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9 must-see pieces from San Francisco’s de Young Open

Spectators crowd the de Young Open at a press preview of the exhibition in San Francisco on Sept. 26, 2023. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

The de Young Open throws open its doors on Saturday, making a one-of-a-kind art collection visible to the general public. Billed as the only exhibition of its kind at a major American museum, the results of the show are stunning. 

The exhibition features artists ranging in age from 18 to 86 across 883 pieces, and the work is hung salon-style—floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall—in what feels like an explosive love letter to the Bay Area.

It's often carefully grouped according to subject matter and color (vistas of iconic San Francisco structures hang together, and so do pieces with floral motifs, for example) so that one could spend hours gazing at the multifaceted sources of inspiration, ranging from climate change and the war in Ukraine to the struggles of daily life in the city. 

Some of the artists are professionals, while others are participating in their first exhibition at a professional museum. The pieces include everything from digital art to drawings, fiber arts to pastels. 

“Such an experience can be career-changing,” said Thomas Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

The recurring triennial began in 2020 and democratizes the traditional curatorial process of a museum. Any artist—no matter their background, education or medium—residing in the nine Bay Area counties is eligible, and there is no fee to enter. The entries are judged blind in the open-call contest, meaning jurors have no identifying information about the submissions. 

“It captures the vitality of the art in the Bay Area being made today,” Campbell said. 

The exhibition received 25% more entries this year than in 2020—7,766 entries total—which demonstrates a growing enthusiasm for its inclusive approach, even as some who didn’t make the cut felt left out.

Perhaps most exciting for some art lovers is that nearly every piece in the exhibition is available for purchase. One needs simply to scan the QR Code, find the number associated with the piece and enter into a conversation with the artist to negotiate a price. All the funds go directly to the artist—the museum takes no commission. 

Many of the artists were present for a press preview of the exhibition Tuesday morning, and the lower level of the museum buzzed with activity. Artists were giddy with the opportunity to get out of their studios and interact with one another.   

“This is my first time in this show, and I’m so grateful to be part of it,” said Nicole Phungrasamee Fein, a professional artist for more than two decades, who has work in permanent collections across the country. 

Here are nine stories behind not-to-miss pieces. 

Lorraine Woodruff-Long shows off color swatches she used to compose her quilt in the de Young Open. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Lorraine Woodruff-Long 

When quilting artist Lorraine Woodruff-Long had her work accepted into the first de Young Open in 2020, it was transformational. The piece she sold at that exhibition allowed her to purchase an expensive piece of quilting equipment that expanded her artistry. 

“It changed the entire course of my life,” she said of the experience. 

Woodruff-Long also appreciated that the de Young Open creates space for fiber artists, who have often been sidelined by fine arts museums, she said. 

“Quilters are often told that what they’re doing is not real art,” she said. “But here they’re taking quilting seriously.” 

Woodruff-Long’s subject matter is also serious: climate change. Using data from climate scientists, she created a quilt titled “You’re Getting Warmer: Rising Global Temperatures 1850-2022,” which visually documents the temperature change over the past 150 years. 

Blake C. Aarens, who has the artist name JIBCA, stands underneath her painting in the de Young Open. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

JIBCA / Blake C. Aarens 

Blake C. Aarens, whose artist name is JIBCA, has long been told she is “pretty for a black girl.” JIBCA transformed the derisive comment into inspiration by using it as a springboard for her piece, “Pretty for a Black Rose.” 

“We’re conditioned to believe there’s a standard of beauty,” Aarens said, reciting by heart what she understands as a problematic passage in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 5, Scene 1) in which a standard of beauty is defined. 

“But do you really just want to be standard?” Aarens asked, “Or do you want to be exceptional?”  

Paola de la Calle stands underneath her artwork at the de Young Open in San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Paola de la Calle  

Colombian American artist Paola de la Calle had some friends in the 2020 de Young Open, and she figured she should try for herself this time around. A self-taught artist, she holds no art degree, and the de Young Open is her first museum show (she had her debut solo art show at SOMArts in July 2023). 

The Uruguyan Spanish artist and sculptor Joaquín Torres-García inspired de la Calle to create her piece, “America Invertida,” which flips the map to challenge the traditional focus on the West and Europe in the art world. 

“Our North is their South,” she said. “This is about shifting perspectives.” 

