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The Art of Parenthood

At the home of artists Kelly Tunstall and Ferris Plock, domestic life is a creative work in process.

SLIDESHOW

Kelly Tunstall (left), Ferris Plock, and kids Brixton (center) and Gus get their creative juices flowing in the dining room, which doubles as a studio space for the married artists.

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Brixton, nine, and Gus, five, have plenty to keep them occupied in the living room.

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The boys’ bedroom was carved out of the kitchen pantry and features a cozy bunk bed. Outside, shelves showcase the family’s many passions, from books to robots to toys from around the world.

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Someone has thrown a sneaker out the living room window. I’m not saying who, because no one likes a tattletale, but regardless, there’s now a child-size Nike on the roof. It sailed past a pair of black flamingo skeletons and landed on a patch of artificial turf inhabited by a folding chair—an unexpected mini rooftop oasis. It just missed the pterodactyl hanging from the chandelier.

At the home of artists Kelly Tunstall and Ferris Plock, this is all par for the course. Their 800-square-foot Richmond district apartment is so close to bursting at the seams with creativity and youthful energy that it feels inevitable that something would fly out at some point. Next it’s nine-year-old Brixton who goes bounding through the open window. He retrieves the shoe and crawls back into the adjacent dining room, an orange tabby leaping in behind him. Undisturbed, Tunstall and Plock continue painting at the 10-foot-long dining room table that doubles as their workspace.

They’ve called the classic Edwardian flat home for the past seven years, and its eclectic aesthetic is as expressive as any of their artworks. Lovingly worn vintage furniture (sourced almost entirely from Craigslist) mingles with custom pieces such as a built-in sofa featuring colorful cushions and practical storage bins beneath. A few of the more eye-catching numbers, including a curved-wood lounge chair by Wayne Campbell, were acquired through trades with artist friends (“He has two of my paintings,” Tunstall says). The kids’ bedroom was carved out of an especially roomy kitchen pantry—the cozy quarters are fitted with a bunk bed, a bookshelf, and plenty of stuffed animals. The dining room is the heart of the home, its walls lined with works in progress, its surfaces cluttered with tubes of paint, and its hulking cabinets teeming with curiosities. The room is anchored by a massive table, the site of family meals and marathon art-making sessions.

Five-year-old Gus is perched between his parents, tapping away at a melodica—a mini-keyboard played with a blowpipe—that they scored on a recent visit to Japan. As on many other occasions, the trip doubled as a professional affair—Plock was curating a gallery show in Tokyo that included works by Tunstall—and a family vacation. “The boys got to go to a hedgehog café while I took the art show down,” Plock says.

The couple, who have been together for 13 years, are a type of curiosity themselves, at least in this city. They’ve been working artists for decades, executing everything from museum shows (they were artists in residence at the de Young last spring) and murals (Tunstall’s work covers the walls at A16, Bar Crudo, and Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous) to skateboard decks (Plock has done boards for Element and Krooked) and music posters (the pair regularly produce artwork for the Fillmore). Today, Tunstall and Plock are preparing for Preservation, a joint show at the Luggage Store Gallery. Beginning October 19, the two will take over the Market Street mainstay with Plock’s images of samurai scuba divers and skateboarding monsters, Tunstall’s doe-eyed mermaids and cloud-riding nymphs, and the whimsical worlds the couple create when their characters inhabit the same canvases. (In addition to working separately, Tunstall and Plock collaborate on paintings. “It’s a really big, long 13-year conversation, and it’s like having a third artist,” Tunstall says. “We have this weird thing where we can actually talk to each other with pictures. It’s like a superpower.”) For this show, they’re also making hundreds of cardboard robot heads, which will be suspended from the ceiling and lit with color-changing LEDs. Brixton dons one and mounts the dining room table, raising his plastic sword above his head. Tunstall leans over the wood panel on which she’s painting a ponytailed female cradling two baby boys in her arms. Here, art imitates life and life imitates art.

Nearly every surface of the house features colorful vignettes of plastic dinosaurs, blocky robots, and carved wooden animals. Almost all of it ends up in the work eventually. During the boys’ Egyptian-obsession phase, mummies and pyramids began making an appearance in the couple’s paintings. “It’s a conversation, and the kids are very much a part of it,” Tunstall says of her work. Plock’s parenting-as-art comes out in other ways: Lunch often takes the form of a banana-horned monster or a pepperoni-eyed clown. (Photos of his edible creations have been a hit on In­stagram and were featured in the 2016 book Food Faces.)

Despite the winking playfulness of their work, though, Plock and Tunstall say the upcoming show sprang from a decidedly darker place. “We first came up with the idea after the big shooting in Vegas,” Plock says. “I was feeling pretty lost and thinking, What’s our responsibility as artists?” Says Tunstall, “The political situation...it hurt. My work is happy, joyful work, and that place in me where it comes from—that place was gone. So this show is about how we heal and move forward, to share ways in which we have been processing.”

The unsettling state of the outside world, they say, makes them even more grateful for their little slice of San Francisco. “We may have a small house, but we enjoy beautiful food, we have the park, we have the beautiful school that the kids are at, and we have a community,” Tunstall says. “We’re making a good run of it, and I’m proud of it. If we made it this far, we got to raise the kids, all of us together—that’s a big win.”

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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