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John Lindsey, once a night manager at Pete’s Cafe—situated on the roof of San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) on Chestnut Street—now runs The Great Highway art gallery in the Outer Sunset. After eight years of establishing the gallery and himself as a curator, John decided that now is the time to facilitate a reunion-like exhibition and recreate an experience that fostered a community of now globally recognized artists—Pete’s Cafe - SFAI in the 90s.  

Alongside salon-style hung photographs and letters from the 90’s, lives a wall full of memories featuring works by forty artists who either attended and/or worked at SFAI during that time period. On Saturday, January 11, during the opening reception, there was a truly euphoric feeling of reunification in that small, overcrowded room next to some of the most renowned contemporary Bay Area artists who all share a common experience of being a part of the school’s café.

What was it like to buy from or serve food to someone you just slammed in a painting critique? Or, to embody the idea that you can’t please everyonea contradiction to the ‘customer is always right’ so popular at the time? Read all about the emotion, passion and feelings that were on display at the café, in a conversation I had with John.



Bojana Rankovic: Why Petes’ Cafe, and why now?

John Lindsey: Pete’s Cafe was a very influential time in my life. The first time I worked there, I didn’t take any classes, but I fell in love with it there and I was having such a good time, that I never even thought about taking any. Then, the second time I worked there, I wanted to try to change my life, get out of cooking, and go into graphic design. I loved being at SFAI, I loved art, I loved the people, and mostly I just found everyone to be so wonderful and inspiring.

And then there was Pete. He is a guy who created this very unique environment, and I felt like I was a part of that and it was something special. It turned out that a lot of these people who were at the school, at that time, and the people who worked in the cafe, went on to do really amazing work. It was a magical time, a magical place and a wonderful group of people—so that’s why Pete’s Cafe, this exhibit.

I wanted to do this show now because  I have had my gallery for 8 years, and I felt that it would have been forward of me to ask Alicia (McCarthy) to be in the show the first year I was open, or to ask Barry (McGee), or Eamon (Ore-Giron) or Xylor (Jane) or Colin (Chillag) or Mads (Lynnerup) or any of the other people, Cliff Hengst, Scott Hewicker.. They are all the people that never left the community, and have worked very hard in the arts and have devoted their lives to it. When I got out of school I went off and worked at a tech company, and then that whole ‘.com’ blew up and I just started doing graphic design on my own, so I didn’t stay in that community myself.

When I got the gallery it was just gonna be my office, and people were asking me if I wanted to rent it out to them, but I wanted to have my own space. Then I thought of an even better use for it would be to become my studio- a little printing studio, and I could show artwork, too, because I didn’t have to invest capital to do that. It’s a consignment shop for all intents and purposes, a viewing space, and so it was something I could use to speak to the neighborhood. I’ve been in this neighborhood, and I’ve been surfing out here for 30 years, and I’m tired of talking about just surfing. I was trying to bring different conversations around the coastal environment than just surfing, so that’s what led the programming throughout the years.

I always wanted to do this show, but like I said, I was apprehensive to call in favors, so for eight years I’ve been doing things like, when Alicia had the Orfn show at Luggage Store Gallery- I donated a piece, and stuff like that, slowly becoming a part of the community- in positive ways and working. And now, I think I’ve got 50 shows under my belt. So now I know how to do it, I’m a better curator, at this stage, because I’ve been doing it for so long, and I know the window and I know the neighborhood and I know my neighbors and the unique situation out here. 

Then, all of a sudden, Pete comes and shows me the boxes, and I knew it was time to do a show. The timing felt right. When I saw Pete’s timeline installation (by Patricia Kavanaugh and Tanesha Jemison) that was originally on the back wall of the Cafe, I thought that could be the anchor of the show. So, that’s why it happened now - because it took that long for me to get there, it took that long for Pete to show me the stuff, and because it took me time to figure out how to anchor the show.


What was it (at SFAI) that made you want to get more involved in the arts, like take classes, and now have your gallery? Were you interested in art even before your job at Pete’s?

I was a chef, and I was always good with computers. When I went to the University of Utah for a couple of years before moving out here and going to cooking school, I had the first Macintosh computer and we were doing very rudimentary things with it, but that was part of the foundation. I was feeding people’s stomachs and then I turned into feeding people’s eyes and minds. And frankly, I was never going to be a graphic designer, I wanted to take the arts that I was learning at the Art Institute and use that as the foundation of my graphic design practice. I got into it all at the Art Institute, and I was into art before and I was a very creative person, but just in a very different way.


Can you talk about how the strong sense of community, centered around Pete’s, influenced the students in an individual way, and what it felt like to be a part of it?

