E. Tyson Underwood of Mill Valley departed this world on January 9, 2015, surrounded by loved ones who cheered him on. (He asked us to say it that way, which will surprise no one who knew him.)
The Marin County arts promoter and spinner of yarns was born and raised near Salisbury, North Carolina, and called himself “a lifelong Southerner, in spite of my best intentions.” Chief among his Southern traits was a universal warmth and courtesy (“You respect other people and treat them well until they demonstrate other characteristics,” he said). What he stubbornly disrespected were norms, conventions, and other constraints on his imagination, such as reality. It was this exuberance for all things unconventional that made him feel more at home in Northern California. And it was his combination of Southern grace and freewheeling spirit that earned him such loyal friends.
Tyson honed his storytelling skills as a child preacher, captivating audiences with dramatic oratory and lyrical language—and relishing every moment. That performer’s flair never left him, even as the content of his tales changed. After college at Duke University cured him of religious convictions, Tyson converted to proselytism of the arts, making it his mission to win others over to the wonder he found in all manner of human creations. His decade in the family retail business, Underwood’s clothing store in Salisbury, shaped his art salesmanship, too. (His family’s shop, he noted proudly, was one of the few in town that welcomed whites and blacks alike.)
Tyson arrived in Marin on a round-the-country road trip in his red MG in 1969, intending to visit for a bit and then return to New York City. He found a crash pad in Sausalito with his great friend, the late sculptor Tim Rose, met a girl, and never left. Over the next 45 years, his influence on the Marin County arts scene grew into a legacy.
While frequenting the bohemian parties of the Sausalito waterfront in the 1970s, he took over as director of the Sausalito Art Festival—then an informal affair with fewer than 40 artists, on the verge of folding. Tyson reinvigorated the festival by emphasizing local artists, raising the quality of the art, and piquing interest by acquiring the white silk panels from Christo’s Running Fence and creating a canopy with them. Traditions that continue to this day, such as the elephant-and-palm-tree logo and the gala dinner before the show, took root under his leadership. By the time Tyson left the job in the early 1980s, the festival was a highly vied-for, juried show with attendance pushing the capacity of its schoolyard site.
Tyson and Tim Rose were among the first artists to make studios in the Industrial Center Building, now a pulsing home for the arts. Their studio, number 340, was the building’s vivacious hub as well as the launching point of its first open studios events. It also hosted a regular Wednesday night figure drawing party that continued for years. Tyson was a founding board member of the Marin Arts Council and the Headlands Center for the Arts, which supports more than 75 artists per year through residencies, fellowships, and subsidized studio spaces. His art column in the Pacific Sun, which ran for many years, delighted readers with lively critique of local shows.
But his own creation, the Marin Art Festival, which he founded and ran for 17 years, was his greatest love and his ultimate canvas. It wasn’t enough to produce a beautiful art festival; he turned the grassy grounds by the Marin Civic Center lagoon into a fanciful projection of his imagination, where jesters romped and stilt walkers roamed among the oil paintings and sculptures. Above all, he took care to cater to the artists with a small-town-Salisbury brand of service.
Tyson was exuberantly fascinated with everything, and we mean everything: Japanese Noh dance, life lessons in daytime television (he insisted there are some), the particular pattern in a particular paper napkin on a restaurant table, the deeper meaning of the word “meme.” So constant and insatiable was his quest for revelations on life—which he saw in everything from readings on the ancient Greeks to brief interactions with the Marin Brewing Company wait staff—that it aggravated his family and friends. Tyson was incurably optimistic and imperturbably flexible. He could make you feel like everything was okay, because he believed it. He had an affection for proclaiming, regardless of circumstance, “You’re doing the right thing, I don’t care what they say.”
And oh, the stories! There was the one about crashing a North Carolina tent revival meeting and flinging himself into the holy dunk tank, the one about defusing a race riot in Salisbury, and the one about passing through a Golden Gate Bridge toll booth late one night in his birthday suit—a happening which made it into a San Francisco Chronicle column by Herb Caen, who reportedly wondered where he’d kept the change. Tyson never lost a drop of enthusiasm in the telling… and retelling… and retelling, even if we, his listeners, sometimes did.
Tyson had lived for the past year and a half with the growing fatigue that comes with myelodysplastic syndrome, a form of leukemia. Yet he approached it with characteristic good cheer and curiosity about all that life and death might bring, calling the impending end “just another big adventure.” He kept his diagnosis quiet, wishing to avoid what he called “commiserating,” preferring instead to entertain only “insights that nobody has had before” about this death business.
