Obituary: William Reid Passes at Age 92

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William W. Reid in front of his 1960 VW van. Photo: Paul McDonald

Long-time Potrero Hill resident, artist, and former San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) graphic designer, William Wallace Reid, died July 16 from kidney failure. He was 92. 

Reid was born on New Year’s Eve 1927, in St. Louis, Missouri.  Sketching by the Mississippi River waterfront as a boy, Reid watched riverboats paddle by, pulsing with live music and dancing on every deck. 

“St. Louis in those days was jumpin’ with jazz,” Reid reflected later in life. “Music is direct. You don’t need a ‘translator’ for great music. You get an immediate impact.” 

Reid’s musical inspiration was described in a press release announcing an exhibit of his work at the now-defunct North Beach gallery Emerald Tablet Salon, “His bold oil-and-wax abstractions expressed the structural relationship between complementary colors, referencing in a pictorial way how a seven-note musical scale progresses sequentially, repeating at the octave and governed by a tonal center.”

“Lester Leaps In”, mixed media on board, 24” x 30”, by William Reid

Reid knew and painted legendary jazz saxophonists Charlie Ventura, Lester Young and Stan Getz; trumpeter Miles Davis, drummer Tiny Kahn, and guitarist Jimmy Rainey. The Beat era, psychedelia, and early years of San Francisco’s urban redevelopment accented his career. 

In the late-1940s, Reid spent a year in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico studying with prominent Mexican muralists and surrealists David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. He met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Max Beckmann, his teacher at Washington University in St. Louis, also shaped his creative foundation. At Wash U, Reid pursued philosophy and ethics alongside fine art training, and executed works inspired by Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell and religious scholar Huston Smith, of whom he painted an award-winning portrait in 1950. 

Reid was the first member of his family to earn a university degree. He moved to San Francisco in 1953, where he immersed himself in North Beach’s Beat scene, and found his wife of 23 years, Patricia Odend’hal. 

“My parents met at City Lights in 1953. At the time, my father was building a staircase for Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” Reid’s son, Duncan, said. 

The couple rented a storefront on De Haro Street, near Southern Heights, which Reid renovated into an apartment. From 1957 to 1961, the Reids owned a café at 267 Columbus Avenue, La Pavoni Caffe Espresso Bar, named after espresso machines imported from Milan, Italy. The cafe doubled as a showroom for the apparatuses, which they sold. They allowed Ferlinghetti to store books free of charge in unused space in their basement office. 

“Lawrence was using ‘Ferlin’ as his last name at the time. My father encouraged him to embrace his Italian heritage and restore his given surname,” Duncan said. 

Traveling widely in the 1950s, Reid found inspiration in African sculpture and drumming when he visited what was then the Belgian Congo. Reid accompanied Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in California for a time. In the early 1960s, Reid, who’d enlisted in the armed forces at the end of World War II but wasn’t sent overseas, joined Ferlinghetti and others to form a peaceful protest movement, Veterans for Peace, unrelated to the nationwide group founded in 1985. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that on Veterans Day in 1962 Veterans for Peace was prohibited from officially participating in the annual parade. 

Reid’s career was a graphic designer and head of publications at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency under Justin Herman, from 1958 to 1969. He took night classes at University of California, Berkeley Extension to learn City planning, participating in a team that scouted sites for new buildings, and drew up development plans. 

“He liked some of the things they were doing in Diamond Heights and Japantown. He criticized what they did in the Western Addition. He didn’t like tearing down the old Victorians and putting up something modern. He would have liked to have worked with the Victorians; and for the people who lived in those houses, it was a painful situation,” Duncan said.

Reid’s commissioned design for the cover of Mayor Jack Shelley’s annual report in 1965 was rejected as being too psychedelic; Shelley’s office denounced the Haight/Ashbury scene. Reid’s posters featured legends like Grace Slick; his rendering of The Great Society for their 1966 Matrix performance is featured in The Art of Rock by Peter Grushkin, published in 1987. 

Promoted to a managerial position in the SFRA’s graphic design department, Reid decided he wasn’t cut out to supervise employees and left the agency. With Patricia, he started Odend’hal Reid Design & Consultant Services, where he created company logos and illustrated environmental impact reports for Sacramento-based J.B. Gilbert and Associates.

Reid applied his carpentry skills to renovating an 1876 Victorian at the corner of Mariposa and Connecticut streets he and Patricia bought in 1968. Originally located on another spot, the house still occupies the corner. 

“It had gone to rack and ruin, so they got it for a good price, even by the standard of the day,” Duncan recalled. “He enjoyed living on Potrero Hill. It’s sunnier than other neighborhoods. He liked that it was quiet. Nobody knew where it was. There were only a few businesses here and there.” 

Reid studied flute with the late G. S. Sachdev, a master from India, at the Ali Akbar School of Music in San Rafael in the early-1970’s. In 1977, Reid and Patricia divorced. He moved to an apartment on Southern Heights, and later into one at 520 Vermont Street, where he lived out his final years. 

Emerald Tablet Salon’s 2014 retrospective exhibition of Reid’s work featured a Surrealist portrait, Roberta, and a mixed media triptych, Blue Lester, both painted in Mexico in 1949. Gallery co-founder Della Heywood described Reid as “an undiscovered gem of American abstract and figurative painting. William’s works overflow with Beat era musicians and poets and especially women, beautifully painted as abstractions or meticulous portraits in oil, wax, and tempera.”

“Art markets haven’t influenced the way I’ve worked or the medium I choose,” Reid said prior to the exhibit. “These days I’m making small abstract and figurative studies that still reflect the influence of my travels and my early experiences in San Francisco.”

“He used to own a Volkswagen bus that I’m pretty sure he drove himself until a few years ago,” said Carolyn Gray Anderson, whose father, John H. Anderson, lived on Potrero Hill until he passed away last year. “He was a great friend of my dad. William was a colorful talent and it’s a loss that he’s gone.”

Reid is survived by sons Duncan and Iain Reid, and former wife, Patricia.