Noe Valley Voice July-August 1998

Tromble Writes, Paints, And Talks Art

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

Noe Valley artist and writer Meredith Tromble says she doesn't remember much about her rural Kansas childhood. But one image that will be forever etched in her mind involves her parents, a toy box, and art.

Tromble's father had built her a new toy box and painted it a shiny white enamel. Her mother, who'd been an art major in college, then painted a picture on its doors -- of two blue-gray kittens with pink bows around their necks, playing with a red ball. As Tromble watched her mother smiling as she dabbed on the bright colors, she had a child's epiphany.

"It was one of the few instances where I saw my mother making artwork," she says, "and I just had this moment of, like, God, that's incredible. She loves doing this. I think my interest in art came from my mother at a very early age."

Although Tromble, now 43, inherited her mother's old art supplies and played with them frequently as a child, she didn't think it was possible to be an artist when she grew up.

"I thought you had to be French to be an artist," she laughs. "I didn't know it was something that people like me could do."

But Tromble's attitude shifted once she took a painting course in college. "I had a wonderful teacher who had a professional orientation, and he said, 'You could really do this.' And once the lightbulb went on, that was it. I never looked back."

For the past 25 years, Tromble's life has revolved around art. She's been painting and drawing, curating and exhibiting, and teaching, broadcasting, and writing about the subject. Her paintings, drawings, and installations have been exhibited throughout Northern California, including at San Jose's Rosicrucian Museum, the Bolinas Museum, the Asian Art Museum, and the Mendocino Art Center.

In addition, for more than a decade she has broadcast short commentaries about the visual arts on "West Coast Live," a weekly variety show hosted by Sedge Thomson on KALW Radio (91.7 FM).

Since December of 1996, Tromble has been editor in chief of Artweek, a monthly magazine about West Coast art. Based in San Jose, the magazine has a readership of 12,000 artists, collectors, curators, and teachers. It can be found in Noe Valley at Good News on 24th Street.

"I took a very funny route into journalism," says Tromble, sipping a cup of tea at the small dining table in her kitchen. "No one would ever tell you, 'Oh, become a radio commentator to become a journalist.' I hadn't considered myself a writer in any sense before that, but just from that opportunity on "West Coast Live" -- that's really why I'm the editor of Artweek now."

Tromble and "West Coast" host Thomson were friends long before the show began in 1985. They met at a Democratic fundraiser for Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. At the party, Tromble was "feeling shy, basically hiding in the corner," when Thomson came over and struck up a conversation about painting.

Later, when Thomson launched the program, he decided to feature a segment on art. He called Tromble to ask if she was interested in being a commentator.

"I liked the idea, but I had no idea what I would say," she remembers. "Then I decided to talk about Open Studios, and it was so easy and fun and unintimidating," the essays turned into a regular gig.

For several years, Tromble presented her "View from the Studio" once a week. But in the past couple of years, primarily because of her job at Artweek, she's cut back to only occasional broadcasts. The pieces often draw a connection -- either directly or metaphorically -- between art and Tromble's everyday life.

For example, she recently visited the studio of a friend who was working on a series of paintings about hope. That visit got Tromble to thinking about the phenomenon of "hope," and she broadcast an essay about the role of an artist's aspirations. Hope is "crucial to the making of art, and I suspect the making of life. But what is it exactly? What happens inside when one feels hope?" she asked in the piece.

Since taking over at Artweek, Tromble has brought a similar sensibility to the magazine, covering news in the art world in a quirkier, less mundane style.

"I think I've been able to bring to the magazine a keen sense of what the issues are for artists," she says, "and I try to find interesting ways of looking at them. For instance, we've done special sections on spirituality in relation to art, and money in relation to art.

"Also, I've always loved the "Talk of the Town" section in the New Yorker, and the art world is really like a city unto itself," she continues. "So I thought, what if we tried a different angle in these pieces, or talked to someone we wouldn't normally talk to. We've begun to incorporate that kind of writing in the news section."

