Believe it!

Pub date April 13, 2010
SectionVisual Art

VISUAL ART What would you do if you had been born with a treasure chest? This is a real-life Pippi Longstocking-tale: Jaina Bee is a quirky lady who sports a pink glam crewtop, was raised with minimal parental interference, and is undeniably devoted to her friends. Like Pippi, she was given a suitcase full of gold coins and owns a home.

Thirteen years ago, when Jaina Bee was in her late 20s, she purchased her Potrero Hill property with a vague vision of creating a collaborative-art utopia.

Each chamber of Granny’s Empire of Art has been given a fitting nickname. Sitting in the trophy room, named for its collection of taxidermy, it’s hard to imagine it as just another blank slate with off-white walls. “There’s a difference between decorating and transforming,” Jaina Bee says. Now: antique sofas, stripes of plaid and French country wallpaper, a haunting brick-based collage of cigarettes and electrical plugs, a hanging chandelier, and portraits of Jaina Bee with chickens — and of the benefactors of her inheritance, her step-grandfather Fred Davis and his father Edwin — fill the living room.

“Seriously, the deepest and most inescapable influence was my mother, who was a total prankster, trickster, nonconformist type,” she says. “As soon as I got out of high school and went into college, she lived out her trippy communal fantasy in Santa Cruz.”

As an experiment based around her deep curiosity about people, Jaina Bee’s mother threw open her doors. Those who came in were mostly freeloading Dead Heads of the 1980s. It was a madhouse.

“I took what I learned from observing that and inevitably turned this into my own semi-open house,” says Jaina Bee. “There are lots of people who make this place their home when they’re in town. They’re all creative, and they all contribute in some way to the household, whether it’s designing lights or creating rooms. And when I’m out of town for months at a time, people come and go just as freely as if I were here. So the house has a kind of life of its own. It’s bigger than all of us.”

“You can’t try to control it,” responds Jenny B, who did the lighting for the house and is staying over.

While her mother was watching her lawless social study, Jaina Bee was attending San Francisco Art Institute, where she befriended many artists who would later be involved with Granny’s.

Her professor Tony Labat challenged her to test, trial-and-error-style, without knowing the results. “That gave me the courage to experiment with collaborating with people not necessarily knowing where it was going to go,” she explains. She took this mentality seriously when she began working on her home. “The whole reason things have turned out the way they have here is that I didn’t try and control it too much — just enough to keep it from going into complete chaos.”

Of course, this is not the first art-home assembled by an eccentric heiress. Granny’s Empire of Art follows a tradition extending from Isabella Stewart Gardner and Sarah Winchester to Peggy Guggenheim and Doris Duke. But none of these comparisons quite fit because of Granny’s particular emphasis on collaboration and experimentation.

“It’s an unusual circumstance with Jaina, because she really wants people to do what they’re good at doing. She’s not sitting there saying she wants it this way. She has a lot of trust with her vision,” explains Christine Shields, who met Jaina at SFAI and has done work on the home since the initial painting sessions when she chose red for what would later be known as the opium den.

“When the whole house started, I thought it was so disparate. It seemed very hodgepodge and very crazy-quilt style. But the more time that goes by, the more it becomes this big vision and it has this cohesion that I couldn’t really see in the beginning,” Shields says. “But I know Jaina saw it.”

Granny’s two homes — an old farmhouse in the back and a Victorian in the front — contain a Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not!-worthy staircase covered with pencils that leads to a vintage Circus Circus carpet, a Gaudi-meets-the-Yellow-Submarine bathroom with glow-in-the-dark-slices hidden in the tiles, a fur meditation room, a haunted parlor with multicolored drywall, found photographs compiled into a pseudo family albums, and an old-timey phonograph. All this — and more — comes together to form a fairytale dollhouse that expands with the bite of a cookie, just like Alice’s wonderland.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams of the perfect environment. I’m always discovering things I didn’t notice before,” says Jaina Bee. “I think sometimes my friends have actually stuck things in here without telling me.”

Unlike the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there’s an energy that emanates from the life within the home. Jaina Bee says she’s thought about the future of Granny’s Empire of Art and the possibility that it might become a place for an artists residency program, but says she’s made no official plans. Granny’s is alive and growing.

There are even lovely sister cats, Crackle and Quilty, who share the home. “They wrecked a lot,” Jaina Bee says matter-of-factly. “I think in one year these kittens did $1000 in damage — to masterpieces. But that’s art as life. I don’t want it to be so precious I can’t be comfortable.”