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By Steve Steinberg
Noe Valley lost a beloved artist earlier this year with the passing on Jan. 24 of Mark Adams. Adams, who was 80, died after becoming ill in December.
Married for 52 years to noted etcher Beth Van Hoesen, Adams lived for many years in a historic converted firehouse on 22nd Street, which also served as an art studio for him and his wife. Several months before his death, Adams and Van Hoesen moved to the Sequoias residential complex on Geary Boulevard.
Said Van Hoesen of her husband, "He was a kind, generous, very loving husband.... We loved each other very much."
Adams became established early in his career as a tapestry and stained-glass designer who could wonderfully blend art with architecture. He designed the windows for Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco's largest synagogue, in Presidio Heights. He also did the stained glass for Grace Episcopal Cathedral on Nob Hill. His tapestry works can be found locally at the de Young Museum and at San Francisco International Airport. Later in life he turned to watercolors as an artistic expression.
At a memorial service held on Jan. 29 at Temple Emanu-El, Adams was eulogized for his kindness and integrity. His good friend Tom Raffin termed him "a man who cared for others first, a man who did not need to be the center of attention, essentially a lovely man with tremendous integrity."
In an interview after the memorial celebration, Gretchen Berggruen, owner of San Francisco's John Berggruen Gallery, which represented Adams' work for many years, also praised him. "He was an incredibly decent, thoughtful man, full of personal and artistic integrity."
Adams never embraced the limelight. A speaker at the memorial service told how Adams was once asked if he regretted that he was not more famous as an artist. Adams said no. To become more famous, he had said, would have meant more self-promotion, which would have taken time away from his art.
Although Adams was not Jewish, family and friends felt the temple would be a fitting site for the service. All around, the congregation was bathed in the intense light and color of the stained-glass windows that Adams had created. Additionally, Adams had been going to Yom Kippur services at the temple for the past few years and, according to friends, had gained a great deal of spiritual satisfaction from the atonement rite.
Born in Fort Plains, N.Y., Adams decided early on that he wanted to be an artist. He attended Syracuse University, but left before graduation to study abstract art in New York with prominent abstract/expressionist Hans Hoffman.
Later, to support himself, he dug ditches for a restoration project at the old Spanish mission in Carmel, Calif. When a foreman for the project became aware of Adams' artistic abilities, he asked him to paint the stations of the cross in one of the chapels. In the 1950s, Adams also designed store windows in San Francisco.
During this period, Adams came up with the name "hungry i" for a friend's new nightclub in North Beach. "It designated the first-person singular, with all of its various cravings," he explained in a 1985 interview. The club went on to become a San Francisco landmark during the beat era.
Sometime later, after developing an interest in tapestries, Adams went to France to study with famed French tapestry designer Jean Lurcat. When he returned to the United States, Adams began getting tapestry design work and later, as his reputation grew as an artist who understood architecture, stained-glass commissions.
In the 1970s, established and financially secure, Adams decided that large-scale decorative art no longer provided him artistic satisfaction. So he returned to painting, his early love, and specifically to watercolor. " I wanted to do something small, intimate, and personal...something that nobody was going to see for a while," he said in the 1980s.
Adams' watercolor style often involved taking everyday objects--a tie, a bowl of jello--and portraying them with new meaning through a series of vivid, delicate, and translucent color washes.
Adams had his first watercolor show in 1977. Soon his work was seen as far afield as New York and Paris. He continued to produce watercolors well into the 1990s.
"Mark had a unique vision," noted Berggruen. "His work gave tremendous pleasure to thousands of people."
Added his friend Tom Raffin, "The depth and breadth of his work was breathtaking. Very few have accomplished what he did."