De la Calle employs found objects in her artwork, like a toy horse her dad had as a child and a mirror frame with the glass removed. 

“Objects can transport you through time,” she said. Dangling blue threads hang from the bottom of the piece—threads that represent both connection and unfinishedness. 

Artist Ashlie Kégo stands before her painting at the de Young Open in San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Ashlie Kégo 

Nigerian American artist Ashlie Kégo only began painting during the pandemic, and her work, “Yakubu,” hanging in the de Young Open is the first piece she ever painted. 

Yet while Kégo is a new artist, she is moving fast—winning awards and placing art in galleries, all while donating a portion of the proceeds from selling her work to Sickle Cell 101, an organization that funds research and education of sickle cell disease.  

Inspired by African masks, Kégo’s first tried her hand at painting on a T-shirt. The positive feedback and custom requests led to her creating more of her vibrant work.

Artists Jessica Sabogal and Shanna Strauss stand underneath their artwork at the de Young Open in San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Jessica Sabogal & Shanna Strauss

This artistic duo of Jessica Sabogal and Shanna Strauss—partners in art and in love—strives to create space for queer women of color.

Sabogal and Strauss, who have been collaborating for six years, used found wood in their depiction of Karen Lopez, a Colombian doula who recently received her nursing degree from the University of California San Francisco. The snake in the work represents the name Lopez received from Indigenous elders, “Serpiente de Estrellas” (Serpent of the Stars). 

“We are uplifting and centering the invisible labor of queer women of color,” Sabogal said. 

Lopez understands her work as a childbirth assistant as a harmonious merging of the traditions from two realms: Indigenous medicine traditions and Western academic practices.   

Ni Zhu looks at her artwork hanging in the de Young Open in San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Ni Zhu

Oil painter Ni Zhu enjoyed getting out of her house during the pandemic, stepping out whenever she could for inspiration. One day, her explorations took her to Chinatown, where she chose as her subject a man on a bench. 

“He is homeless, but he has as much dignity as us,” Zhu said of the figure in her painting, “They Say He's Homeless No. 2.”

Zhu is inspired by Bay Area figurative painters like Richard Diebenkorn, and the influence is clear in her work that captures the emotion of private moments in public space. 

“The de Young Open is a great venue for showing something local,” she said. 

Rachel Perls points to her artwork on the top row at the de Young Open in San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Rachel Perls 

While floral motifs—often associated with women—can be dainty and demure, artist Rachel Perls wants to take up space with her vividly colored dahlias. 

“I’m in my late 40s, and I’m tired of not taking up space in the world,” she said, proudly pointing to her oversized tableau, “Reina,” hanging in the de Young Open. 

Perls intends to reinvent the floral designs as an immersive experience that demands space and attention—just as she does.  

Jean Pettigrew Whelan stands beneath her painting at the de Young Open in San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Jean Pettigrew Whelan 

Artist Jean Pettigrew Whelan also wants to take up space—all 5 feet and 11 inches of it—which is exactly her height in her painting depicting a stack of books. 

“It’s a self-portrait in books,” she said of the painting, aptly titled "5'11 Stack #2."

The mother of three was accepted in the 2020 de Young Open, which she said inspired her to keep painting. It hasn’t always been easy—she graduated in 2004 from the San Francisco Art Institute and walked across the stage to collect her degree while she was pregnant. Yet for Whelan, it’s not so much about her own success but the collective of artists assembled on the walls. 

“I got choked up when I walked in and felt the talent and energy in the Bay Area,” she said. 

Stacey Carter stands beside her artwork at the de Young Open in San Francisco. | Source: Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Stacey Carter 

Since 1987, artist Stacey Carter has had her studio in Hunters Point. She has long been inspired by—and researching—the area, which is the subject of many of her works. Carter claims the history of the neighborhood is little known and poorly understood. 

“The whole thing is a hot mess, literally,” she said. 

She points to all the things that were put together in the area: the Posey Tube that connects Alameda to Oakland, World War II-era ships and the components of the atomic bomb. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the artist used some 50 layers of paint to convey the multilayered history of the Hunters Point Shipyard in her piece in the de Young Open, ”Gantry Crane Ship Lift, Hunters Point Shipyard, 1947.”

De Young Open 

🗓️ Saturday through Jan. 7, 2024
📍 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park
🔗 Visit website 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at