The countercultural cool of Marin County
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
On 31 January, an exhibition called In the Shadow of Mt Tam opened at Anthony Meier gallery in Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It showcases a group of international artists who all, for one reason or another, chose to live in Marin County between the ’40s and the ’70s. Some are dead, some living; all are eminent art-world names. Gordon Onslow Ford, the English surrealist; the Beirut-born painter Etel Adnan; Bruce Nauman; Jay DeFeo, who achieved renown in the seminal 1959 MoMA show Sixteen Americans. Meier’s show considers their work and that of 11 others in a specific context – a kinetic period in 20th-century American culture, against a unique natural landscape that embedded itself in their way of creating.
The show takes its name from nearby Mount Tamalpais, called Mount Tam by locals. Hiking paths weave across its flanks, leading over to the wind-bullied sands of Stinson Beach or down through the cool primeval silence of Muir Woods. Coyotes, mountain lions and the endangered California condor are encountered in its remoter reaches. Its 2,600ft peak is too far south to be the actual geographical centre of the county, which stretches up to Sonoma. But no one seems to contest Mount Tam’s status as Marin’s spiritual centre. To the indigenous Coast Miwok people, from whose language the name támal pájis derives, it was sacred. Intense. Energetic. Magnetic. Magic. They’re the kind of words locals readily throw out when they describe it, which probably says as much about the locals as it does the land.
The show is Meier’s first in his new gallery space, him recently having relocated to Marin from San Francisco’s Pacific Heights after nearly three decades. The president of the Art Dealers Association of America and a regular on the international fair circuit, Meier saw an opportunity to decamp to Mill Valley’s old Studebaker showroom when it came up for lease. While it offers more than twice the square footage of his former space, the move “was a quality-of-life issue, pure and simple”, he tells me over coffee at The Depot Café & Bookstore on Throckmorton Avenue, the city’s high street. “It’s really beautiful here; life is really good. The show, and a lot of the talent in it, is testimony to how a landscape can really take on a life in someone’s consciousness.”
Artists of all stripes are still trading urban life for Marin’s wide vistas and locals-only beaches. The county’s progressive liberalism has always played a role in its allure, as has the legacy of the 20th-century counterculture that proliferated across the Bay Area. When not ensconced at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other Beat luminaries would roam or write on Mount Tam’s slopes. The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir still lives (and sometimes gigs) in Marin. Poet communities have thrived in the coastal towns of western Marin since the ’60s; countless acclaimed novelists, from Anne Lamott to Dave Eggers, have called it home.
“The Bay Area does have this incredible legacy of being a wild place of expression, of cultural rebellion,” says artist Zio Ziegler, when we meet at his studio high up a residential Mill Valley road. Ziegler, 35, was raised in the city by journalist parents who later founded Banana Republic. While he avoids the gentrification conversation, he admits “having friends with good jobs, who can’t live here”. He spent a year in New York and travelled to Europe for work after design school; his art, influenced by mural traditions, notably the urban-folkloric ones of San Francisco, garnered him a following among collectors and institutions. Last year, Paris-based dealer Almine Rech began representing him worldwide.
He left LA in 2019 to move home to this slightly ramshackle bungalow, not far from a trailhead that leads up onto Mount Tam. Barely a day goes by that he doesn’t go for a long mountain-bike ride on it. “Removing context altogether is an interesting thought experiment from an art-making point of view,” Ziegler says. Alone on the mountain, “the connection with the land, that grounding, loosens all of the bolts that society and cities and formal training tightened. I see more clearly all the vicissitudes of [those things] against what I guess I’d call the low frequency of this place.
“Here, I’m more readily aware of and focused on a tree that has fallen on the mountain than I am on what the new trend in painting is on the Lower East Side [of Manhattan].”
Nature as psychic alembic: you hear variations on this theme from a lot of people in Marin, whether artist, curator, mechanic or bartender. Nature is the Marin plumb line. If you Waze your route carefully, a half-hour’s drive from San Francisco’s Union Square can get you onto near-empty two-lane roads that lead into miles of low, open, rolling hills and shadowy forest. Along the coast, cypresses bend backward and wild grass lies flat, supplicants to the offshore wind that presides here at the westernmost edge of the North American continent. The light is extraordinarily changeable: one day hard as diamonds, exquisitely pure; the next thick with fog you could almost grab handfuls of. Sometimes both, in the space of two hours.
In Point Reyes Station Point Reyes Books, which the San Francisco Chronicle called “the platonic ideal of a modern indie bookstore”. Mariah Nielson, the daughter of the late artist JB Blunk (whose work is in Meier’s exhibition), was born and raised in the town of Inverness, about five miles away. After more than 20 years in San Francisco and London, she moved back to Inverness in 2022 to focus on her father’s estate. In June 2021, she had opened a gallery, Blunk Space, in an old warehouse complex in the centre of Point Reyes Station. One of its most recent shows was of auction-calibre works by her father and Gordon Onslow Ford – friends who’d been introduced to each other by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, which is pretty much peak Marin.
