Not the Last White Man In San Francisco: a Conversation with Artist Charles Albert

White Man Walking by Charles Albert

Charles Albert is not the last white man in San Francisco. Not by a long shot. 43% of the population identifies as white. 49% are female. Hordes of white men live and work in The City: from Russian Hill—where Albert shares his apartment with a parrot named “Bird”— to the Financial District, where he holds up in a space not much bigger than a bird cage.

In a city where world weary reporters and editors lament the decline of local art, Bay Area literary communities and what’s known as “culture,” individual artists are producing innovative work in the very heart of corporate capitalism. Joan Brown did it in her time and so did Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo who arrived from Mexico and stormed the San Francisco art world. Charles Albert has been on a roll since January 1, 2023 and hasn’t slowed down since then.

The walls of his sun-lit apartment explode with paintings and sketches he has created in a variety of styles over the last four months. Some are abstract, others are figurative and made with a few simple lines. Perhaps the one that stands out more than any other has the working title, “White Man Walking.”

The colors are black and white. The medium is compressed charcoal. The anonymous white man walks toward the viewer. That much is clear from the angle of his legs and the movement of his feet. Curiously, or perhaps not, his face is not visible.

In fact, he doesn’t have a face or a head, either, though a black hat—a kind of halo— hovers above the space where his head ought to be. He might be a twenty-first century Everyman. Feather-like black lines radiate from around him— above, below and on both sides—and suggest that he’s at the center of a field of magnetic energy.

Albert’s sketch prompted me to think about white men I have known such as Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden. It also prompted me to think of myself as a writer who has written not only about white men, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but also about women and people of color like Alice Walker and Frederick Douglass. I wondered what Albert was thinking about whiteness and maleness. My questions and his answers follow.

You have a show coming up with a great many new works, but given the state of the world and the heightened awareness about ethnicity and gender it seems that viewers will be drawn to “White Man Walking.” Who is the white man in your sketch?

He’s me as a generic representative of my generation of white dudes, and a placeholder for me to explore how the world seems an odd place for us these days. Moving about each day, something’s changed, like the shoes I’ve worn for years suddenly don’t fit right. Something is off.

Why the title?

It’s a term from prison: condemned prisoners walking to the death chamber. Book by the same name written in the 1980s by Sister Helen Prejean; a movie followed. The title is a nod to the idea that the time of the white man is over. White men ruling is ending. We won’t be in control much longer.

You’re conscious of yourself as a white man?

Absolutely. As my grown-up kids—son, George, 21, and daughter, Iza, 23—point out, white dudes like me have been in charge for generations. And look at the mess we’re in! Perhaps because I’m white, male and almost 60, I’m now “the establishment,” though as an art school graduate, and therefore a little outside the norm, I never considered myself “establishment.” Security guards at Walgreens nod at me. Gen Zers aren’t shy about discussing what they see as the failings of my generation

As a white man, are you sure you’re not paranoid?

Ha! Probably a little. I don’t walk into every room with Gen Zers and feel their disdain. But understand this: they do look at us as responsible for the mess the world is in. As young adults, they see inequality, income disparity, race issues, and the relative lack of power they have to make money and affect change. I recently read that Gen Z is the first US generation not expected to surpass its parents in terms of income and quality of life.

You grew up in Baltimore in the 1960s and 1970s, and you’ve revisited the city, so to speak, by watching The Wire, the acclaimed series about your birthplace. How would you characterize Baltimore then and now?

“It’s funny, The Wire came out 20 years ago. I didn’t watch it then. It reminded me too much of home. The “Towers” where the drug dealing goes on was about one mile from my grandmother’s house.  20 years on, having lost most of my family, I find I’m watching The Wire because it reminds me of Home! It’s also a powerfully written and performed series.

What can you say about race in Baltimore? 

Racism is real everywhere but feels ever-present and in your face in Baltimore. My own kids tell me my generation has failed to eradicate racism. They are right, but I point out that the racial climate seems better today than it was when I was growing up in Baltimore in the 70’s. I’m glad that it’s making top headlines and helped to spawn movements. Our society needs to grapple with race to bring about real change.

How do you describe San Francisco, where you now live and work?

