On June 19, 2017, Sausalito lost one of its most visible artists. Robert Conley Jr., aka VanBo, was a fixture in the community for the 16 years that I’ve lived here.
Becoming a Painter
Around 2004 VanBo was a musician playing at local parties around town. Then he got interested in becoming a painter. Soon after he started painting, he chose the name VanBo as part of his new painter identity.
With the encouragement of friends he started painting on scraps of board, odd canvases or pieces of metal and displaying his work around town. Fellow artist John Wilmer provided some paints and brushes in exchange for artwork. Others provided guidance with drawing and colors. I gave advice on subject matter. I remember telling Bo early on that the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco were popular subjects. Those later became two of his best-selling themes! Some of his other subjects were mermaids, busty women, sailboats, street scenes of Sausalito, and faces. Sometimes the faces were in hearts, sometimes more African mask-like with a touch of Picasso.
Art around Town
Bo sold his work cheaply, but he was so prolific that his art provided a steady stream of cash. He would paint murals too. One that survives today is on the side of the North Bay Boat Works in Marinship. Other murals were painted over or only on temporary walls, but that didn’t stop the VanBo murals from proliferating. I think more than half of the people in Sausalito own a Van Bo painting, too.
VanBo Retrospective Art Show
John Wilmer Studio has mounted an exhibit for VanBo’s work at 333 Caledonia Street this summer and fall. John Wilmer narrates a short video of the art show, “Van Bo Show. Outsider Art” which includes his thoughts about VanBo’s art. I contributed a self-portrait to that art show that Bo did in 2006. Bo is wearing a blue velvet Mariachi costume and smoking a cigar. On the back is an inscription and signature he added after I bought the painting: “To a good artist and friend VanBo ‘06”
More about VanBo
A few years ago Bo told me he had inherited his mother’s house in North Carolina but he didn’t want to go back there. He preferred the Bay Area where he came originally for a U.S. Job Corps program. He danced with the Anna Halprin dance company for almost 18 years and also became involved in the porn industry while living in San Francisco. He moved to Sausalito in 1969 and knew many of the local figures from that era such as the philosopher Alan Watts, and Sally Stanford, the former Madame turned restauranteur and mayor. Bo was such a fixture here, always peddling around town on his bike or holding court in the park with his friends and paintings. The town seems poorer without him. He passed away suddenly on June 19, 2017 of a heart attack. He was 70 years old. If you want to learn more about Robert Conely Jr., there is a Documentary Tube video “Van Bo: Renaissance Man of Sausalito.” I also recommend a Marinscope article by Steefenie Wicks “Sausalito’s Own: VanBo.
Van Bo Facebook pages are still up, too.