Skip to main content
Arts & Entertainment

Countries apart, but held together by a San Francisco sculpture garden

Camille Cohen

Strolling down Shotwell Street in the Mission, Reggie Lichtner’s house is impossible to miss.

The front yard of the otherwise modest Victorian sports dozens of large, hand-made wooden figures, an eclectic festival of bright colors and sharp angles. Some are whimsical, some are political, but all were crafted with his kids in mind.

Lichtner, 59, has created hundreds of sculptures over the past three years—all while immigration paperwork and COVID-19 travel restrictions kept him separated from his wife and children. The art, Lichtner says, kept him sane during the years apart.

The dad of two has lived at the home on Shotwell Street twice in his life: First, during young adulthood, when his only dream was to “make it” as a musician, and next when he returned to San Francisco in 2018 to take care of his ailing father. 

Reggie Lichtner walks out of his front door, past the green, blue, and yellow and white abstractions that tower over the picket fence and guard the family at night. “Alone,” the white piece, was Initially intended to be simply “a weird shape.” A stick man was added inside, signaling the isolation of Lichtner. On the left, the stick man with a gun is considered a “Trump Supporter.” The figure with his middle finger up to house visitors is either called “Untitled” or “The Bird.”

In between, Lichtner had been building houses—and a family—in Panama. It’s there that he met his wife, Iris, and had two kids, Lily and Kyle. 

When Lichtner went to San Francisco to look after his father, the plan was for Iris and the kids to join shortly thereafter. Lichtner and the children are U.S. citizens, so the family assumed Iris’ visa would take just a few months to process.

It didn't work out that way.

Instead, immigration bureaucracy–and later the pandemic–kept the family apart for almost three years.

“COVID-19 was an afterthought,” Lichtner said. “What stressed me out was: ‘Are they ever even going to let my family into America?’ I realized—my kids were growing up without me.”

To distract himself, Lichtner poured his soul into renovating the old San Francisco-style home. 

By the end of the first year apart, the outdoor deck was expanded, the kids' rooms had lofts and the house was in great shape. But Lichtner realized he needed to stay busy to “keep out of trouble.” 

So he built himself a place to create in the backyard and told himself: “You have permission to do shit art. You’re gonna do shit art. But do it with a sense of wonder.” 

And do it, he said to himself, for your kids. Much of Lichtner’s work reflects his longing for his family. He credits art for enabling him to process his separation from his family, Trump’s presidency and the murder of George Floyd.

Reggie Lichtner sits at his dining room table underneath his wood portrait, "My Kids are Ghosts." The piece was made from scrap wood that was on the floor upon his initial return to the house. It’s based on an image of his children hugging, taken in Panama. It had a light shining directly on it at all hours of the night throughout the separation.

With the woodworking skills of a carpenter and the creative mind of a musician, Lichtner also went from lonely caretaker to neighborhood icon in those three years, with local artists noticing his work as it poured out of the house and into the yard. 

Renée DeCarlo, who owns The Drawing Room gallery on 23rd and Mission streets, said she brought her art students by Lichtner’s house regularly, before ever meeting him, to view and discuss “history in the making.” 

DeCarlo had assumed the works were created by various artists due to the varied nature of Lichtner’s sculptures. She described his practice of public art display to her students as “incredibly courageous.”

When Lichtner accidentally stumbled into DeCarlo’s gallery during an exhibition opening, she says she literally jumped with joy upon discovering he’d single-handedly created the sculpture garden on Shotwell Street.

“I think it's humbling to meet people like that, who have so much [talent] to give and share,she said.

Lichtner’s art is worked into the earth it grows from: The natural landscape is necessary for many of the pieces. Working with wood, Lichtner says, grounds his art—both literally and figuratively. 

Kyle lays inside “Kisses,” which was created so that the negative space was more important than the positive space. The title was chosen because all the ‘noses’ of the triangles touch softly. Meanwhile, Lily watches her little brother from one of the first of Lichtner’s pieces, where he “was messing around with awkwardness.” Every piece is unique. Lichtner said he dislikes making work that resembles others’. If he notices a type of art becoming popular, he loses interest in creating it himself.

The art doesn't stop once you reach the front door of the two-story home. Every square inch of the interior is filled with Lichtner’s pieces. They crawl up the walls of the bedrooms and spill into the backyard.

Though the inspiration behind some of Lichtner’s sculptures might be rated ‘R’ by more conservative parents—like the swirly, trippy piece titled “Orgy” above the kitchen sink—most of the works available for public viewing are something from a kid’s whimsical imaginary world. 

With “Orgy,” Lichtner says the idea was to have everyone connected, to carve one piece of wood with no spaces. In Panama, Lichtner had made a living building luxury, and sometimes average homes. When staging these homes, he’d sometimes fill the walls with what he called “architectural wall hangings,” which were scrap pieces of wood thrown together in some aesthetically pleasing form. It wasn’t until a friend, a designer in New York, complimented the pieces, that he began to call them art.

“I try to be edgy,” Lichtner says. The artist is consistently “trying to find the line right before something goes over into ugly or not working. There's a point right before, where it's kind of alive.”

Today Lichtner’s family is back together again. Iris’ visa was granted in 2021.

They traveled for two full days in May of 2021 to get to San Francisco from the small Panamanian town where the kids had lived their entire young lives. The family arrived in the dark in a taxi—exhausted but thrilled—and woke up to a garden of 10-foot-tall sculptures and a house full of Lichtner’s hopes, fears and dreams.

Kyle pulls tape off a piece the family painted together, while Lily discovers she got paint on one of her favorite dresses. When they create art together, Reggie often gets inspired by the shapes the children bring to the table. After the fact, he will sometimes go back over their collaborated pieces to refine them for display.

Nowadays, Lichtner doesn’t just create art for his children—but also with them. Outside, he shares his workshop with his kids, building and crafting together like no time has passed. 

Lily, 7, says she wants to be an artist when she grows up, just like her father. Kyle, 5, says he’s still figuring it out. Lichtner, too, is still figuring it out—how to be a family after so many days apart and how to help his wife and children adapt to a new home and country. 

Though the drama of the past few years has made Lichtner doubtful of “The American Dream,” he still spends most of his days building his family’s personal dreamland, right at home in San Francisco.