“When I meet people who grew up here, I think, ‘You have no idea how lucky you are,’” says Barry McGee. He’s in Bolinas, which is a 20-minute drive south of Point Reyes on Highway 1. In his late teens and early 20s, McGee made an international name for himself as a graffiti artist (when I lived in San Francisco’s Mission District in the early ’90s he was a revered figure known by his tag, Twist). Within 10 years of starting out he was among the artists associated with the Mission School urban-realist movement, and creating wall-sized installations. Today he’s represented by Perrotin, and Cheim & Read in New York; of all the artists living and working here, he’s arguably the most famous.
Bolinas, population 1,400, has always been a self-regulating community. Though it gets its fair share of tourists, not all the locals are welcoming, and far less so to the cashed-up city denizens who’ve inflated the housing market enormously in the past decade. The road sign indicating the turn-off from Highway 1 regularly gets stolen, and if you venture into the bar at Smiley’s (established 1851), the old-time saloon on Wharf Road, the intensity of the collective appraisal can be, to borrow from the local parlance, a little gnarly. “It’s like a secret society, almost. People dodge a lot of questions,” McGee half-jokes (though later he writes in an email: “It was so lovely chatting with you about this place I’m never supposed to talk about!”). The town is equal parts quaint and shambolic, with unchecked gardens and wood houses bleached silver by salt and sun. It’s surrounded by water on three sides, some of which is the huge, wildlife-rich Bolinas Lagoon.
McGee grew up across the bridge in south San Francisco, and only really discovered Marin in adulthood. He surfed the coast a few times, “and I just couldn’t fathom how something like this could exist so close to the city – and it wasn’t corrupted; it was still pristine”.
We talk about nature: the wind (“scary”), the ocean (“not something I’m into conquering”), and the awe he still feels about “how close to it all” his life in Marin is. “For an artist, that idea and that space have enormous value. I work outside all day here. I feel free enough that I can draw, you know, plants. Anything can inspire me.” I tell him I’ve just spent a morning with Daisy Sheff at her parents’ house over in Inverness. Sheff, 26, is also a painter; she and McGee are friendly, and occasionally surf together. Over coffee she’d described to me how, the day before, a raft of sea lions had got unusually close to the line-up, and one had repeatedly attempted to hop onto her board. (When I asked her offhand which beach she and McGee surf, she had looked momentarily stricken, then laughed nervously. “Oh, I can’t really… Barry would kill me if that made it into print!”
In spring 2021, Sheff had her first solo show at New York’s White Columns gallery; she’s now represented by Clearing, in Los Angeles, and the gallery took her work to Art Basel Miami in December. (“Daisy’s got some nice buzz and traction right now,” Tony Meier had said when we met.) But she elected to move home to Marin a few years ago from LA, and shares a wonky barn-studio up at the top of the family property with her mother, Karen Barbour – also an artist, who was born and raised in Marin. “Every time you come back – we call going to San Francisco ‘going over the hill’ – you are just struck by how beautiful it is,” she says.
Folkloric notions make sense up here. “I feel like everything is alive, in a very magical way. Everything is watching you,” says Clare Rojas, another Mission School artist who made her name in San Francisco and who has lived part-time in western Marin for 18 years. “The fog is a being; the wind is a personality, a force of nature. The trees are personalities, too. You get to have relationships with crows.” Rojas – whose haunting work, often imbued with mythological themes, is found in the permanent collections of New York’s MoMA and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles – is clearly comfortable with California woo-woo, though she hails originally from Ohio. “It’s beautiful there too, but a different beauty. Marin is beauty that feels like it’s on steroids. I am mixing colours in my head all the time here,” she says. “The hills at certain times of day just stop me, and all I can think is, ‘How would I capture that? What is that colour?’ It can be an exhausting place, in an exhilarating way,” she concludes. “If that makes sense.”
It does, once you’ve spent time here. But Marin, inevitably, is moving with the times. Mankas, a wildly wacky old lodge whose restaurant was long a cult destination, is shortly to re-open after an acquisition and major renovation by San Francisco designer Ken Fulk – a man whose style can be fairly characterised, without detracting from it at all, as the anti-Marin. Buzzy San Francisco chefs such as Brandon Jew are migrating up and over the bridge to open new venues, bringing their well-heeled clientele with them. Even Bolinas is raising its game, with a dynamic art advisor, Louisa Gloger, recently installed as executive director at its tiny museum and committed to bringing city-calibre programming to its saltbox dimensions.