Tromble recently assigned a reporter to cover a story about a man who created a public art installation in downtown San Francisco from the parts of an old car he'd driven for hundreds of thousands of miles. Instead of writing strictly about the installation, the reporter opted to stand near it for hours, eavesdropping on what passers-
by said about the work and writing a story about the public's reaction to the piece.

"It was a charming, very funny story," says Tromble, "but it also said something instructive about the interface between the audience and art."

Because her job at Artweek is part-time, Tromble still finds time to paint and draw. She belongs to a weekly drawing group, whose members have been together for 20 years. She also rents a studio at Hunters Point Shipyard. There she works on her mixed-media paintings, which are mostly abstract designs -- simple geometric shapes, painted with texture.

She spends a few days a week at her studio, often starting work in the late afternoon.

"I can just keep going if I don't have an event in the evening," she explains, "but for actual, really productive work, I'm only good for about three hours. Sometimes I can go for a long time, but not usually. There's so much other stuff that has to be done in the studio -- stretching canvas, straightening out paints, washing brushes. You can burn up a lot of time just on peripheral things."

Tromble came to Northern California in 1973 after a year of college at the University of Denver. She had followed out her boyfriend, who was living in Berkeley, and she intended to enroll in art school. But neither the relationship nor the school plans worked out.

"The boyfriend and I broke up after one summer," she says. "I started school at the San Francisco Art Institute and then realized I really wanted to take different kinds of courses, like science and English and all the stuff they didn't really offer."

She eventually received a B.A. from New College of California and an M.F.A. in painting from Mills College in Oakland.

In a recent "West Coast Live" commentary, Tromble stated that "95 percent of the people who graduate with degrees in art aren't doing it anymore by the time they've been out of school for five years." Interestingly, though, she believes it's still easier to be a working artist today than when she started out.

"The culture in general seems to be tending toward the visual," she explains, "which is trickling down to younger artists who are getting training in digital stuff and ending up with good day jobs in the computer industry.

"Almost every university now has an art department," she adds, "and there's all sorts of training available. The art world right now is many times bigger than it's ever been in the United States."

Artists do need more exhibition opportunities, she says. "But we need to make them. San Francisco has a fabulous alternative gallery scene, and it's because young artists have gone out and opened spaces and done things in their studios. It's really hard, and people burn out after a while, but it's the only way anything ever gets done. There's no angel who's going to come and do it."

Since 1977, Tromble has made her home in Noe Valley, first in a loft space at 25th and Castro and currently in an apartment on 22nd Street, which she shares with her significant other -- an engineer and musician -- and "two wonderful kitty cats."

Though Tromble doesn't spend much time with other artists who live in the neighborhood, she appreciates knowing that they are around.

"I know Theophilus Brown and Paul Wonner and Mark Adams and Beth van Hoesen, but it's not like we get together and talk about art a lot or anything like that," she says. "But there's this kind of warm feeling knowing that we're neighbors. Norman Peterson, an art furniture maker, lives right across the street from Mark and Beth, and when I go running, I see some artists who teach at City College. They have a studio on Sanchez. The feeling of interconnectedness -- that you just run into people or see them casually -- is what's special about Noe Valley.

"But," she points out, "I think it's getting much more difficult for artists to live here. On the one hand, Noe Valley has this warm kind of feeling. That's because many of the artists who are here have been here for a long time. There aren't new younger people moving in, though, so it's not going to continue. I think that's pretty clear to anybody who's been looking at the real estate prices around here."

This summer, Tromble's schedule is as hectic as ever. Besides editing Artweek and working on her own painting and drawing, she is teaching at U.C. Berkeley and the California College of Arts and Crafts. "Sometimes I wish I could just paint full-time," she confesses. "But it's a condition for almost all artists, that you do other things, too.

"My advice to artists who are just starting out is: Work hard at the stuff that's under your control, and resist having any bitterness toward the things that aren't. Just keep trying to have a good time. There are difficulties all around, but the only reason to do this is because you love it and find it rewarding."