The Varda Houseboat Artist Residency
Since the 1940’s the SS Vallejo houseboat has been a sanctuary and meeting place for artists, intellectuals and storytellers. The painter Jean Varda, film maker Agnes Varda, sculptor Ruth Asawa and writers Maya Angelou and Henry Miller have visited or resided on the houseboat, to name a few. As well as intellectual figures and philosophers such as Alan Watts, Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg.
Six years ago the artistic legacy of the houseboat was brought back to life by Carla who founded the VAR Program artist residency where she invites artists to lodge in the private cabins on the houseboat. “I was living in the beautiful countryside in southern Japan just before starting the residency,” says Carla, “My neighbor Mika-chan, a local artist who made BDSM soft toys, told me that the city where I was living in, Yamaguchi-shi, was built following an ancient spiritual architecture that made wishes come true. She suggested I write a letter describing a magical future I wanted for myself, the more detailed, the better. In this letter, I dreamed of a house close to the ocean, with a garden, a cat, a lover, and many artists.”
This dream was brought to life years later. After visiting the shrine, Carla went to Melbourne, and visited the Heidi Museum. There, she saw a reality that matched her vision. “If Melbourne couple John and Sunday Reed were able to host artists, have many beautiful cats, grow vegetables, create art, make and maintain an obscure library, then I could do the same,” she thought. Four months later, she was randomly invited to the SS Vallejo houseboat in Sausalito, California where she met her “beautiful, intelligent husband,” she says, “I offered to start an artist's residency in the houseboat in October 2014. It began with a written dream, placed in a love temple in Taiwan. The journey has been a lot of fun.”
Like something out of a psychedelic story book, the Vallejo towered over surrounding houseboats in the dock. Emerging majestically, amidst the colourful landscape, like the bold and intricate textures of a painting.
When Carla invited me to the residency for the first time in 2017, I recall her saying that the houseboat chooses people. This was an enchanting idea, that the boat was something spirited and discerning. It wasn’t until six months later, after a long flight from Berlin to Sausalito, that I entered the property on which the boat half stood and half floated. Immediately I understood what she implied.
It was more than an art residency that Carla had created, it was the manifestation of a dream. Like something out of a psychedelic story book, the Vallejo towered over surrounding houseboats in the dock. Emerging majestically, amidst the colourful landscape, like the bold and intricate textures of a painting.
“It seems to be an offline place where a counter-culture reality continues to exist in a space/time-bending vortex,” says Carla, “a dream-like place where surfing reality by choosing the best illusion that suits one's life becomes a skill regularly questioned and tested by the boat itself as it were an intelligent, independent creature.”
The energy of the houseboat is dense with creativity. From where I sit writing this story now, I look out through a human sized circular window, over an array of colorful houseboats and beyond to Mt Tam where the mist of the morning races over it’s peaks like a stampede of white horses. A view that could only further insight the curiosity of those who have been fortunate enough to call this home for a short time. When asked what her favourite historical moment of the houseboat was, Carla answers, “Of course, when Agnes Varda hugs Jean Varda.”
“us humans become the passengers of a nurturing, everlasting fantasy movie, where some of the currencies are art, creativity, hunger for knowledge, hard work, discipline, beauty, and magical thinking.”
As well as the houseboat summit for the San Francisco Oracle, which featured a recorded debate between Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Gary Snyder. You can listen to it here.
It is evident the moment you step foot on the SS Vallejo houseboat that it has a life of its own. A life that has been further cultivated by such guardians as Carla and her husband. In her words, “us humans become the passengers of a nurturing, everlasting fantasy movie, where some of the currencies are art, creativity, hunger for knowledge, hard work, discipline, beauty, and magical thinking.”