I met Jon Siegel a couple years ago by recommendation to attend an open-mic poetry and performance event at Viracocha; his antique shop by day, venue by night. At this point, Viracocha is synonymous with Jon Siegel. Through threads of his own history and the contribution of the local artist community of San Francisco, as Jon prefers it, space is his art and his life. It is the orifice through which local community, artists, and consumers can connect as people, creating a life of richness through reuse of preexisting goods and supporting local artists. To understand Jon as a person and artist, I think it fair to start with Viracocha itself. Like much of Jon’s personal journey, Viracocha is a hodgepodge of facility strewn together by the community who has nurtured, built, and supported the endeavor since 2009. This community includes musicians, poets, artists, businesspeople, locals, and whoever happens to stumble into the place which is not unlike stumbling into a time portal or a looking glass. Stepping into Viracocha can transform people. Jon’s continual emphasis on community, visual flair, and expression is what makes this so. “In use and feel of course the one thing I [want is] to inspire people. I want to inspire people to snap out of what they were going through on the sidewalk, on the street, in their lives and when they walk into this space to be transported. To get out of their own heads, to be thrust with their own sense of creativity…to have the artistic process within them start the moment they walk in.” says Siegel. For me and I know for others who experience the space on many levels, have felt inspired because it is quite possibly one of the most unique, well-conceived art spaces in San Francisco.
This article is not about Viracocha. I’m not writing a review despite the fact that everyone should know about this place. The motive for me is to showcase an artist which is not easy when Jon is so wonderfully humble. He considers himself a very shy and reserved person, preferring not to be always explaining what the space is about, therefore he rarely does interviews. But I hope my years of adoration for the space and somewhat consistent rapport with Jon has allowed him to feel comfortable divulging his thoughts on the matter of artistic exploration.
We met up for an interview in early July on a hot summer day, very fittingly where Jon spends most of his time, at Viracocha. Jon was only five minutes late and I couldn’t help but feel honored to witness him sprint down Valencia Street, momentarily removed from his generally composed and serene demeanor. The store was thankfully cool inside and things had been rearranged from the last time I’d come by. On a personal level, Viracocha always harkens back to so many fond memories of mine and is a vein that has connected me to so many people that to be in this space again for this purpose restores a sense of belonging and a desire to impart this possibility to others. Jon has continued to impress all the while choosing to stay mostly behind the scenes and ensure the bolstering of other people’s artistic endeavors. “For me, the whole thing is an experiment. It’s sort of a sociological and economic experiment to see if people can gather together, work together, [and] make a life for each other, certainly all contributing as much as they can. Also that means the community as well and to have a rapport with them; to make sure that we’re not a cancer within their world, their community but certainly trying to enliven what’s already preexisting…I think having people that you love, care about and believe in, and [then] watching them succeed is a much better motivating factor than just your own success, your own artistic endeavors. I think it’s much more about service to your community than it is about you and your own personal expression,” says Siegel.
Despite Jon’s reservations, there is a story behind the owner of Viracocha who was not always a businessperson in his own right but started out primarily as an artist which, of course, is still the case. He doesn’t profess to have it all figured out by any means.
Jon Siegel was born in 1976 on Valentine’s Day in Bogota, Colombia where he was placed in an orphanage immediately. He lived there for a little under a year until he was adopted by American parents. He grew up in New Jersey and was raised primarily by his mother for the first six years of his life. His parents had split shortly after he’d come to America. He cites his mother as being his first driving force that encouraged him artistically. “She was always trying to inspire me, throwing crayons in my face, colored pencils, going to the art supply store. So I was always drawing from a young age. Around sixth grade, I started getting into poetry and writing.”
