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‘What happens to a city when families can no longer afford to live there?’ La Jolla artist looks for answers

Claire Starkweather Forrest's latest art exhibit is "Where Have All the Children Gone?" at St. James by-the-Sea in La Jolla.
Claire Starkweather Forrest stands in front of her latest art exhibition, “Where Have All the Children Gone?” at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church’s gallery in La Jolla.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Claire Starkweather Forrest explores the impact of housing costs on families in her current exhibit in the gallery at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla.

After moving to San Francisco in 2016, artist Claire Starkweather Forrest and her family left the city a year later. The home they were staying in with their two young children, while she was pregnant with their third, was being tripled in size to be sold.

It had been their fourth rental and they didn’t want to have to move their two boys yet again, so they chose to return to San Diego.

“I wondered, ‘What happens to a city when families can no longer afford to live there?” said Forrest, who now lives with her husband and their three children near Windansea Beach in La Jolla. “What will be the long-term impact on a city when the families in the very communities that make the city a great place to raise children have to leave? What happens to the cultural fabric of the city? What is left?”

That was the catalyst for her current exhibition, “Where Have All the Children Gone?” which is inspired in part by a 2017 article from The New York Times with a similar title, documenting the decrease in the number of children in the city and its implications on community and culture.

Forrest’s art show is on display through Saturday, Sept. 24, at the gallery in St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla, with a reception at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17.

Her work includes 10 drawings on paper, with two pieces on vinyl records (including a painting).

Forrest, 43, is a full-time artist and illustrator and has worked as a muralist and an art teacher and art consultant. She took some time to discuss her latest work and its focus on the costs of housing, the displacement of families and how that affects culture.

Q. “Where Have All the Children Gone?” was inspired by your reflections on the housing market. Talk about how you came to focus your art on that topic and what the name of your exhibit means.

A. In 2017, I read “San Francisco Asks: Where Have All the Children Gone?” in The New York Times and it really resonated with me. Someone had put into words everything we had experienced in our short time as San Franciscans. We moved to San Francisco in 2016 while the housing market was booming, and it became immediately apparent that rising costs were making it difficult for families to call San Francisco home. We had been living there for a few months when the owner of our 110-year-old, 1,200-square-foot home applied for a building permit to take the house down to the studs and triple the square footage. We thought about fighting it since it was the fourth rental we’d lived in and we didn’t want to have to move our sons again, so we talked to other families at our son’s school. They casually responded with, “Oh yeah, that happened to us, too.” ...

We decided not to fight the building permit and the house was later sold for $7.6 million. Although we’d been lucky to be able to move to San Francisco in the first place and to afford living there when so many could not, I remember wondering if it was possible for a family to actually live in that city or if it was reserved for the wealthy and single.

Q. Why was housing and its relationship to community and culture something you felt drawn to express through your art?

A. San Francisco was not the city we thought we were moving to. Many of the neighborhoods seemed more like stages with props set up, populated by actors without any ties to the set. You can’t re-create the art of culture in a city when the very families who brought it there have left. A city like San Francisco, or any American city, loses an invaluable gift when families are forced to leave. Not only do you lose a quality of life but you lose history.

Years before we’d moved to San Francisco, we were visiting the city with our oldest son, who was just a year old. He had a beloved [toy] lion that he took everywhere, and we were pushing him in his stroller through the heart of the city when he suddenly realized he had dropped his lion. We started to retrace our steps, but his lion was gone. I was inspired by his missing lion and the cultural and economic identity crisis that cities like San Francisco are experiencing at the moment.

"Below the Surface," a drawing by Claire Starkweather Forrest
“Below the Surface,” a drawing by Claire Starkweather Forrest, is included in her current exhibition, “Where Have All the Children Gone?”
(Courtesy of Claire Starkweather Forrest)

Q. How long did it take from idea to completion?

A. I began creating these drawings in 2018 and was set to have an exhibition in 2020, but the world obviously had other plans. I wouldn’t say this series is complete. I still feel inspired by the relationship between families, urban lifestyles and culture. I don’t think San Francisco’s problem of families leaving the city is a unique one; it’s a challenge that many cities throughout the United States and around the world are having. I have really enjoyed working on this series and diving into the research, the people I have met, the stories they have shared with me, and observing the living organism that is life in a city and how it is always changing.

Q. What do you hope people understand about this topic as a result of viewing the art you’ve created?

A. The paradox inherent in many American cities: The very things that make them attractive places to raise children, their history, their culture and their vibrancy, are products of families who can no longer afford to live there.

‘Where Have All the Children Gone?’

What: Art exhibit by Claire Starkweather Forrest

When: Through Saturday, Sept. 24. Viewing is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends and by appointment on weekdays.

Where: Gallery by-the-Sea, St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, 743 Prospect St., La Jolla

Cost: Free

Information: sjbts.org/gallery-by-the-sea.html, (858) 459-3421

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.