Economically and demographically, San Francisco and Baltimore are world’s apart. SF is arguably one of the most tolerant and diverse cities in the country. We’re also one of the most expensive cities in the country which I believe contributes to racial problems here. As I understand it, SF has a declining Black population. We rarely see Black people in many neighborhoods in SF, compared to Baltimore.

Look, I’m an artist, not a sociologist, but it seems to me that racism ends only after there is genuine understanding and empathy between each other. Maybe we need to get rid of the word and the concept of “The Other.”

I hate to use the word “hopeful.” It’s so abused and misused. But how do you see the future?

I’m optimistic. We’re in embattled times and we need to bring about needed change. I’m optimistic because of the values I see in younger generations. I’m happy to see that my kids have the focus and commitment they seem to have about eliminating inequality. They put their lifestyles, and career choices on the line in a way that I and many in my generation did not. Perhaps they will accelerate the transition to a more just, fair system. I’m ready to pitch in. I do that in part through my art.

What drives you to draw, paint, create? What’s the motivation?

I’m cranking out the work because the practice of making art is a meditation, helps me keep from going crazy, committing murder, or worse! The past year, I separated from my wife, lost my dad and moved my mom into assisted living. Making art for me is therapy, an exploration, and a lesson all at once, And you get something at the end of the process.

I’ve told friends the universe is giving me a crash course in middle age parenting. It’s been a stressful time. The variety of work I’ve been producing reflects the range of emotions I’ve been experiencing. To go from 20 years of very little drawing to one drawing a week for the past year….there’s a lot of energy grinding out the art.

You seem to get into a groove when you’re especially creative. Do you know why that happens?

It’s “Flow.” Athletes experience it, most creative people and anyone really into their work. To me flow is like listening to music. My music. We can hear music all the time, but when it’s your jam, your song, well, that’s different. Your music moves you, your mood, your emotions, your body. Something connects. You identify with it. When drawing, there is a dynamic between your intent and the marks you’re making in real time. You’re watching it happen, you’re making it happen, and you’re present for the event. It’s powerful.

Do you have an audience or viewers in mind when you draw?

No. I started drawing last year with the intent of learning. I’m specifically not trying to make a masterpiece, or even ‘Art.’ I’m in it for the experience, the learning. I’m looking more carefully now at What I want to make, what message/theme I want to work in. I do consider the message, and how it will be received. But the interest is in achieving clarity, not preaching or selling.

On the one hand you’ve done the compressed charcoal sketch in black and white of “white man walking” and on the other hand the colorful drawing of a chair in a corner of a room. You also have abstract geometric forms. What’s it like to go back and forth from those seemingly very different kinds of works of art?

Normal I suppose. I’ve a lot to learn. I’m wary of color, and my skills in general have a long way to go. So, I’ve been game to try pretty much whatever idea pops up. When you’re not making art with the intent of selling, you can be kinda fearless. Just say “Why not” and have at it. It also helps to have formal artistic training, resources, and time. Luxuries few young artists have. It helps to have bare walls, too. Sometimes I wonder if I draw to populate my apartment. Explains why I slow down when I’m out of wall space.

Do you go to SF museums like the de Young and to galleries to see paintings and sculpture?

Absolutely. Lane Myer, a friend, brilliant artist and instructor at Rhode Island School of Design, said, “We’re artists not because of what we make, but how we see.” Seeing is the artist’s lingua franca.

Every painting, every sculpture, tells a story of what the artist was thinking.

We ask, “why did she choose to create this piece”? “Why did she make the choices she made about the message, medium, scale, color, texture and more.

Seeing art is an opportunity to understand how another mind sees and how it thinks. Leaving the museum, or a good gallery, is like leaving a cocktail party where several conversations have set you on fire with ideas. The only real thing to do is to explore the ideas in your art.

How do you see your future as an artist?

I’m trying to keep the future simple! I enjoy the process of making art, the learning and the discovery. I hope to continue developing my skills. Perhaps to arrive at an idea, medium, style and theme that ‘clicks.’ When all of those elements come together just right, well, that’s the best. It’s the difference between hitting all the right notes, and making music. It’s a subtle, but undeniable shift. One worth striving towards.

To see Albert’s show at the Canessa Gallery in San Francisco contact him at and 415. 307. 2280

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.