The question of artistic training is an important component that I believe every artist has their own personal experience with and opinion on. As a person who has had a considerable amount of time outside of an academic environment and because he’s had a wide range of experiences, I was curious about his take on self-teaching and conventional training. Jon seems to take an egalitarian approach to both sides, believing them both to be very important in the sense that conventional training can serve as a guide in the form of a technique or a teacher that could take an artist to a new path that they may not have found on their own and self-teaching as being an inherent factor. “You’re always going to have to teach yourself about every aspect of your life and it’s always going to filter its way into your work. Just keep your eyes open,” says Siegel. Self-teaching, he believes, is just part of the artistic process and will always be available when needed and, unlike conventional training, is a lot less expensive. Stemming off of the two schools of thought, Jon maintains that talent is the driving force of a successful artist. “If you have talent, you will go somewhere. But it’s also marketing too so there’s a business aspect to the arts education that seems to be left out quite a bit in the academia world.”
Jon moved to New Orleans to attend college for writing and poetry but eventually discovered that he had an aptitude for acting. He began pursuing theatre alongside photography and, to a certain extent, interior design that foreshadows the beginnings of Viracocha. “Living in New Orleans, I got a chance to sort of learn about antiques and it was kind of an older world down there. I [would] go into some thrift stores. It was my first time away from home and decorating my own space…that was the inspiration for me to take my time and really develop my home as an extension of my own artistic self.” After college, he moved to New York City to pursue acting full-time, during which he continued to collect items and had brought a couple with him from New Orleans. After a year or so, friends and friends of friends took notice of his decorating talents and hired him to design their apartments. Jon describes how Viracocha eventually began to take shape in his mind: “It started in New York and it kind of started just up in the sky. I was reading a Sky Mall magazine while flying somewhere and I saw this umbrella and I was like ‘yeah, this is pretty cool. I have absolutely no need for this umbrella but it’s something that I think is a neat design and I think that it’s something somebody should buy…so it started taking on this idea of a store or a boutique, collecting things that I thought were a good design and making a sort of ‘best of’. I was going through New York and I saw [a lot] of retail spaces for rent and the idea started tinkering about at that point in time.”
What I appreciate most about Jon is his ability to take a small idea or thought and gradually manifest it into something great, not only great but something beyond himself. Outside of Viracocha, Jon also hopes to finish his first book which is comprised of three or four poetry serials. He plans to launch them as a compendium of about eight hundred pages. It became obvious to me throughout the interview that Jon is a person who follows his heart and believes in making a life out of combined talents and passions, which is often contrary to what much of the current societal structure tries to impart on us. We are often taught to accept what has been laid before us and walk a certain linear path of life events influenced by what others want. These “others” may include our family, friends, peers, teachers, media, or simply what is valued in our current culture. Artists are those that are struggling to not be put into a particular box or path. Despite the inherent nature of a creative, the world encourages artists to play it safe even though the very basis of creativity is to take risks and challenge boundaries through exploration of different forms of expression.
“’Artist’ or ‘poet’ is not a role, it’s a way of life. It’s who you are so once you dedicate yourself to ‘I am this’ even if you are many things you might have to live a very fractured, psychologically crazy life in order to just accept that you’re an artist because it’s difficult…This world will deem us successful based on our monetary achievements quite often. Mainly, it’s the people you touch. If you’re an artist, that’s a tremendous feat… If you’re able to effect people positively and leave the world a better place, if you’re able to enlighten people, give people the ability to understand themselves…I think as an artist that’s the most important thing”, says Siegel.
Almost every artist comes to a point or perhaps several points where their expression is challenged by varying factors and they experience a hiatus from creative work. The factors that can contribute include stress, lack of funds, traumatic events, isolation, feeling as though the art has no effect on the world, and loss of inspiration. This can be a painful process lasting for years but can also be a time for transformation, moving an artist a hundred steps from a plateau. Jon describes a moment when he felt lost due to tragedy and how he was able to lift himself out of it. “I just stopped everything creative that I was doing right around the time of 9/11. Some friends had passed away and I didn’t understand the role of an artist in this sort of society at that point. I just wasn’t sure what was going on with me and what my role was.”
