Two weekends ago, when the streets of Berkeley became the scene of a surreal battle between far-right Trump supporters and far-left antifascist activists, the fracas was recorded so extensively by journalists and regular citizens with phones that images of the worst of the violence were already going viral by the time order had returned. But one of the people documenting the event took longer: John Paul Marcelo, an artist who paints the sorts of events normally covered by journalists.
Marcelo's style is a throwback to French Impressionism, with rapidly delivered brushstrokes forming a landscape, whether that means a purple sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge or the last flickering remnants of a makeshift memorial to a street artist. The scenes of violence he captured in Berkeley were obviously also recorded by countless high-def cameras, but his paintings give the scenes a kind of weight and timelessness.
Originally from Chicago—one of his first paintings was of Cabrini-Green, one of that city's public housing project—Marcelo spent time in Venice Beach before making his way north to the Bay. I had tea in Marcelo's downtown Oakland studio for a chat about his work.
VICE: How did you get into painting?
John Paul Marcelo: In school, I was studying graphic design and advertising, and a few days before graduating, I was like, I'm not gonna do this. Finishing school means I wouldn't have access to the computer lab, so I was gonna have to invest in a computer. I just thought getting a computer, getting tied into this whole thing, then having to get a new computer in two or three years… That's when I decided to become a painter.
One of your first paintings was of Cabrini-Green. How did you pick that subject?
I was living in Wicker Park, working in bars and nightclubs as a bouncer, and I was taking the bus. And one time, it was just crazy, I saw this scene of police converging on the housing project, just so many cars. And I got really interested in that scene; it revealed this kind of stark environment between Cabrini-Green and the two surrounding neighborhoods, Wicker Park and especially the Gold Coast. There was such a difference between the poverty and wealth, and it's easy to miss that. When I'm on my bike or walking, it's different from seeing the landscape when I'm in a car. There are a lot of times I drive past something for months, and then finally walk past, and it's like, I need to paint that. I just never realized it zipping past in a car.
How do you figure out what you're going to paint?
It's rare that I'm up to date on news, but I'd say for the last six months, or maybe the last four, I was trying to be more diligent about it. When I moved to Oakland, there was a lot of social activities happening here—social awareness, environmental awareness. Living in San Francisco was more of an insular experience. So that's having more of an effect on what I'm trying to paint. Being in downtown, sometimes I hear helicopters, and it's pretty easy being in such a central location. So, if I hear some kind of news, I just travel out to where it is.
What was painting the Berkeley protest like?
It's always kind of like a fire. I don't want to get too close but want to be close enough to see a little bit of detail. With a lot of protests and marches, sometimes I'd set up and paint, and ten minutes in, everyone gets up and leaves. When I was painting this, I set up, and everyone was probably 50 feet or so in front of me—that's where that heavy fight broke out. But 20 minutes into the painting is when the crowd started to gradually move away. The whole time I was painting and seeing everyone move away, I'm like, What the fuck? That's my subject matter! But I was committed. The buildings were blocked in, so were the trees; so I was committed to this particular spot and angle.
Is it about capturing these moments quickly?
I think for a lot of artists, it's the sun or weather that dictates the pace of painting. When it's scenes like this, I know I won't have a lot of time, so I have to paint as fast as possible. It's not so much I need to get a pretty picture, or a really nice rendering. It's more about trying to get some kind of documentation of the event.
Did anyone talk to you at the Berkeley protest?
There were people from the left and right that came up to me. Everyone was peaceful to me. It was some kind of relief; regardless of whether they were left or right, they felt like appreciative of me being there. I'm not at all a confrontational kind of person. I went as an outside observer; I was just kind of documenting it. It's like what French Impressionists were doing. They were the contemporary photographers of the day. I relate a lot more as a photographer than an artist.
What's your painting schedule like?
I paint most days, and four or five days out of the week I go out. I wouldn't go as far as saying I'm a journalist. I'm a casual observer. I try to find out what's happening around town early in the day. A lot of time, I just ride my bike around and stumble upon whatever. I'm trying to be more diligent about it. Ever since the Ghost Ship [fire], I started looking up the news first thing in the morning. If something is fairly accessible to get to fairly quickly, that's what I'm going to paint.
It's also a good way to get yourself out there.
If you don't see me out in the street and introduce yourself, you're not going to find out about this gallery. I'm not a promoter or marketer, I'm barely a salesperson.
Do you only want to paint these types of scenes?
No. When I lived in San Francisco, the ocean was so accessible. Every Monday, I'd go to the ocean because it was street cleaning day. I'd do my grocery shopping early, then go to the Golden Gate and paint somewhere in that area. I'm still trying to find that balance of urban and nature. To hear birds chirp in the morning, rather than car alarms, people yelling at one another, that kind of thing. But I wouldn't want to be in either one of those situations indefinitely or permanently, though, because I feel I'll lose a sense of my awareness of the world. As a person that documents, I don't want to lose my touch.
The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.