Noe Valley Voice September 2009

Artist Claire Kessler-Bradner is collecting Noe Valley memories and recording them on a series of handmade maps and journals. Photo by Pamela Gerard.

Local Artist Sets Out to Map Neighborhood's Oral History

By Lorraine Sanders

Longtime riders of the 48-line, take note: If one day roughly 19 years ago you were quietly enjoying an afternoon bus ride only to be unceremoniously thwacked by a water balloon whizzing through an open window as the bus turned onto Douglass Street, we may have located a person involved in aiding and abetting the offense: Eureka Street resident Claire Kessler-Bradner.

Just don't go too hard on her. She was only 9 at the time.

The water balloon incident is but one of the many snapshot-sized memories Kessler-Bradner is making public in the Noe Valley Project, a mixed-media piece she has created as part of graduate work at California College of the Arts. The yearlong project will explore the intersection of memory and place through a series of "maps" of Noe Valley history based on Kessler-Bradner's own personal memories and those of other neighborhood residents.

"There are so many rich stories underlying this space.... And all these experiences come together to make the history of the neighborhood," says the 28-year-old artist, who is pursuing a master's in fine arts.

Kessler-Bradner lived on 21st Street near Douglass until she was 14, spent the next dozen or so years in other neighborhoods and cities, and then replanted roots in Noe Valley last summer.

When she was moving into her apartment, her mother--artist and Richmond District resident Kay Bradner--stopped by to help. Bradner immediately recognized the Eureka Street house as the same one that their landlord from so many years ago, a man Kessler-Bradner remembers fondly, had grown up in.

"That got me thinking about oral history. It was only through her memory that we knew that," says Kessler-Bradner.

The project, begun last spring, uses woodcut-printed "memory maps," each marked with red dots and phrases corresponding to people, places, and happenings in Noe Valley. Other materials, such as handbound books and typeface drawings of floor plans and yard layouts created on an old Royal typewriter, accompany the work.

Each map also has a theme. One, entitled "Places Gone," details neighborhood spots from Kessler-Bradner's childhood that no longer exist, such as a "ghost house" that has been replaced by a sleek, modern residence. Another map, "Visceral Neighborhood," pinpoints sensory memories, such as the smell of the chimney smoke that always seems to be detectable in the air up and down one Noe Valley block.

On another map, devoted to other people's memories rather than Kessler-Bradner's own, tiny numbered flags pepper street corners, hilltops, and intersections. Each flag corresponds to a page in a palm-sized book, where onlookers are invited to record brief memories associated with a place in Noe Valley and then plant a matching flag on the map.

"There's such an interesting combination of what people choose to write about," she says as she flips through the book's pages.

Some memories are just a few words. Others ramble. Some are sweet, innocent, and warm. Others are not.

Public sex, boldly declares flag 71. My old apartment where I lived until my heart wasn't broken anymore, reads flag number 15. Number 21 announces an anonymous writer's first pot-smoking experience atop Diamond Heights. Flag 30 describes the everyday in poetic terms, saying, From here I run down the hill, the wind pushes against me and the city opens up below to the right in topographical real time.

In the coming months, Kessler-Bradner will be adding more memories to the maps and recording oral histories through interviews with local residents. In exchange for their memories, participants will receive prints from the project.

When she graduates next May, the piece will include a wall-sized woodcut mural, audio recordings, and other multimedia elements. It will be publicly displayed as an installation at CCA's San Francisco campus on Eighth Street. Maybe by then, she'll have an answer to a question that lies at the heart of the project.

"What is it that makes us a community, even though we don't know each other?" she muses.

Selections from the Noe Valley Project will be included in Southern Exposure's "Home Is Something I Carry with Me," an exhibition on view Sept. 4 to 6 in three Mission District homes. Visit http://soex .org for more information.

Claire Kessler-Bradner is seeking local residents willing to share their neighborhood memories. She invites individuals, families, and groups to contact her at