Renee Frojo

The heart in art


VISUAL ART As the old saying goes, a picture can be worth a thousand words. But a local gallery has united two separate artists stemming from Jewish and Islamic backgrounds to convey only one: peace.

In “Shalom/Salaam,” a joint exhibit running through May 26 at the Mishin Fine Arts gallery, self-proclaimed activist artist Tom Block and Afghan refugee Shokoor Khusrawy demonstrate that art can be more than a commodity, and rather a tool to dismantle cultural barriers and inspire change.

Although very distinct in their approaches, both artists hope their paintings will help foster a shared emotional experience among viewers that will ultimately lead to understanding across different peoples and beliefs.

Growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, Khusrawy’s childhood was marred by violence and destruction. Art supplies were costly and difficult to find, and a bad hip injury confined him to paint on the ground. Yet as bombs rained down outside his window, his desire to create beautiful images remained strong.

From a bustling street market scene to a shepherd herding his goats in the countryside, Khusrawy’s soft, impressionist-style paintings offer an insider’s view into everyday life of a country that usually evokes images of conflict and hardship.

“He shows the hope and beauty that can be found in the world — not the destruction,” says gallery owner Larisa Mishina. “He expresses a desire to live in peace.”

Block’s work, on the other hand, aims to ignite that desire in others. In modern portraits made of acrylic, ink, and collage on canvas, Block depicts some of the most influential mystics of medieval times — from both Jewish and Islamic traditions — that have inspired and borrowed from each other throughout the ages.

Among Block’s “Shalom/Salaam” pieces are an interpretation of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a Sufi whose work was found quoted repeatedly in Jewish writings; it sits alongside a painting of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Hasidism, whose practice was heavily influenced by Sufi doctrine.

Through his portraits, and an accompanying book, Block aims to tell a positive story in a narrative that is almost entirely negative, and reveal that at the core, these ancient, warring religions are very similar. “I want people to see timeless ideas in a fresh way in the hopes that there will be a change in the heart of viewers,” Block explains.

Accordingly, much of Block’s work goes beyond the gallery. By using art projects to bring awareness of global and local issues, Block has been able to raise money for nonprofit organizations and led several events, such as the first ever Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival, which brought together 400 artist from around the world and got the attention of several hundred more. A collection of his other work is also on display at the Mishin Gallery in “Working toward Beauty.”

The exhibits are Block’s first in a commercial gallery and Khusrawy’s first in the US. Both artists have only been able to present at universities, libraries, and nonprofit organizations. “Galleries have always told me to leave my ideas at the door,” Block says.

But the exhibits are also a first for Mishin Fine Arts, which boasts a collection of 30 contemporary artists from all over the world, including Italy, Spain, and Russia. Although the artists in the gallery’s existing collection all have “profound messages,” Mishina says Block and Khusrawy’s exhibits are her first real step toward creating a space for more meaningful art.

“They are both raw talents, they are very sincere in what they do, and people feel it,” Mishina notes. “This brings true value to the gallery, which we want to share with art collectors.”

Block hopes the exhibits will open the eyes of art collectors to new, profound ideas of art and what it can do. “There’s a whole movement just waiting to be galvanized,” he says. *


Through May 26

Mishin Fine Arts

445A Sutter, SF

(415) 391-6100


Destination unknown


MUSIC From classically trained conservatory graduates and seasoned performers to self-taught beginners, the musicians that play throughout the city’s transit stations claim it’s one of the best places to earn a living busking.

“The people here really cherish music,” said longtime jazz musician Don Cunningham, who played in several other cities before settling in San Francisco over three decades ago. Now a recognized faced within the BART music scene, Cunningham has regulars who look forward to hearing him play familiar tunes on his clarinet, even if only for a brief moment on the way to work.

While the stage might not be glamorous, many underground performers are talented musicians. And with oftentimes uninterested audiences and unsteady pay, they’re taking a risky shot at doing what they love.

Making minimum wage can take several months, said violinist Christa Schmid, who has played in San Francisco for about four years. “When I first started playing in the city people tried to kick me around because I was new and younger,” she said. “I get a certain amount of respect now — people know me.”

Like Schmid, all underground musicians — whether busking for a living, supplementing their income, or simply playing for publicity — must learn how to operate in a system full of unspoken rules.

Every morning and afternoon during rush hour, musicians must race to secure a corner or hallway in the busiest downtown BART stations. While some attempt to stake out the same spot every day, others prefer mixing it up — and sometimes they don’t have a choice either way. The most important rule is setting up far enough from another musician.

On average, most musicians play for two to three hours per day in one location, as anything more is disrespectful to others vying for a spot. But just like the musicians themselves, theories vary on what times and which spots are the most lucrative.

Cunningham said the trick is finding a stable location so that “people know where to find you.” On most days, he can be found playing in the same spot at the Embarcadero station.

Newcomers, Cunningham added, tend to head straight to the Powell BART station because it’s teeming with tourists and constantly busy. “I started out there — everyone does,” he said. “But you learn after a while that quieter spots can be better for making money.”

While the musicians might be as transient as the crowd at Powell, there are a few that claim the station is their sweet spot. Schmid, for example, is “guaranteed at least $50 a day” at the busy station, where she has been playing for a year.

Playing in BART stations has some obvious advantages, such as shelter from the rain and cold and a somewhat captive audience. According to several musicians, the biggest draw is the underground’s great acoustics.

There are some restrictions on equipment and noise levels, and musicians are allowed only in the stations’ non-paid areas. All performers also are supposed to carry a free expressive activities permit, but enforcement is rare and it seems many don’t even realize it exists.

On the other hand, playing in the BART arena can be dangerous, as many musicians have to fend off aggressive beggars. As a woman playing alone, Schmit said she’s particularly vulnerable.

If successful at navigating the system, the payoff can be huge. “I can’t remember the last time I was this happy,” said young violinist Danica Hill, who quit her nine-to-five to give full-time busking a real shot six months ago.

Hill used to be terrified of playing in public by herself and took to BART to overcome her stage fright. Playing in the underground “can give you a bit of anonymity,” she said, adding that her confidence as a musician has grown tremendously and she has even landed a few gigs.