He is survived by his son Tyson N. F. Underwood, daughter Anna Links, stepdaughter Grace Rubenstein, brother Alfred Underwood, former wife Kathleen Foote, honorary daughter-in-law Vera Tyler, lifelong friend Stephen Feldman, and many others. We know we’ll never meet another spirit like him.
Tyson died three days before his 79th birthday. Or maybe it was his 78th. Or his 80th. He enjoyed recounting how his mother claimed that someone miswrote the year on his birth certificate. He always had to leave us with a story.
We’d love to hear your memories and messages about Tyson! Please send them to graceellen-at-gmail-dot-com, and we’ll post them here as a shared memorial.
“Damn. Damn. Damn. Loved that man. I moved into the ICB decades ago as a studio mate of Tyson and Tim Rose. Tyson's boy was a babe then, so his studio time was limited mostly to social gatherings and open studio festivities. He was the first person to coax and coach me into making abstract paintings rather than simply appreciating the work of others. All who knew him got great belly laughs, as there was no way not to. His wit was sharp, and his voice was like gritty butter. Tyson always found something great and he always found kind words. RIP Tyson Underwood, and thank you for touching my life with your great enthusiasm and encouragement to stay curious and live genuinely.” —Leslie Allen, ICB Studio 300A
“Tyson and Tim Rose were one of a kind creative men, friends in making the art scene in Marin unique and wonderful. They are missed, and I look for who will rise to the occasion to carry the tradition of flinging caution to the wind and manning the sails of inspiration for the community!” —Kay Carlson
“There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.”
“An Art Treasure Lost: As with so many other ‘Old Timer Local Artists’ — I feel few, if any, have shared with other artists such honest, loving lifetime friendships as our beloved Tyson Underwood. Having a studio in Sausalito’s ICB Building for over 37 years — starting at the same time as Tim Rose and Tyson with our studios next door to each other — was one of my most precious gifts in my 50+ year art career.
“He was an original in so many ways from the time I met him at Duke. He was a true southerner, but without a southern accent. He was an enthusiastic student, but hardly a typical college boy of the 1950s. He attended Duke on a pre-ministerial scholarship, yet had nothing to do with the ministry. He was an art critic, but usually approved any honest creative effort. He could talk your ear off, but listen endlessly and patiently to a cranky artist at the Festival whose tent wasn't right. After almost 20 years of Sunday morning conversations I will be thinking about him as I have my coffee at 9AM every Sunday until such time as I join him, probably finding him in deep discussion with a group of ancient Greeks. I asked him once if he believed there was anything after this life, and he said, ‘I dunno, but I'm kind of looking forward to finding out.’ Totally typical. I think he lived well, and he left well.” —Steve Feldman
“Maybe Tyson was too modest—unlikely—to share this with you, but he was voted Most Likely to Succeed of the males by his high school graduating class. You wonder who got the honors for the females? It was Liddy Dole. I think Tyson did far, far better. He will always be an inspiration to me. God speed, Tyson. He would forgive the expression.” —Donald Rubenstein
“Tyson was my best friend at Duke, my sophomore/junior summer school. We both lived in the back basement rooms of an otherwise deserted dorm, though each had no roommate. Catacombs. We were both pre-ministerial struggling with our theology, spent long hours debating reality, and a lot else. Turns out neither of us went ministerial. That fall Tyson developed a costume and an act for his personification of the Duke Blue Devil. It was impressively fearsome, dramatic and superbly done. Not cutesy at all. A real devil. He never did anything by halves. Sounds like he had a good, well-loved life. I am so glad to hear it, but sad to know it is ended. Maybe I will get to talk to him again. Maybe not.” —Jim Eagle
“Tyson’s spirit has stuck with me in many ways. I’ll always remember how as a teen, when I first was ravenously learning Bach, he wrote me this letter (hand written) gushing about his deepest passions about Bach and how much we shared. He said Bach sometimes made him cluck like a rooster. I didn’t really think so at the time, but as I aged it came to make more and more sense. He was a little insane. But right about Bach.” —Ethan Herr (friend of Grace)
“I first met Tyson in the mid-1970s while I was exhibiting at the Mill Valley Art Festival. He was recruiting artists to do the Sausalito Art Festival and I was introduced to his ubiquitous capacity as a forever enthusiastic and seemingly inexhaustible promoter of classy art festivals. I was also introduced to his ability to engage in marathon conversations on any subject. Most importantly, I met an incredibly decent, honest, and generous human being. It is impossible to forget a smile that lights up a room and such an infectious gravely laugh. He was simply charming.
