One Sunday, while Michael was with Sonia and little Michael having breakfast, little Michael playfully threw a plate at Sonia, hit her below the nose, and split open her lip. Michael immediately gave her what first aid he could, but the lip was badly cut and bleeding profusely. Olive helped take care of the baby while Michael and Sonia rushed outside to find a doctor, or hospital, or some kind of clinic. Not knowing exactly where to go on a Sunday, they headed towards Grant Avenue, as if it were the wish fulfilling street, and soon saw a building with a sign saying “Doctors Offices”. Miraculously the door was open, and they quickly walked inside – Sonia still bleeding, with her lips pinched together. On the first floor, all the offices were closed. Michael noticed a staircase going up to the second floor, with many modern oil paintings on the staircase walls. He simply followed the paintings up the stairs. On the second floor, they met a well-dressed, tall, handsome black man standing in the middle of a large room decorated with oriental rugs, objects of art, and modern paintings. The scene looked like something out of Sonia’s early movies, only this was real, and Michael was having a very difficult time stopping the blood. The kind man immediately helped Sonia, as Michael shouted, “Emergency! Please we need help!”
A moment later, the Norwegian Dr. Raider Wennesland came out of his inner office, dressed in his white coat, into the waiting room and motions for everyone to come in, where he immediately went to work on Sonia’s cut lip. While Dr. Wennesland expertly sewed Sonia’s lip back together, Michael explained that Sonia was a well know actress and that he, Michael, was an artist who had just moved to San Francisco, and set up his own studio. Michael also made a comment about one of the doctor’s paintings, which turned out to be a Harold Dahl, a Norwegian artist unknown to Michael. Dr. Wennesland became immediately fascinated with the mysterious new artist that happened to wander into his medical office, and asked Michael if he could see his studio and his artwork.
The very next day after Dr. Wennesland finished his normal office work, he walked the few blocks over to the Bread and Wine Mission to see Michael’s work. Michael and Raider’s chemistry was so strong it would last until Raider died many years later. As soon as the lights went on in Michael’s basement studio, Raider fell in love with Michael’s art. Michael could tell the energy of the painting at which Raider was looking was understood by the doctor instantly. Dr. Wennesland picked out his first Bowen canvas as payment for his medical work on Sonia and gave Michael 300 dollars in addition, saying how he was sure the painting was worth much more. Bowen was delighted of course, since at the time his cash flow was approaching zero. As providence would have it, Dr. Wennesland became a great patron of Michael, until his death many years later, collecting well over 300 pieces of his art. (1) Wennesland picked up the painting, then they both turned and walked out of Bowen’s dark basement studio into the light of North Beach; walking down the hill together, neither fully realized that yet another beat-opera had begun. (2)
Years of friendship and closeness would develop between Bowen and Dr. Wennesland. Bowen learned many things of a scientific, medical, and cultural nature from the easy going Doctor. Most importantly, Bowen learned about human nature. The situation of a good man finding himself in a new country after resisting successfully the Nazis and rescuing war prisoners from concentration camps on the European mainland had given the young artist a look at a world he had only read about. Listening to Dr. Wennesland helped him remember parts of history he had heard from his Grandmother. (3)
“Reidar Wennesland” Painting by Michael Bowen
During the WW II years, the Norwegian doctor had joined the organization of Count Folke Bernadotte, called The White Busses. Bowen would learn first hand from an eyewitness who had taken hundreds of glass slide photographs of those horrible Nazi death camps, while in the process of bringing as many prisoners as possible out of Germany before its collapse. Those glass slides carried on them images of inhumanity so horrible as to defy comprehension or understanding – an insanity of the soul. This crime, Bowen was to learn, was created by a few fanatical, sadistic Nazis who had been voted into office with the help of a desperate German middle-class, one which suddenly found their money worthless. (4)
About one week after meeting Dr. Wennesland, Michael would meet another person at Café Trieste who would become a close and important friend. Michael McCracken, another painter, and Michael Bowen met that day, and formed an immediate friendship. McCracken not only invited Bowen to come see his new gigantic second floor studio on 110 Commercial Street by the waterfront, but also asked him to share the space and set up his own section of the studio. Michael Bowen and Michael McCracken walked over to the studio on Commercial Street, which today has been transformed into the Embarcadero Center, and met McCracken’s other artist friend that was sharing the huge space, Arthur Monroe. Monroe and McCracken had just “scored” this amazing loft studio and now Bowen was graciously invited to share the space and make the studio a group effort. The harmony and rapport of all three artists was immediate. Arthur was an artist from New York who had spent many of his earlier years with Charlie Parker, the legendary jazz saxophone improvisationist. The vivacious McCracken had a slight English accent and shared similar occult interests with Bowen. However, many years after meeting one another, McCracken’s life would end in a terrible tragedy; suicide. McCracken was born in England, left with his parents when only one year old, and then was deported back to England when he became mentally ill in New York City. This unnecessary cruel bureaucratic stress
“Charlie Parker” Painting by Michael Bowen
caused tragedy would shape young Michael Bowen’s actions and attitudes towards any so-called authority throughout the rest of his life. From the moment when he learned of Michael McCracken’s death, his suspicion of authority forever changed. This “never trust authority” attitude by Bowen profoundly influenced his art and career. As painter Arthur Monroe so eloquently put it, “The act of painting has now become an act of revolution.” As for Michael, his maverick artistic attitude led him to many breakthroughs as a fine artist; he never painted a picture in order to sell it, rather his motivation to create art became a means to make a statement, a way to make a declaration to others about his perspective. Monroe, McCracken, and Bowen shared not only the loft studio space, they formed a kind of partnership, a rare camaraderie that intertwined their many adventures and visions with their practical survival.
The new studio space was a great inspiration for Michael Bowen. The basement studio he had at the Bread and Wine Mission was small, dark, and depressing compared to the large well-lit studio overlooking the bay and above the produce markets. Michael had entered a world of new friends, a real bohemian art scene where exceptional creative work was going on 24 hours a day. All the art and studio supplies from the first studio on Grant Ave. were brought over and set up in the huge space. Discarded food from the produce market kept them well supplied with fruit, vegetables, grains, practically everything they needed for good meals was immediately accessible for both the studio and the house in North Beach. Another friend, Big Bill would occasionally bag a dear with his .45 in Marin County and there would be a venison feast at the studio. And some times Bowen’s friend Roberto Ayala would bring in a big tuna when he worked the fishing fleets for a short time each year. Puccini’s La Bohemene which had inspired Michael as a 12 year old kid when he would sneak into the Hollywood Bowl to see it performed, was now playing out its drama in the Commercial Street studio. (5)
David Carradine enjoyed the new studio and would spend time hanging out and painting with Michael. The Commercial street studio scene attracted many other bohemian artists that Bowen befriended. Roberto Ayala, the Mexican photographer, Big Bill, Patrick Cassidy, and sculptor, Ron Boise started appearing, each with some kind of intellectual knowledge that the others did not have. There were great studio parties, great bra-less Beat-generation women, intellectual socializing, incredible creative energy; the whole bohemian scene was activated by people who were fully aware and determined to live the freedom enshrined in the Sacred American Bill of Rights. In a way, a party had started. The San Francisco Renaissance was happening at the Commercial Street studio as well as all the other studios filled with artists, musicians, and writers which permeated all of the waterfront and throughout North Beach. It was like living in another and better world; ultimately becoming what the world saw as the Beat-generation. (6)
“The Artists Life” Painting by Michael Bowen
‘Broken are the teeth that held fast the staff;
Loosed is the substance which will nourish this generation.
And, with all, a most vigorous unsettling must result.’