Artist Interview: Ilana Crispi

Michelle Lagasca interviews exhibiting artist Ilana Crispi about her work in Hidden Cities (February 22–Saturday March 22, 2014), which offers gallery visitors a unique way to experience the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. See more of Crispi’s artwork at

Your piece “Tenderloin Dirt Harvest” involves dirt from the Tenderloin turned into furniture and vessels, such as teacups that visitors can drink from. Since your first apartment was in the Tenderloin, what does this piece say to you personally?
I wanted to investigate the significance and specificity of a particular place. I have my own memories from the neighborhood, however there is a much longer history that is located here. The identity of the neighborhood is constantly shifting, however the place, the land, the location, remains the same. I started this project by researching the history of the neighborhood and then investigating the land itself.

The land here is hard to visualize. The soil is covered. There are buildings and concrete, but not much visible natural terrain. When I lived here my own experience of the outside world was spent mostly on my fire escape, far from the ground. For this project I looked at satellite imagery of the neighborhood in search of hidden backyards and accessible slivers of soil that might be tucked into the neighborhood. I ended up finding Boedekker Park. This was a site where I once taught art classes to neighborhood kids. At that time it was mostly concrete and a very contentious neighborhood park. It is currently under construction.

I was able to get access to the site to harvest 90 gallons of soil. Much of this soil was harvested from directly under the building, now torn down, where I worked with the kids. This was a place where I spent time, but with no access to the land. I was also able to get my hands on a geological survey of this site. I discovered that much further underground there are deposits of clay. The earth from where I dug was mostly sand, evidence of the earlier sand dunes where people used to picnic. After functioning as a bucolic picnic site, it later became a series of theaters. After the 1906 earthquake and fire that followed the site was rebuilt as a skating rink and then dance hall and then dance school and then bowling alley and billiard parlor before becoming the contentious park that it is today. It is a park, but it is no longer a destination for picnics and nature.

The land holds stories. What happens on the surface changes, but the land itself stays constant. I wanted to explore the material of the land as a way of better understanding the shifting histories and people of this place. My own experiences here are a very small part of a long and incredibly diverse history of this place.

“Tenderloin Dirt Harvest” invites viewers to sit in and drink from the dirt of the Tenderloin. Visitors are specifically given tea to drink. Given the calming effects of a hot cup of tea, how does the act of drinking tea connect to your intentions with this piece?
The tea provides people with a literal taste of the neighborhood. The honey is locally harvested. The Roman mint and camomile and lemon verbena and pineapple sage other herbs are all grown locally. Tenderloin grown chard and kale and other greens and edible flowers were used to make soup and salad that I served to visitors. Sustenance is possible from the soil here. I wanted to allow people to engage in an intimate and positive fashion with the dirt from this place. This is a place that holds stigma. With this project visitors can hold a vessel made from the soil of this neighborhood in their hands and up to their lips and taste what was grown here. They can sit on furniture made from the soil. People are invited to stop and experience the neighborhood in a different way.

The inclusion of the furniture was an important element for me. The form of the bench in particular is one that holds meaning. Often, a destination deemed important or beautiful comes equipped with a bench. Visitors are encouraged to sit on a bench that marks a vista point and directs their gaze. There are no such benches in the Tenderloin. Even Boeddeker Park, before it was closed for construction, had many of its benches removed to discourage people from sitting and staying. I wanted to take soil from this same site to construct a bench, to mark a vista, to propose that people experience this place and consider the value and history of place.

The Tenderloin has been in the news lately with the current parking ban on the first block of Turk St, meant to decrease crime. There have been mixed reactions to this. What do you think about the parking ban?
The Tenderloin is a place that people with cars pass through. Most of the residents here do not own cars themselves, but the neighborhood is a thoroughfare for traffic, accidents and crime. This was not always the case. Both the visitors and residents of this neighborhood at one time came from a very different population. I am interested in how the realities of a place can change, while the land itself stays the same. What are the stories of this place? Where does the essence of place reside? How is value constructed?

Where is the best spot in the actual Tenderloin to sit down and have a cup of tea?
I would drink tea on my fire escape when I lived in the Tenderloin. The coffee shop on the first floor of my apartment building would often be hit up by slightly incoherent robbers wielding guns. Today there are much fancier spots that have moved into the neighborhood.

I grew up in the Tenderloin and have many fond memories of living on Turk St. I also remember picking cockroaches from my cereal every morning. What are your best and worst memories from living in the Tenderloin?
When I first moved into the Tenderloin I had to start by purging the apartment from what was left by the drug addict who lived there before me. I recycled a collection of beer bottles perched on gorgeous wood molding. I scrubbed mold from the refrigerator that was unplugged to save energy but never emptied. I discovered that mold can grow on undisturbed eggshells and turn them into Dr. Seuss style toxic specimens.

I broke down the absentee flat-mate’s door with massive bolt cutters to shut off the alarm clock she left on when she flew to New York. The daily 4:00 AM booming dance party alarm was surprisingly powerful. On her return, after finally meeting her, I learned about the bacchanalian witchy ceremonies she attended in the woods and the photo shoots that happened on the roof.

I remember dark light wells and stunning architecture and old elevators with pull doors that only sometimes worked. Outside there were the regular prostitutes with impossibly long legs who were always friendly and their johns who never were. I would walk to work at Fort Mason because it took less time than the bus. I took art classes in the Tenderloin and would sometimes have to duck into bars to evade cars that would trail me on my walk home. The Tenderloin was my home base for exploring a city and finding my place outside of my hometown.

About the interviewer:
Michelle Lagasca is currently an CCA Connects Extern at SOMArts Cultural Center. She is studying at the California College of the Arts and will graduate in the Spring with a BFA in Illustration.

For more information about internships at SOMArts, please click here.

The above documentation of Ilana’s work was shot at the opening reception for Hidden Citie by Sree Sripathy