The Golden Gate

The first time I saw The Golden Gate I arrived by bicycle, from Poughkeepsie, New York. Two Vassar College friends and I spent the summer of ’72 riding through Canada and down the Pacific Coast Highway from Vancouver to Palo Alto, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. We slept in the woods, on beaches and in youth hostels, budgeting a whopping dollar a day per guy for food. (We started out at a dollar a day for ALL of us, but that didn’t work, even with a loaf of bread at 25 cents- the aptly named “Balloon” loaf.) After three months and over 3,000 miles we were pretty happy to see those red towers as we came around a corner outside of Sausalito.

The first time I saw The Golden Gate.

Me, Tom Wallin, and Bruce Tranen on the Bridge.

Ray Strong, “Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge”, oil on canvas, 44” x 71”, 1934

It is still startling for me to realize the Golden Gate Bridge was only 35 years old when we first bicycled across in 1972. It’s been longer than that, 40+, since the trip. The fact that it is so beautiful leads one to believe it’s always been there. Many people are still alive that remember the Golden Gate before the bridge.

Ray Strong’s “Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge” shows the bridge under construction and is another masterpiece. Painted in 1934, as a part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works Art Project (PWAP), it seems like it was painted yesterday. The dynamic composition, strong light, and tension between man made and natural forms are all issues painters have and always will struggle with. The painting is filled with a sense that man and his works are a part of something much larger than themselves. They are an extension of nature, not a despoiler of it. The sense of hope and optimism that suffuses “Golden Gate Bridge” is hard to find these days. This painting is a record of the notion that man has the ability to make something beautiful and magnificent in the process of developing and taming nature. Both painting and bridge are a monument to the American spirit of ingenuity, creativity and optimism. No wonder Roosevelt chose “Golden Gate Bridge” to hang in the White House.
Here’s a photo of Strong sketching. I have a feeling it’s a staged shot as I doubt he would be painting without a hat and with the painting facing the direct sun. One thing for sure, he found a great spot to paint, hat or no hat, and took full advantage.

A Bit of Bay Area Baseball History
While Ray Strong was sketching what would become, “Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge”, he may well have been planning to take in a San Francisco Seals game at Seals Stadium later that afternoon. Formed In 1903, three years before the earthquake, The San Francisco Seals were a legendary franchise of the Pacific Coast League, a virtual third Major League from the 20’s till the National League came west in the late 50’s. Seals Stadium, finished in 1931, was an engineering marvel of it’s time and home to the San Francisco Giants in 1958-9 while Candlestick Park was being constructed further down the bay.

All three Dimaggio Brothers played at Seals Stadium. Hall of Famer Lefty O’Doul (he of the 3rd highest lifetime average, .349) managed the team for 17 years. His eponymous downtown watering hole still packs em in at 333 Geary St. across from Union Square.

Although beloved and well attended it just wasn’t big enough for Major League Baseball and had very little parking. When the Giants first moved from New York in 1958 a spot for a new “state of the art facility” was chosen south of the city on a tract of unused land protruding out into the bay. With it’s much larger capacity and surrounding land (parking), Candlestick Park seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s a pity the planners didn’t hang around after dark to experience the bone chilling fog that rolled in between the hills that occupy Candlestick Point. As cold and windy a place as there ever was in baseball, Mark Twain could have been talking about Candlestick when he once complained, “The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer in San Francisco.”

With two World Championships in the last three years it’s easy to see why Giants games routinely sell out these days. The real testament of the love San Franciscans have for baseball was the not terrible attendance at Candlestick Park. Thinking back it’s amazing that it was as high as it was. For example, a friend and I once went to a game that started at 11am in order to avoid the late afternoon and early evening cold. The several thousand fans that were there got to see Dave Kingman hit three home runs and two warning track fly balls, a memorable day for the powerful, but flawed, Dave “King Kong” Kingman.

AT+T Park is a different place altogether. Built in 2000, it is walking distance from downtown and sits next to China Basin on the Bay.  The site is small by current standards, but the proximity to public transit lessens the need for massive outdoor parking lots. Heading east toward Oakland the Bay Bridge sits just beyond left field and in McCovey Cove, an inlet just beyond the right field wall, kayakers and other small water craft keep a weather eye out for homerun balls that land in the so called “Slashdown” zone. The main body of the stands looks down and across the bay where freighters sit in line waiting to be unloaded by huge cranes and dock works to the south. Just behind the bleachers in left field a large slide in the shape of a Coke Bottle and massive sculptural baseball glove entertain the young, in heart as well as age. Fog still rolls in as night games move into the middle innings at AT+T, but being several miles removed from the wind tunnel of Candlestick Point the smell of garlic fries is ever present, as is the palpable joy of 30 to 40 thousand baseball loving San Franciscans and their envious visitors.

Painting the Painting

Deciding on a good point of view for the painting wasn’t easy, not for lack of options, but because of them. My first inclination was to park the viewer in the upper right field stands because it looked out at the Bay Bridge, a San Francisco landmark almost as renowned as the Golden Gate, and down on the kayakers in McCovey Cove. I had also sketched from upper left field at the suggestion of an inquisitive seat neighbor. That view included the south bay, Oakland, the docks, south San Francisco, all the way to Twin Peaks in the far right corner, just visible above the stands.

After looking everything over in the studio I decided my neighbors suggestion was the better of those two options.

Next came the patching together of the many photos I took, and drawing in the basic composition. The main figure became a young woman I surreptitiously snapped spur of the moment because of the way the light played off her shoulders and her stripped top.



Things were falling neatly into place, with the exception of the far left side of the painting. There was a wealth of material; the Coke bottle, a miniature whiffleball park, a yacht club with sail boats all tied up in a row, too many in fact. It needed something strong and unifying as a visual anchor. I had sketched in a tray of ballpark food, garlic fries, in the lower left corner, but there was still big orange empty place above. Walking the dog one morning it hit me. Who’s presence loomed over AT+T even though he was barely pictured or even mentioned? All the other great Giant stars are memorialized in and around the Park- Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, even Mel Ott from the New York Giants. The greatest power hitter in the history of baseball was a Giant, but is left out, not found, excommunicated you might say – the once magnificent, larger than life, and now disgraced Barry Bonds. What better place for him than sitting high in the stands eating an (un)healthy pile of San Francisco’s famous garlic fries!

While loving the idea, the image of him holding a floppy fry was a bit much, over the top you might say. It needed to be calmed down a bit.

Only the details remained, which were time consuming as ever to paint, but still fun as they reminded me of the air, light, geography, and people of San Fancisco, to say nothing of the garlic fries, kayakers and.. Barry Bonds.



“AT+T Park,  San Francisco, 2011”, oil on canvas, 36” x 60, 2011
© The BallPark Project

One last picture of three happy boys, Me, Bruce Tranen, and Tom Wallin on the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of our 1972 summer long bike trip, “Full Tilt Boogie, Poughkeepsie to Palo Alto”.