Murals painted by the artist Jess in film critic Pauline Kael’s former home on Oregon Street in Berkeley have been saved.
A 29-year-old tech worker who comes from a family of artists purchased the 1905 brown-shingled home for $1.45 million and signed a covenant promising not to paint over or disturb the murals for 10 years.
“I got very inspired by the artwork,” said Reuben Gibson at a reception at the house on May 6. “It speaks to me. I love mysticism, the romantic myth. I love Lord of the Rings. I like the artwork. It’s one of the reasons I bought the house.”
Kael, who became America’s leading film critic after she started writing for The New Yorker in 1968, moved to Berkeley in 1955. (She had attended UC Berkeley in the 1930s, but never graduated). She was the manager of the two-screen Berkeley Cinema Guild Studio in the Sequoia building on Telegraph Avenue near Haste Street. The theater showed both American and European films and became known for its innovative programming, and what movie historian David Thomson described as Kael’s ‘pungent” film reviews.
Kael also hosted salons in her home at 2419 Oregon St. near Telegraph that included her friend the poet Robert Duncan, his lover, the artist Jess Collins, along with the filmmaker Jean Renoir and other notable artists.
In 1956, Kael hired Jess (he dropped his last name in the 1940s after he became estranged from his family) to paint murals throughout the house. Jess painted 10 whimsical murals in the styles of Gaudi, Bonnard, Braque, Klee, the Symbolists, and others above the front door, on the back porch, in the living room, in the upstairs hallway and in various bedrooms. Five of the murals have been painted over. Another artist, Henry Jacobus, painted the kitchen floor and a mural.
Jess went on to achieve fame as a collagist.
Robert and Ann Basart bought the house in the 1960s and raised their children there. Robert was a composer and Ann was a music librarian at UC Berkeley. While they were living in the house they tried to get art experts interested in the murals, but few cared, said their daughter, Kate Basart. Interest in Jess’s artwork only really increased after his death in 2004.
After Robert Basart died and Ann moved out, her children put the house on the market. The family hired Ortrun Niesar, a realtor with a background in art, who recognized the uniqueness of the murals. She immediately tried to involve the art community in saving the murals and invited Paule Anglim, who had a gallery in San Francisco, to see the murals. Larry Rinder, director of the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive came by, as did principal curators for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Niesar, along Christopher Wagstaff, a co-trustee of the Jess Collins Trust (which includes the estates of both Jess and Duncan), and others, also formed the Committee to Preserve the Jess Murals and Kael/Basart House. Their objective: to find a buyer who recognized the historic importance of the murals.
The house went on the market in June 2014. While there were some interested buyers, no-one with both the financial means and the willingness to live with a restriction on preserving the murals was able to close a deal. The house was taken off the market.
Reuben Gibson, who attended Ithaca College and who works for software company Radius in San Francisco, was attracted to Berkeley’s mix of culture and the outdoors, he said.
“I always loved Berkeley. I grew up in the country. I always loved open space. I also love culture. Berkeley felt like a blend of the two – it’s funky, has good music, restaurants, culture.”
Gibson had bid – and lost – on a number of houses in the Bay Area’s overheated real-estate market. He heard about the Kael/Basart house and asked his realtor, Kim Marienthal of Coldwell Banker, to arrange a tour. Marienthal had previously represented a couple that got close to buying the house, so he knew the details of the covenant.
Within a month, Gibson was the new owner. He purchased it for $1.45 million, said Marienthal. Gibson plans to move in soon with his girlfriend, an El Cerrito resident.
Kate Basart, who flew down from Seattle for the reception, couldn’t be more pleased that the new owner has an appreciation for the murals.
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “He seems very excited and interested in the art. My hope is he is happy to carry this on.”
Gibson, whose father and grandmothers are both artists, said he holds salons in his San Francisco apartment. He hopes to emulate Kael and hold gatherings with artists, writers and other interesting people in his new home on Oregon Street.
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