The changes illustrate a newer reality in Marin: the enormous wealth generated by Big Tech, which has bestowed another identity on the county – that of being consistently among the 10 richest in the entire United States. While its southern towns have always been comfortable left-leaning enclaves, in 2022 the average house price soared to $2.1mn. Mill Valley today feels a lot like the lush San Francisco suburb it has to a degree become (albeit one with equal-opportunity cannabinoid sales).
But the landscape won’t change. Nor, once embedded, is it likely to leave you. Years after Etel Adnan returned to Paris to live, and up until her death at 91, she continued to paint from memory the view of Mount Tam from her Sausalito studio. “Once I was asked in front of a television camera: ‘Who is the most important person you ever met?’” she wrote in 1986. “I remember answering: ‘A mountain.’ I thus discovered that Tamalpais was at the very center of my being.” McGee’s take is more prosaic: “I feel a little bit cheated that I didn’t get to know about how cool this place is a lot sooner.”
In the Shadow of Mt Tam is showing at Anthony Meier gallery, 21 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley, until 17 March
This article has been amended to reflect that Barry McGee is also represented by Perrotin gallery. The article originally stated that Cowgirl Creamery operates out of Reyes Station, but it is now currently online only
How to spend it in Marin County
WALK, HIKE, BIKE
Visitmarin.org and alltrails.com have comprehensive guides to hiking, biking, horses, kayaking and beaches. A full list of Marin’s state parks, and what to do in them, can be found at parks.marincounty.org.
Cavallo Point This Fort Baker hotel has a waterside location in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and prime views. Angle for one of the rooms in the former officers’ quarters, with the good period details. From $550, cavallopoint.com
Olema House Between Bolinas and Point Reyes Station on Highway 1, in the town of the same name, this is an ideal base for exploring western Marin. The rooms in the main hotel are a warm, contemporary style; or you can live the cabin life in its Casa Olema or Creekside Cottages. From $228, olemahouse.com,
Headlands center for the arts This non-profit studio and exhibition space in the hills due west of the Golden Gate was founded in 1984 by a group of San Francisco artists in old barracks that were part of Fort Barry, a decommissioned military base that is now inside a national park. Today it’s a thriving part of the Bay Area arts community, visited by curators from across the country and an apotheosis of Marin culture. The fellows whose residencies it underwrites regularly exhibit; ask to get a look at its rather amazing canteen — the old military mess hall, spectacularly restored in 1989 by the visual artist Ann Hamilton.
MarinMOCA The county’s regional contemporary art gallery and studio space, has an ambitious new directorship: witness the dynamic show opening next month of works by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, whose graphics were part of the renovation of Sonoma’s storied Sea Ranch Lodge.
The Marin County Civic Center is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, completed in 1962. It’s right off the 101 freeway, and well signed, so worth a drive-by wherever you’re headed. 3501 Civic Center Drive
Bolinas Museum, 48 Wharf Road; bolinasmuseum.org
EATING AND DRINKING
Mamahuhu, Mill Valley San Francisco chef Brandon Jew’s Mamahuhu has been replicated in Mill Valley, in a space kitted out in diner-esque wood laminate and bright lights. Delicious, and great value for money; the spice-averse should proceed with caution. 173 Throckmorton Ave; eatmamahuhu.com
Bovine Bakery, Point Reyes Station The western Marin destination for both French patisserie and cinnamon sticky buns the size of dinner plates. 11315 Shoreline Highway; bovinebakeryptreyes.com
Eleven Wharf, Bolinas A sweet women-owned natural wine bar and shop in a little house on Bolinas’s main drag, with some delicious small plates. They do pizza too. 11 Wharf Road; 11wharfroad.com
Smiley’s, Bolinas Following a restoration in 2020, one of the West Coast’s oldest publican spots is serving up a bit less locals-only froideur. Go for tacos that acquit themselves admirably and one of the super-obscure NorCal IPAs. 41 Wharf Road; smileyssaloon.com
Sol Food It doesn’t look like much, but this south-Marin stalwart is considered the best Puerto Rican food in the Bay Area. The OG is in San Rafael, but there’s an outpost in Mill Valley as well. 903 Lincoln Avenue, San Rafael; 401 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley; solfoodrestaurant.com
Pizzeria Picco, Larkspur A county-wide favourite in the centre of long-since-gentrified Larkspur, its biscuit-crisp crusts and very California toppings (shishito peppers, hen of the woods mushrooms, kale, naturally) are worth the drive from anywhere in Marin. 316 Magnolia Ave; pizzeriapicco.com
Hog Island Oyster Co, Marshall All the way up Highway 1 in Marshall, on Tomales Bay, is this 40-year-old purveyor, where you call ahead to sit outside at wood tables and feast on bivalves hauled straight from the bay you’re looking at, shucked and served icy cold with lemon or barbecued in a smoky sauce. 20215 Shoreline Highway; hogislandoysters.com