The Princess and the Pauper

August 10th, 2010

My mom sent me an e-mail that began with “This is a true story,” which gave it a 99% probability that it wasn’t, but verified it. So here goes:  

This is a true story. [Renowned violinist] Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context? (“Pearls before breakfast“)  

The conclusion drawn by this experiment is no, we don’t. Because this was a subway and not a concert hall, Bell was virtually ignored. He played for 43 minutes as 1,097 people streamed by, and only 7 stopped to listen. One three year-old strained against his mother to stay and watch the performance. Like the child who pointed out that the emperor has no clothes, he trusted his senses.  

We sometimes say that a certain artist’s work “doesn’t speak to us,” which is a euphemism for “we don’t like it” or more to the point, “it’s bad.” If you go to First Thursday in San Francisco or First Friday in Oakland or Alameda you will see some great art. You will also see some bad art. Let’s be honest. Just because artwork is exhibited in a gallery does not make it good. But consider the flip-side: Just because art isn’t exhibited in a gallery doesn’t mean it’s not.  

At last Friday’s Oakland Art Murmur I visited several galleries on my way to Johansson Projects to see Erik Para’s “Between Currencies.” I’ve been really impressed by art I’ve seen at these galleries (which will remain nameless) in the past, but this month… nothing spoke to me. Then I saw a table set up in the street with drawings of animals. And… they spoke to me, ie. they were good, and I liked them.  

Thailan When with artwork outside the galleries

Totem Snake: Transformation

I asked the artist, Thailan When, whether she had approached the galleries she was working in front of about exhibiting. She said she was still working on her art, and when she was ready she would submit her work. I explained that it was like having children: You’re never completely ready. You just have to do it.  

According to her bio, this bi-coastal illustrator, vocalist, writer, and poet is inspired by “Reincarnative Parapsychology and adventures in the Supernatural Dream Fractal.” I don’t really know what that means (and neither did Wikipedia), but the results are cool.

"By and Bye"


Somebody gave me a collection of Sam Cooke singing traditional gospel songs. In particular I really liked “By and By” and it was my inspiration for this painting. I wanted to show the union between the earth and spirit world, and the relativity of different guides through the winding paths of our lives. 

I’m not waxing hyperbolic and comparing When to Bell. But her work is as good as much of what you’ll find in the inner sanctum of the white-walled galleries, and she is not the only artist with a table on a sidewalk for whom this is true. So trust your senses. 


"Year of the Tiger"

You can see more of When’s work at

Michael Singman-Aste
Postdiluvian Photo

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