Friday, May 15, 2009

A Community Mourns Carl Dern

This is the obituary I wrote for the Marin Independent Journal. Carl was more than a figure in the community to me. He was someone I looked up to. I knew him since my daughters were growing up and even more recently as a friend and artist at my wife's gallery, the Donna Seager Gallery. To Carl, everyone was family. He was a compassionate man and I'll miss him.

Carl Dern, a renowned sculptor and prominent member of the Marin art community, died Monday of complications from interstitial lung disease at the University of California at San Francisco, Medical Center.

Mr. Dern, a longtime resident of Fairfax, was 73.

In his distinguished career, Mr. Dern's art was exhibited widely in the Bay Area and beyond, including the Fresno Art Museum, the Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

He was a participating artist in 2004's "Hearts in San Francisco" citywide exhibition, creating a bright green heart he called "San Francisco Love Apple."

Mr. Dern was best known for his whimsical chairs, ladders and trees fashioned in steel, bronze and copper, sometimes seen as metaphors for the human figure. His work was lauded in an exhibition art catalog for "its elegant imbalance and noble incongruity."

Ceramist Richard Shaw of Fairfax, a fellow artist and friend, described Mr. Dern as "a tough, hard-working, sensitive guy." He compared his art to that of Alexander Calder, famed for his metal mobiles.

"Carl's pieces looked like they were moving when they weren't," Shaw said. "He gave that feeling of motion.

Also accomplished at drawing, Mr. Dern often worked with his wife, Marie, a book artist and founder of Jungle Garden Press in Fairfax.

"He was curious, inventive and compassionate," she said.

They most recently collaborated with U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan on "The Jam Jar Lifeboat & Other Novelties Exposed," a collection of Ryan's poems that Mr. Dern illustrated with his light-hearted drawings.

Mr. Dern also worked in the field of applied arts, most notably creating unique steel and bronze furniture and artistic chandeliers.

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 24, 1936, into a family of miners, cowboys and politicians, Mr. Dern moved to San Francisco in 1960 and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and a master's of fine arts degree in sculpture from UC Berkeley.

He won the prestigious Anne Bremer Prize in Art in 1969 and 1972. In 1970, he co-founded the New Museum of Modern Art in Oakland.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Dern built Fairfax Square, a two-story commercial building at 82 Bolinas Road. He and his wife, Marie, worked in their studio on nearby Park Road in Fairfax.

A deeply spiritual man, Mr. Dern was a member of the Zen Buddhist community and had been studying to be a Buddhist priest and teacher under the noted Buddhist leader Ed Brown, a personal friend.

In addition his wife, he is survived by daughters Amy Christensen of Cotati and Daisy Dern of Nashville, Tenn.; sons Fritz Dern of Fairfax and James Dern of Santa Rosa; and five grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the San Francisco Zen Center, any favorite charity or toward the purchase of a piece of art by a local artist.

A memorial service will be in July in Stinson Beach.

Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at; follow him on Twitter at

1 comment:

Donna Seager said...

Carl Dern was an incredible human being. His work reflected who he was. It was stong, clear and human. Whether it was a tree, chair or ladder, it had a particular eccentricity that marked it as a character in its own right. He was a family man who loved his wife and children and an amazing friend who loved his community. He made the world a better place.