Road to Bohemia - Page 5

From Sausalito to Big Sur—California's free-spirited artists of the mid-century created magical worlds on a troubled planet

'Yanko' Varda dominated Marin's ferryboat scene

Road to Bohemia
Jean Varda during the 1960s.
Road to Bohemia
Varda's ferryboat home, the Vallejo, docked in Sausalito.
Road to Bohemia
Road to Bohemia
Two Varda collages.
Road to Bohemia
Maya Angelou during her dancing days in the '50s.

Jean Varda, known to friends as 'Yanko,' made his mark on art in California decades before he first arrived. In Europe in 1928, he convinced a young, moneyed painter from Austria to switch from traditional art to avant-garde.

Wolfgang Paalen went on to help form Dynaton, a spiritual form of quasi-abstraction, first in Mexico and then in the Bay Area, collecting around himself very talented adherents.

But it was in Sausalito, where Varda (1893-1971) moved after working in Monterey, that the collagist and mosaic maker really came into his own.

The lively ferryboat artists colony on Richardson Bay, in lower Marin County, that remains famous today was largely Varda's creation. He wasn't the first artist to inhabit a ferry, but he was surely the most popular.

Among other members of the ferryboat bohemians was Bob Anshen, one of Joe Eichler's original architects, who in the mid-1950s married Frances Ney, a free spirit who lived on her own boat near Varda's.

About Varda, longtime Sausalito photographer Fred Lyon recalled in a recent interview, "He was always on the bay with an overflowing crowd of hippies, and he always liked to have beautiful young girls around."

The writer Maya Angelou, then a popular Calypso singer and dancer in North Beach, recalled Varda's boat as "a happy child's dream castle."

But Varda was also a hard worker, turning out paintings at first, but then collages and mosaics.

Over the years, though, Varda's fame as an artist has been eclipsed by, among others, the various artists associated with the California School of Fine Arts in the 1950s, such as Clyfford Still, whose works Varda criticized.

A new book just published, The Art and Life of Jean Varda, by author and longtime Sausalitan Betsy Stroman, is likely to bring new attention to Varda's art. A well-researched biography, it traces his life back to Greece, and to his early days as an artist in France and England.

Stroman clearly admires Varda and enjoys the many tall tales he's told over the years about himself. But she also enjoys telling the truth, even when it hurts.

"Looking at Varda's life, and in particular at his relationships with those closest to him, what stands out is that his romantic relationships with women rarely lasted long and that he made little or no effort to form relationships with the children he unwillingly fathered," she writes.

Angelou, who lived on a Sausalito ferryboat for about a year in the late 1950s, summed up one aspect of bohemia that made it special—its separation, as though by shimmering screens, from the daily workaday world.

"Yanko allowed me to enter a world strange and fanciful," she wrote. "Although I had to cope daily with real and mundane matters, I found that some of the magic of his world stayed around my shoulders."

But, she later wrote, "In less than a year I began to yearn for privacy, wall-to-wall carpet, and manicures."

She found all these things—by moving to Los Angeles.

Varda book launch

Road to Bohemia
The Art and Life of Jean Varda, the new book by author and longtime Sausalitan Betsy Stroman.

The publication of The Art and Life of Jean Varda by Betsy Stroman will be marked by a major exhibit of Jean Varda's work at the Bay Model (2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito), with a book launch party and opening 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday June 14. For more on Stroman's book and the exhibit, visit

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