune.
Madonna’s new book, On To the Next Dream, tells his traumatic tale and the traumatic tale of a whole city in hard-hitting words and heart-wrenching images. Madonna started the book in June 2015. He finished it six months later, in December. While he knew from the beginning how the narrative would end, he didn’t know how he would get there.
“I had to figure out the voice and the tone,” he said. “I had to ramp up the sense of the surreal.” In a way, he had to hit readers over the head if they were to get what he wanted to them to get, which was a sense of the absurd.
On To the Next Dream marks a departure for the 44-year old Madonna. Indeed, he’s moved on from his popular cartoon strip, All Over Coffee that ran in The Chronicle and absorbed much of his creativity for more than a decade. In 2007, City Lights published the first three years of the strip in book form. A second collection of the strip, Everything is its own reward, appeared in 2011.
A creature of habit, Madonna walks almost every day from his new home to cafes in his old neighborhood, where he drinks coffee, meets friends and makes art.
“All Over Coffee gave me my career,” Madonna said. “It propelled me into being a professional and it connected me to a big audience in San Francisco that helped me become aware of the environment all around me. But after twelve years, I also knew that I had to move on and leave that strip behind me.”
Madonna doesn’t make moral judgments about the transformation of San Francisco. He doesn’t like and doesn’t use words like “gentrification.” He likes cafés and he likes coffee; he’d rather not live in a slum, a ghetto or the suburbs, either. An urban artist, he needs gritty streets to inspire him. He needs a place that he loves, though it has broken his heart. The old San Francisco that Madonna knew when he first arrived in the City, twenty-three years ago, mostly exists today as a series of landscapes for tourists — “a kind of urban Disneyland,” he calls it.
And, while he also sees urban blight in neighborhoods poised for commercial development, he also sees beauty almost everywhere he looks.
“Part of my job is to locate beautiful things, places and people where they’re least expected,” he said. “In my new book, On to the Next Dream, I wanted readers to see beauty even in ugly surrounding.” I also wanted them to empathize with my plight—the plight of the artist, ironically, caught up in the story that he tells.”
More creative now perhaps than ever before, Madonna is working on two new projects: a book called Follow Yourself that will be produced and published by San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park; and his first solo show at the Legion of Honor also in San Francisco. Both are slated for 2018. They both suggest that the City does care about its artists and writers. Not surprisingly, the book, Follow Yourself, and the show focus on the creative process. Madonna is making the drawings right now, and mining his experiences.
“When I first arrived in San Francisco I had a lot to learn,” he said. “I know now how to take anxiety and fear and turn it into art. Moving On to the Next Dream helped me crystalize my role as a creative person.”
San Francisco gave birth to Madonna. In words and images, he has memorialized the City that now exists, if it exists at all, in museums, in memory and in dreams. And in old neighborhoods like the Excelsior.