Backstage Heroes: The Red Poppy Art House Sustains SF’s Underground

Camille Mai performs recently at the Red Poppy Art House. (Photo: Mona Caron)

Camille Mai performs recently at the Red Poppy Art House. (Photo: Mona Caron)

Editor’s Note: ‘Backstage Heroes’ spotlights the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly, giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.

In early September, a photo travels widely online: a long oval of comfy chairs in a warmly lit room at Folsom and 23rd streets. This is the Red Poppy Art House, and “most people have no idea how many people it takes to run this tiny little room!” according to the photo caption.

Twenty-two people attend the all-hands staff meeting in the picture. Of the 22, I wind up talking to three; I’ve long admired the public-facing work of several others, and the rest will have to remain behind the scenes for now.

As I approach the same corner a few days later, the first thing I notice are the murals on the walls outside, even though it’s almost dark out. They’re finely wrought portraits of Alejandro Nieto, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Amilcar Perez-Lopez, four men killed by police. Artist Yeska has added the text “Stop Criminalization” along the bottom. The Poppy, in contrast with those harrowing memorials, is buzzing tonight with people, and amber light spilling out of its old-fashioned shopfront windows. Tonight’s concert features the Musical Art Quintet, whose tagline is “Chamber with soul.”

Schuyler Karr. (Courtesy Red Poppy Art House)
Schuyler Karr. (Courtesy Red Poppy Art House)

Behind the tiny bar, I find the Poppy’s director of performance programming, Schuyler Karr, and we arrange to talk at intermission, because “I have to go do show stuff,” he apologizes. He’s slight, blond, and energetic, with surprising dark eyes and the ability to focus in the midst of chaos. He zooms around in the crowd for a while before getting up in front of the band, under the lights. He welcomes the audience, which is diverse in every direction — a kid about ten asks at the bar for the wi-fi code (and doesn’t get it), several white-haired people use canes to navigate the crowd, and the bulk of us are twentyish or thirtyish. Racially, the room doesn’t even have a clear majority; this is true of the band as well.

It’s not an accident, says Todd T. Brown, the Poppy’s founder. When he started out, he and a friend just needed a place to live and work as painters.

“We had no business plan, no cash reserves or investors,” says Brown. “We just made a commitment to split the rent, which, back then, meant $650 each.”

But before long, he realized there was a lot more to it, in a good way. Like a lot of people, he “felt this pressing desire to create a space where people from different cultures and different artistic backgrounds could come together.“ Not everyone with beautiful dreams can deliver on them, but Brown was serious. “Central,” he says, “was the desire to be connected with people different from myself.” At least 21 of them, in fact.

Todd T. Brown. (Courtesy Red Poppy Art House)
Todd T. Brown. (Courtesy Red Poppy Art House)

Back onstage, Karr tells the audience: “The Red Poppy Art House has been here for a long time, it’s had a twelve-decade history. Oh — I mean a twelve-year history!” Everyone laughs, and he continues his opening spiel, but I find myself stuck on that idea, on the parallel universe it opens up: What if the Red Poppy Art House really had been here for 120 years? Or maybe it’s a possible future: What if it’s still here 108 years from now? (Another similar local organization, Intersection for the Arts, is this week celebrating its 50th anniversary.)

Karr, who’s quick to note that the Art House is almost entirely volunteer-run, later tells me his most memorable Poppy event was “the first time I walked in here! It was so different, and I knew I wanted to stay.”

The brand-new artistic director of the Art House, Zéna Allen, shares Karr’s enthusiasm. She describes the organization as a deeply collaborative one. It enjoys, she says, a sturdy connection to its working-class Latino community via the longstanding Mission Arts and Performance Project series, a popular weekly family art program, a professional development workshop for artists and more.

“We all have our own constellations of community that we bring, so it kind of creates this really big universe,” Allen says. “We all have our different concerns. I’m African-American, so the idea of Black Lives Matter and police brutality, and then also African folkloric traditions in music — these are things that are exciting and important to me. Schuyler’s a conservatory graduate, he’s very interested in how music is evolving in composing. And then you have Todd, who’s a painter, and his interests and his values.”

Zéna Allen. (Courtesy Red Poppy Art House)
Zéna Allen. (Courtesy Red Poppy Art House)

The Musical Art Quintet’s first album is called Nuevo Chamber, and onstage, as they launch into their first piece, it’s clear that title is apt: these are conservatory-trained artists, playing classical instruments with intent to radically expand the territory. The music is lush; close tripartite violin harmonies fill the room, backed by an elephantine bass and a cello, all upon a tango-ish beat. A couple sitting at the bar bounce and twist their shoulders at each other with exaggerated, semi-ironic sauciness.

It’s emblematic of the art that regularly happens here; cross-pollination is part of the point. Consider the ongoing series of prison industrial complex-focused music-history discussion-concerts Marcus Shelby is holding, or the “Mobile City” project organized by outgoing art director Caleb Duarte, which finds homeless artists creating simulacra of cities built atop cabinets in which the artists could keep materials or even sleep, thus creating “housing.”

Brown, and the “many people it takes,” remain dedicated to making these kinds of connections: “In the States, our economy has literally become our culture,” he points out. “I suppose my hope is that the Poppy offers some small example of another way of being in the world.”

Before starting the second piece with the Musical Art Quintet, bass player Sascha Jacobsen has a few things to say.

“We’re thrilled to be here; we’re so lucky to have the Red Poppy. We’ve been playing here since the beginning” — someone in the band can’t pass up the opportunity. “For twelve decades!”

Backstage Heroes: The Red Poppy Art House Sustains SF’s Underground 14 September,2015Hiya Swanhuyser

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