Jon worked several different jobs including restaurant work and many years in construction. Construction became an avenue where he learned carpentry skills and other abilities that would later pour into the projects of his store but also became an important motivator that pushed him to get back into the arts. “I’d always wanted to focus more on the arts and focus more on what I was able to offer to the world. At one point, I was chopping down a 400 pound air conditioning unit from a ceiling and there’s sparks flying in my face. This 400 pound unit swings in my direction, almost knocks me off the ladder that I was on and I’m there told to do this by my employer with no sort of help, nobody around but myself. I was like, this just seems silly. I feel like I have a lot more to do and I have a lot of other skill sets so how do I make this life work?”
After five years of no artistic endeavors, Jon moved to San Francisco and was reawakened to photography when he was given a digital camera. He began utilizing his design skills honed in New York to set up his photography booths. “…It wasn’t until people started to really appreciate my photography and encourage me to open up a gallery that I thought about the idea of combining an art gallery and home décor store with a retail store and that’s kind of the genesis of it. It took a couple years.”
Sometimes it is imperative for an artist to step away from an environment in order to find their muse again. Places and people can anchor us to our foundation but can also confine artists in ways that keep them from evolving. But the spirit of place can never be forgotten because it exists solely within us and artists can use all their experiences to inform their sense of expression.
The process of building Viracocha is equivocally inspirational as the store that exists today celebrating its third year. I was cautious when asking Jon about personal matters regarding money but I want to paint both sides of a picture that doesn’t just include the highlights of inspiration and following your dreams, but also the stark aspects of business sense and financial means that allow an artist to be stable in their projects. Among many things I have learned from artists who are successful on many levels, a balance of business sense and creative abilities are paramount for their survival.
“There was an investment I made a long time ago. I worked in construction a long time when I was living in New York and I saved up there. When I quit the job, I waited awhile then took out my retirement fund which was more than I was expecting. I moved here to San Francisco and started pursuing photography, found some headway but it seemed to make sense to start something a little bit more large scale and pursue a very old dream that I had with the store,” says Siegel.
A huge part of being an artist is also being your own businessperson and/or surrounding yourself with people who are knowledgeable about business and marketing. In Jon’s case, hiring a real estate agent was the key to sealing the deal in obtaining the space for Viracocha after running into obstacles when trying to make proposals on his own. “…they didn’t want to rent out to any sort of brand new, upstart business because it didn’t pan out in the past. I just didn’t find that I was touching people at least in the real estate world with my vernacular of being a poet and a writer, maybe it sounded too flowy and creative so I hired a real estate agent on my behalf to act as a broker and that immediately sealed it. It made it much easier to get real estate people to talk to me. At that point, we just had to prove there was a certain amount of funds,” explains Siegel.
The professionalism of an artist is not just demeanor but also built up over a period of time through experience and people who are willing to take risks on trusting his/her ability. It’s important for an artist to know how to market and present themselves as a person who can commit and contribute in a positive way. “[Obtaining the space was] based on my proposal which was pretty much three different resumes. I had my resume as an actor, my resume as a writer, performer, and my resume for [other] work-related stuff…It impressed the landlord enough to say he has a track record of getting things done. He went on a gamble. A lot of people were offering twice the amount of money for the space but he knew that our proposal was a lot more in line with the community and he already found difficulty with renting out to larger, commercial companies because the community is very resistant towards that kind of thing.”
The reality is that creating art takes money whether you’re a painter or a writer, and this is especially the case if you’re running a space for artists. An art space such as Viracocha is meant for public use and thus is no longer purely an extension of Jon’s personal projects but participates in upholding an artistic community. On another level, the store has served as an example of how community can influence the flow of the marketplace not just the other way around.
