Sausalito’s Own: VanBo

VanBo relaxing in a wheelhouse from the Issaquah ferry, now at Galilee Harbor  |  photo by Steefenie Wicks | reposted by Larry Clinton from Steefenie Wicks

“The history of Sausalito is full of very interesting characters who have left their marks on the city. None, however, fit that description better than local street artist VanBo, who leaves his mark just about every place he goes.” That’s how the Sausalito Historical Society’s Steefenie Wicks began her profile of a true local original in 2014. Steefenie continued:

VanBo is a painter—one who uses Sausalito as his canvas, the residents and tourist as his patrons. Some love him, others don’t, yet he is part of Sausalito and has been for the last 49 years of his life.

His real name is Robert Conley Jr., and he was born in North Carolina. He says it was the U.S. Job Corps program that was responsible for him moving to California. It was during this time that he attended dance programs and was introduced to post-modern dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin. VanBo would perform with her company for almost eighteen years. While living in San Francisco he also was involved in the porn industry for a number of years.

He came to Sausalito in 1969 and became part of the waterfront scene. He tells stories of living with Michael Woodstock on board the dredge that was located off Dunphy Park. He can tell you stories of Dredgetown, the life in this floating community, before the city condemned it.

When I asked if he had stories about people in Sausalito, he told me one about Jack Tracy, the founder of the Sausalito Historical Society. It seems that VanBo had been arrested and was given a choice of doing community service. He chose to do that community service with Jack at the Historical Society and spent his time cleaning bottles and dusting the displays while Jack was working on his book “Moments in Time.”

“I never knew that bottles could get that dusty but then the whole place needed to be cleaned all the time, there was so much stuff’,” he snorted.

When asked if he knows or has worked with other people here in town, he can compile a broad list of residents in Sausalito both on the hill and on the waterfront.

He claims to have worked for architect/activist Michael Rex: “I helped him get the Ice House cleaned out after he first got it.”  He goes on to say that he once worked for Sally Stanford doing some rather interesting projects for her personally as well as working around the restaurant. He says he spent time living with Alan Watts, entertaining tourists at the No Name Bar, “and being invited to parties that no one knows about to see what everyone wants to see.”

After many years of moving from one aspect of his life to the other he has now taken up painting and has become rather well known. Check out the 45-minute film called “Outsider: The Art of Van Bo,” which can be viewed on Vimeo. He also sells a good number of his paintings to Sausalito residents.

He was a subject of cartoonist Phil Frank. “Phil thought that I had a great thing going and liked my philosophy on life, so he had a character in his cartoon strip that was kinda like me,” he continued. “That’s the best, being liked because I love this place.”

He goes on to say, “Sausalito has changed, there used to be a time when you could leave your bike and come back for it. Now you better lock it up, but now things have gotten so bad that when you come back, they have taken the bike and the lock.”

He feels that Sausalito is being fitted to the lives of the new people who have come here to live; he is starting to see that his time here is slipping by.

I asked him what he would do if he leaves this place. “I’ll go on and paint somewhere else.” He rubbed his hands together before he continued, “my painting is something I do that no one can take away from me. I’m a Black man and I have the right to live my life the way I want and paint on whatever I want. Things are moving in different directions now; I’m being pushed and moved about but through it all I can paint. A piece of board, using my fingers, using a brush, I paint, this will live on like all great works of art, my art.”

I asked him, “What is the one thing you will remember about Sausalito or what is your favorite thing about being part of Sausalito?”

He looks at me and then off into the distance, “Oh,” he says,” that’s easy, it’s being interviewed.”

Van Bo died of a heart attack on June 19, 2017, at the age of 70. Steefenie herself died just two years later.