An Artist Without a day job

By: Isabella Manfredi

Alicia McCarthy wiped her hands over her face in one swooping motion. She recalled getting fired from Blue Bottle Coffee for insubordination. That was the day she was able to pursue art full-time.

“I really started feeling like a full body tingling sensation and my mind’s eye was telling me that I had gotten really far away from myself… and then by the third hour I was really happy,” said McCarthy, “so yeah I actually have a turning point and in a weird way it occurred in three hours.”

An Oakland native, McCarthy is an artist who has always had a day job. After she got fired in 2015, she applied for the Artadia Award and won. The award came along with a grant and allowed her to pay for a studio. In 2017, she was invited to work with Paulson Fontaine Press and won the SECA Award (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art).

McCarthy earned her BFA at San Francisco Institute of the Arts in 1994. “After I graduated undergrad I moved up to a piece of land in Willits [Calif.] that’s totally off grid,” said McCarthy, “it’s hard to get work there.” Eventually, McCarthy moved back to Oakland and received her MFA at the University of California, Berkeley in 2005.

According to Jack Hanley Gallery, they have represented McCarthy for fifteen years. “I had a gallerist whose number one wasn’t about making money, he’s really [someone] who stands behind his artists,” said McCarthy.

When McCarthy had more time in 2015, Jack Hanley “forwarded [her] an application for a grant called the Artadia, which started in SF and is a made up word that stands for art and dialogue.” The jury, who McCarthy said she knew from living in the community for years, came to her home studio and within a few weeks she got the $10,000 grant.

Now, McCarthy rides her bike to her studio in West Oakland every day, along with running errands for her upcoming solo and group shows. McCarthy also occasionally teaches classes at SFAI.

McCarthy will show colorful weave like paintings at SFMOMA for the SECA award in July. She sprays and hand paints precarious lines together that appear to be expanding. She describes the grid painting process, “sort of like a train.” She paints in a linear motion, focuses on one color at a time and reacts to the last color that was painted.

Established in 1967, the SECA Award gives four artists in the Bay area their first major museum show, according to SFMOMA. The application process takes about ten months. Museum staff, SECA members, and people from the community judge each applicants work. McCarthy said she knew most of the people involved and felt the sense of Bay Area community. “I mean we have problems just like every place, but I always describe the art scene here is like a quiet confidence,” said McCarthy. The Bay Area community see’s that quiet confidence in McCarthy, and she was chosen to win the award.

Paulson Fontaine Press is a publishing press that invites artists into their etching pressroom to work with a crew of printmakers. McCarthy recently finished making several etching prints at Paulson Fontaine Press that sell for upwards of $5,000 dollars said Rhea Fontaine, partner and gallery director of Paulson Fontaine Press.

“I think she’s done it her way and I think there is a real authenticity with everything she engages with,” said Fontaine. The “it” she speaks of is the idea of navigating life as an artist and managing the relationship between money and art. McCarthy resisted the sale of her work for many years. Fontaine explained how just recently she has been showing more and putting her work out into the community more.

When asked what the future looks like for her, McCarthy said, “I feel really lucky, and I’m going to do this as long as I can and as long as it feels right, if it doesn’t I’ll do something else and I’m good with that.”

It is clear the art world needs McCarthy. As soon as she reached out, it welcomed her with open arms.


Rhea Fontaine


Alicia McCarthy


Jack Hanley Gallery

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