SAN FRANCISCO — Jenifer K. Wofford says friends, family, and a rent-controlled apartment keep her in San Francisco. Cathy Lu loved living in the nearby city of Richmond, and hopes to return, but after her experience as a harried adjunct, she is trying out a full-time teaching job in Massachusetts. Yétúndé olagbaju has temporarily left Oakland to live in Los Angeles while their partner completes a master’s program. And Woody De Othello, originally from Miami, loves the Bay Area’s natural beauty and has no plans to leave. 

These are some of the 23 artists included in a show at San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design, Fight and Flight: Crafting a Bay Area Life, meant to examine how artists stay — or don’t — in an area with steep rents, scarce studio space, and a high cost of living overall. 

Lu, like many people, began to rethink the direction of her life during the pandemic. “Some semesters, I was teaching four classes at three different schools and it’s doable, but it was really stressful,” she told me in an interview. “There were so many times when I would get to one school and give them a handout that said another school’s name on it.”

When Lu applied for a position teaching ceramics at Tufts University, at first she told herself she was just getting experience looking for job. “I thought, ‘I guess I’m going to practice doing an on-campus visit.’ The whole time I was thinking, ‘I probably won’t get it, and I love the Bay Area, and I’m not trying to leave,’” she explained. “But then the whole thing escalated. And I was like, ‘I guess I’m practicing negotiating contracts now.’”  

yétúndé olagbaju, “i love the ghost in your eye” (2023), bronze armature, cyanotype on cotton, beading, pearl, and ochre

Lu moved to the Bay Area from Miami in 2008 to attend the now-shuttered San Francisco Art Institute. As well as all the Asian markets, she loves the group of artists she’s encountered here, many of whom have become close friends. 

“It feels like in general the Bay Area is more supportive, more community oriented [than other art scenes],” Lu said. “For better or worse, we’re less concerned about money. We’re more concerned about the projects and the people, and I think that makes us different than New York City or LA. We just have a lot of heart in the Bay Area.”

Lu’s large-scale sculpture, “Nüwa’s Hands” (2022), depicting the Chinese creation goddess festooned with golden peach pits, hangs near Wofford’s orange and blue acrylic on wood painting, “Battlefield III (Choices)” (2023), which features the words, “Yup” and “Nope,” a reference to Oakland rapper E-40’s song “Choices,” underscoring the show’s theme. 

Like Lu, Wofford feels a sense of community among artists here. With a stable teaching job at the University of San Francisco and an affordable apartment, she plans on staying. “It feels nice to roll up at an event and just know you’re going to see your friends,” she enthused. “That absolutely keeps me here. I have zero interest in starting from scratch elsewhere. There’s no rebuilding lifelong connections.”

For Woody De Othello, also a ceramicist, the choice to stay in the Bay Area is clear. He came out from Miami to study at the California College of the Arts in 2015, drawn by the school’s ceramics program, but the region’s natural landscape has kept him here.

“Being in a city that has all this elevation, you could see the hills and this mountainous landscape, I was completely in awe,” he said. “Throughout the course of the past eight years, I’ve fallen in love with being outside and being in nature and being able to take hikes, and the pace [at which] the Bay Area moves.”

Woody De Othello, “tomorrow always never is” (2023), glazed ceramic and walnut wood

De Othello and his partner recently bought a building in Oakland, providing all the more reason to stay, but ultimately he believes that Bay Area artists have a distinctive voice, one he expresses through creating art based on everyday objects. His piece in the exhibition, “tomorrow always never is” (2023), encompasses a rotary phone, a clock, and some books. 

The camaraderie among artists and the support they get from one another helps make the Bay Area feel like an incubator for creativity, but the struggle to find housing takes its toll. Between 2012 and 2022, olagbaju lived in 10 different places, and took their altar to all of them to give a sense of stability. They call their contribution to the show “an offering to all the dreams, visions, and futures we’ve prayed on, lit candles for, worked at, and left at the altar.” Personal heirlooms from their altar, like seaweed, are cast in bronze and integrated into the work, titled “i love the ghost in your eye” (2023) and made of quilted cyanotype with ochre pigment. 

Olagbaju, who is currently directing a residency in Los Angeles, hopes to return to the Bay Area someday. They note the California Arts Council’s new program to fund artists’ projects, California Creative Corps, as a good start to making a sustainable life for Bay Area artists, but more support and infrastructure are needed for artists to thrive.  

“In the Bay Area, there’s this beautiful opportunity to deepen your art practice,” olagbaju stated. “But there are not a lot of directionalized, realistic resources to sustain a consistent life of being able to pay bills and rent and a studio and to be able to afford materials and expand your practice.”

Installation view of Fight and Flight: Crafting a Bay Area Life at the Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco; foreground: Cathy Lu, “Nüwa’s Hands” (2022), ceramic, gold luster, steel cable
Installation view of Fight and Flight: Crafting a Bay Area Life at the Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...