“I met Tyson in 1981 at my very first Sausalito Art Festival held on Caledonia Street. For the ‘gala’ dessert, four sumo wrestlers in loin cloths carried in a bier which held a chocolate replica of the Sausalito elephant. Guests were given tiny hammers to whack off hunks of chocolate. Surely, as director of the Festival in those early, wild years, Tyson re-defined style. Tyson listened to and advocated for artists during his involvement with the Marin Arts Council. He could and would pontificate, with his unique, insightful, educated & humorous perspective. The Marin Art Festival was Tyson’s amazing gift to artists and the community; a true labor of love. Thanks, dear friend, for naming me a master/mistress. The encouragement and opportunities you offered to so many artists and performers will live on. I will always cherish Tyson’s wild enthusiasm for all things art.” With love—Kathleen Lipinski
“I first met Tyson while we were both working for Terry Pimsleur, doing street fairs all over the greater Bay Area. I was the entertainment director and Tyson curated the artists. When he arrived the quality of the art went up tremendously. He had an amazing eye and it seemed that he knew everybody.
“A remarkable friend, Tyson Underwood, the founder of the Sausalito Art Festival and the Marin Art Festival among many other things, died in his sleep. I had the pleasure of spending many hours over the last few years in deep and delightful conversations about the nature of art, music, life and many other important and impractical ideas. He will be missed. Journey on dear friend, there are new and wonderful adventures ahead.” —Dan Patrick
“Tyson was a sweet, funny, and gentle man as well as an intellectual omnivore who was fascinated by everything, big and small. Plus he was eternally optimistic. I always felt a little happier after I spent time with him. Tyson also had a most incredible acceptance and comfort with his impending demise, calling it ‘the next great adventure.’ I’m glad I got to know him over the past few years. Farewell, Tyson. Good luck on your journey.” —Jim Daly
“I am so sad to loose my cheerleader! We met in 1983 when he and fellow board members invited me to show in the Sausalito Arts Festival’s Emerging Artist Exhibition. Our friendship began there with his wild red hair and his wonderful voice commanding an alternate thought. I drove him nuts but I loved his company! A poetic challenger of thought, an explorer of mind, a very intelligent man who found pleasure in people and all things, a sort of mental explorer. I loved the ride!
“Tim Rose always said Tyson was his oldest friend. They met before both came separately to Marin and, like all true friends, shared wonderful, crazy times as well as the inevitable friction of two strong-willed artists. How many of you remember Tyson’s art work, the mound of empty Pall Mall cigarette packs? He assembled it for shows in Studio 340 at the ICB for many years, and I’m willing to bet those cigarette packages are among his many, many boxes of stored treasures at Coal Shed Studios, where he again joined Tim in animating a vibrant working space for artists. I enjoyed the online recounting of Tyson’s life and character, such a good portrait of a complicated and optimistic person, someone who was always focused on bringing artists and their work to the attention of the world.” —Susan Shea
“I have seen Tyson many times over the last forty years at events around the Marin art scene. His face permanently fixed in his signature smile. Always as gracious and welcoming as the first day I met him in a life drawing class at College of Marin in 1973. He was generous with his praise and made me feel right at home in the crowded art world of the early seventies in Marin. I was very pleased to see him thereafter seemingly setting the pace for the growth of that community. I hope that his passing to the next life has been as happy as the twinkling eyes that I’ll always remember for he and his loved ones.” —Tom LaFlamme
“My heart is heavy. I will never forget Tyson coming to my booth when he worked for Terry Pimsler. That alone will tell you how long ago that was. He saw my heavy hand made gold bracelet that I would always wear. I love that bracelet and encouraged him to try it on and see how good it felt. It was more than a look it was a feel. When he put it on his whole demeanor changed. He said that he never really like gold jewelry or understood the appeal of gold jewelry before then but at that moment he realized why people liked and wore gold. I think he tried it on at every show I did with him over the next 20 years or so. Now it makes the bracelet even more special and will think of Tyson every time I wear it.” —Glenn Dizon
© 2010 Marin Art Festival