A decommissioned ferry boat, converted to a houseboat and art studio, became the scene of one of the Beat Generation’s most fertile social gathering spots – and the location of a seminal summit on LSD with Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Alan Watts.
That boat, the S.S. Vallejo, is the inspiration and source for a new exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, called “Ship of Dreams: Artists, Poets and Visionaries of the S.S. Vallejo,” opening this Saturday, April 28.
“I’m interested in Bay Area post-war art, and this exhibit is really perfect for our museum,” said SVMA’s executive director Linda Keaton. “This exhibition is the first ever museum survey of the circle of the S.S. Vallejo and traces their significant contributions to art, culture, and social change during the beat and hippie eras.”
Material for the exhibition was sourced from private collectors, foundations, museums, galleries and universities all over California, and includes visual works of art by a legion of notables in the San Francisco art scene.
Among them are surrealists Gordon Onslow Ford and Wolfgang Paalen, painters Roberto Maata, Lee Mullican and Fritz Rauh, and sculptor Ruth Asawa. The exhibit was curated by museum director Keaton and David Keaton, in a collaboration with the Lucid Art Foundation.
Foremost among the works presented are four by painter and collage artist Jean Varda, one of the original rescuers of the former ferry, who lived and worked aboard the Vallejo for much of the time period covered by the exhibit.
The S.S. Vallejo began life as “Ferry No. 2” taking passengers between Mare Island and the town of Vallejo in 1879, before a bridge joined the two in 1888. It continued to be used in the San Francisco Bay for decades, returning to Vallejo in the 1920s before finally being retired in 1947 and sold for scrap.
But in Sausalito, awaiting disassembly, the odd old boat caught the eye of Varda – a contemporary of Picasso – who purchased the boat with the help of some friends and remodeled it into an art studio. It was berthed in Sausalito, where a growing houseboat community was taking shape.
Before long the S.S. Vallejo became the stuff of local legend, and the scene for a series of exhibits, mixers, parties and soirees for the Society for Comparative Philosophy, a group that included the former Anglican priest turned Zen philosopher Alan Watts.
Throughout the 1950s, Varda and the boat’s co-owner, artist Gordon Onslow Ford, used the S.S. Vallejo as living quarters, studio space and gallery. Onslow Ford left the Vallejo in 1961, and Watts took his place.
The February 1967 LSD “houseboat summit” – reported at the time in the counter-culture weekly the San Francisco Oracle – was but one of many artistic, philosophical and artistic gatherings that took place on the houseboat.
The painter died in 1967. Varda was the older first cousin of filmmaker Agnes Varda, who is still working and in 2017 released “Faces Places,” an award-winner at Cannes.
Onslow Ford became interested in lucid dreaming, and founded the Lucid Art Foundation to explore the relationship between art, consciousness and nature. The current exhibit is a collaboration between SVMA and Lucid Art Foundation. He died in 2003.
Watts is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, his pioneering assimilation of Zen with Western philosophy voiced in numerous books including “The Way of Zen,” “Psychotherapy East and West,” “The Joyous Cosmology” and “The Book.” One of the exhibit’s featured events will be the Saturday, April 28, reading from “The Collected Letters of Alan Watts,” edited by his daughters, Anne Watts and Joan Watts.
“The Collected Letters of Alan Watts” will be featured in a reading at the museum at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 28. Anne Watts, daughter of the counter-culture icon, will read from the book which she edited with her sister Joan Watts.
The SVMA is beginning a second exhibition the same day, April 28, “Her View: The Bay Area Figuration of Gail Chadell Nanao.” This will be the first solo retrospective of the Berkeley-based artist, associated with the Bay Area Figurative movement.
An opening reception for both exhibitions will be held Saturday, April 28, from 6 to 8 p.m., featuring live music from Eclectricity with Roy Blumenfeld.
The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art is located at 551 Broadway, Sonoma. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. except major holidays. Visit svma.org.