Jon received the keys on October 16, 2009 and started construction in November. He gives much of the credit to the San Francisco poetry community for their donated physical labor involved in construction, carpentry, plumbing, electricity, and painting. “People got paid with pizza and cheesesteaks and beer but it was a lot more effort put out than we could recompense,” says Siegel. A production meeting was held in late October where Jon said about twenty-four people showed up. He presented the tasks that lay ahead, designated roles, and came up with a schedule. In the beginning, Jon says that there was a lot of steam behind the project and “seemed to all fit together” but no projects are absent of challenges especially when other people are involved. “At some point, you know, they’ve all got their own jobs, they’ve all got their own lives…at some point it started to peter off. I looked around and nobody was here for a good portion of time. So it was on my shoulders to say you know you can’t just sit and hope it all materializes.” Due to his resiliency, personal commitment to hard work, and a history of insomnia (he unabashedly admits it contributes to the reason he gets so much done), Jon continued much of the painting and wood work on his own. However, people in the community eventually came back to help when it became obvious that he wasn’t about to give in just yet. “Once it showed that I was still making headway despite there not being a lot of folks around, people came back, people got re-inspired…you have to be the hardest working person in the business. If you’re going to have any sort of people helping you out or any sort of staff, you have to inspire them by making them know that you’re putting your effort in as much as you possibly can. I’ve tried to stick to that as much as possible.”
Three years later, Viracocha has become a vibrant center for the arts and healthy consumerism that promotes the needs of the community. It is also a constantly shifting, evolving space that Jon and his closest friends have built together. Aside from being visually very beautiful and creatively constructed with its recycled redwood panels that cover all the walls of the store and unusual vintage items, Viracocha offers a variety of services that keeps getting bigger each year. “Each day and as each week goes by, a new role is added to the store or a new function is somehow applied and we just suddenly find ourselves ‘Oh well! I guess we do that too!’” says Siegel with fervor.
These services include interior design work, decorative building, and carpentry. They also build industrial style lamps and various chandeliers. Sourcing is also offered if a client is looking for a particular item, Viracocha can find it for them. It has also been used as a decorative space for photographers, movies, and music videos. There is a downstairs level used as a performance space and for private parties in conjunction with the retail section. I personally have enjoyed many poetry readings, live music, and a singing class downstairs. The space can also be rented out for private events such as weddings and birthday parties. Viracocha also has a small lending library in the back run by Kristina Kearns that offers a sliding scale membership and sourcing for hard to find books.
Through Viracocha, Jon has learned a lot about himself within the challenges that it has presented. Interacting with the public as a businessperson and an artist has been an obstacle that he has learned to adapt to. In addition to being shy, Jon also says he is more comfortable with expressing himself through writing and performing, rather than talking or representing a business. But he finds it necessary to learn how to reach out to others for the sake of being more approachable to the community and understanding his role within it. “I prefer not to be on stage as far as my name and my personal persona is concerned. I don’t mind acting with a blanket of it being acting or the blanket of it being a role. But to have my name and my face and my person attached to something that I’m doing on a consistent basis is a bit difficult for me. I’ve learned to be better at it, learned to talk. This has been a healthy experience for me.”
For Jon, every day seems to be a learning experience and he is secure in his capability to be open. He emphasizes the importance of change. “Nothing is without some sort of constant revision outside of our control so it’s just trying to adapt. To me, writing, performing are a way to adapt and learn from myself. I feel like I have to do this stuff because it’s just a way for me to try to understand and to bring people closer in my life.”
Anything can be subject to Jon’s fascination, citing nature as his “greatest teacher” and the contrasting “balance of calm and titillation.” He recognizes that solitude and hardship are a part of the identity of an artist. This is often the case because it is part of what it means to be human and artists seek to immerse themselves completely in the questions raised about humanity. Sometimes these questions raise fears in others that are often projected onto the artist, casting them as dangers to a seemingly impenetrable society of walls and expectations. But Jon is not bitter by any means and seems to accept life as it comes. “There are no rules, really. What we have to do is survive, that’s the only thing we were trusted with. Just to figure out how to make it through the day, fall asleep and do it again. The other things that have pressed upon us over time, I try not to pay attention to them…I planted this crazy seed which was everything that I had and it’s an experiment and it’s a dream but so far it seems to be growing.”
Further information on Viracocha can be accessed on http://www.viracochasf.com or through Facebook.