Part of it is that the school store and the cafe were centers of necessity on that campus. People have to eat and people need art supplies, and so those two places had some value beyond just taking classes at a regular university to people. There was some power in those two places. A friend of mine would come in late at night and I would give him a baked potato or whatever and students would give away food…things like that, and we never busted people…well, actually we did, I have a memo here of one person we had to kick out because he was just straight-up stealing food; but we took people in, and then the administration would come to Pete and bring a student who’s not really fitting in, and ask him if he can give them a job and get them assimilated into the school. If you had a job at the school store or the cafe - you met everybody, and you were serving everybody and you were engaging with everybody. If you were not fitting in or you were lost at school and if you work in the cafe, all of a sudden you were front and center, for good or for bad. 

That was one way that we were influencing students and then we just had a lot of fun, and the making of food is a creative practice, the culinary arts, whether you want to call it art or not. And not everybody worked well at the cafe, some people are not very good workers and that’s just life but some people really enjoyed what was going on in there and it was good for them, it fed a lot of people, if you work there you got free food so that was a whole other benefit to it.

And then we were good chefs, we are both professionally trained chefs, we worked together at Hayes Street Grill, and then Pete got the job at the Institute first and brought me over. We weren’t opening a lot of cans, we were trying to make really wholesome wonderful food that was also cheap. Rice and beans was the whole thing, $2.75 I think is what we charged when we first started selling it. Then, Thanksgiving dinners, stuff like that, it was good healthy food, and it was all in a beautiful setting, working in the cafe—the view all day long.


There were a few complaint letters up on the wall next to all the art. What are the stories about them, and who was it that had issues with Pete?

Well, it is an art school, isn’t it? Critique is a huge part of it.

We are offering a service and you can’t please everybody. There were students, faculty, staff, administration who were all very happy with it and then there were also people who found it to be too loose. Sometimes, people might get offended, but you know that was it, it was biting, we were able to study everyone that came in through that school and we were the observers to some degree, and there was a slight bit of power and control in the fact that we had the food. I’m sure that our customer service was not perfect, a lot of the time…I mean there’s one letter here when Xylor and Ted are complaining about somebody, but it just is what it is. Also, you’re there with everybody all the time, so during the summer it would just be me, Peet and Tad and we’d wait on all the staff and administration throughout the summer and then the student workers would come back in the fall or late summer and then all the students would come back and all heck would break loose.

You also have to remember…let’s say I’m waiting on you, and we were just in a painting critique and I said something really nasty and horrible about your painting or the other way around. There was that type of stuff that went on all the time, as well. There were also relationships that were going on, that the students had, and all that type of stuff, just like any school, but it was all on display at the cafe…emotion, passion, feelings.


How did the opening reception night go for you? How did it feel to see everyone after all these years?

It was really incredible. 

I’ve been living with this for almost 3 weeks now, putting it up, looking at the pictures over and over again, reading everything over and over. For me, personally, it’s been a constant barrage of old memories coming back, which is really neat at this stage in my life. So, that was just personally a cathartic thing, but then I felt like there was so much love and energy in the room and it was so neat.

When I’m at the openings, I have to work, talk to certain people, help them purchase things, make sure that my daughter is doing a good job behind the bar, that nobody is getting in trouble outside, so I’m not fully engaged out beyond the desk, but seeing everyone just be this happy was really touching and special. 

Someone suggested that I could do this show again, somewhere else, and I could, but there will never be a night like that ever again. That was really what was amazing about it.


Is there someone whose career took an unexpected turn? Anyone who ended up in a field you would never expect them to be? Or ended up applying their practice in a way that radically changed?

Wow…I would say that someone who I think is just super awesome is Colin Chillag, who had a tough time in school. I just love his paintings and what he is doing now, his wicked sense of humor. He’s one example but I guess I would say that it applies to everyone because I was so naive when I was working there, I am just blown away by all of them, by Alicia and Ruby and Colin, and Eamon, Xylor, and Cliff who worked at the school store, and Mads, who was the goofiest kid when he was working at the cafe, and what he’s gone on to do is just wonderful and amazing.

And then, surprisingly, some people for whom you thought were the most talented people in the entire world have drifted away, and they took a completely different track, maybe they have gone into administration or they’ve joined the fire department or something like that, that’s a big change.


What is coming up next at The Great Highway? Anything you are particularly excited about?

I have another opening on Saturday, January 18, that is going to be on the other wall across from Pete’s Cafe, and that is the MLK Surf Photography Show. In 2013, on the Martin Luther King Day weekend, there was a really amazing swell at Ocean Beach and all these photographers took photos of it, including myself, so we’re going to have a show here and we’re in collaboration with Mollusk. There will be artwork and photographs there, and photographs here, there will be a band at Mollusk, and I’m going to show surf videos on my screen. 

So that’s the next show is and what’s cool and neat about it is that I’ll get a whole new group of people here, and not only will they see the surf show, but they will get to see Pete’s show. It won’t be as well attended as Pete’s show, but there will be about 50 to 100 people. All those who normally wouldn’t have seen Pete’s will be introduced to the San Francisco Art Institute.

Pete’s Cafe—SFAI in the 90s runs from January 10–February 14, 2020 at The Great Highway in San Francisco. Details here.


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