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Guided by Voices

Unexpected guides add another layer to the interpretation of the creative landscapes of Roy De Forest

Roy De Forest’s paintings might seem like something out of a dream, but even his most whimsical works have roots in the real world. Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest includes four listening stations featuring audio narrations from unconventional guides—including a sword swallower, a fifth-grade student, and a dog trainer—to help visitors look closer at the artworks in the exhibition. These narrators share their experiences of De Forest’s motifs and encourage visitors to reflect on their own responses to the paintings. Read on for a sample. 

Two Faced

Frank Stiletto, sword swallower, on Recollections of a Sword Swallower

Stiletto is one of about 25 female sword swallowers in the world. The variety performer turned graduate student in anthropology is a two-time world record holder in her field. 

What intrigues you about this painting? 

I probably relate most to the central figure that seems to be split in two. We are all our own worst critics, and as a performer, the feeling of having one face that I present to the world and another that is the more real me is a feeling that hits close to home. Within both of those faces, within those personalities, there’s self-doubt, there’s ‘what if I can’t do this’. There’s ‘what if they don’t like me’. There’s also the other end of that spectrum, which is: I can totally do this. I know I’m capable of conquering whatever I want to face.

Does this painting suggest a personal journey to you?

It reminds me of any journey worth taking. It is full of unclear paths. It is full of obstacles and critics both internal and external. It is full of beautiful, scary, mysterious things and ultimately this reminds me that when all is said and done, I would rather explore this world than shy away from it.

Strong Eyes

Francis Metcalf, dog trainer, on Country Dog Gentlemen

The Oakland native runs Friends of the Family, a dog-training business, and consults with the San Francisco SPCA and UCSF’s animal-assisted therapy program. He has trained dogs for odor detection, criminal apprehension, and film and TV. 

What first catches your eye about this painting?

The unflinching stare of the dogs. Dogs emit energy from their eyes and do a lot of communication this way. A country gentleman familiar with the training and utilization of border collies to herd sheep would know the difference between a collie with strong eyes and one without.

Imagine yourself entering the world depicted in the painting. Where do you go first? 

The first thing I do when I enter this painting is I walk by a bunch of dogs over to a Yucca tree and go over to the blue section on the left where there’s a dog barking and there is a big tear in the fabric of the painting and I just want to let in some cool air from there, from that blue part. Then there's an Afghan dog at the top looking through a Dutch door, and I definitely would go around the two dogs staring at me and hang out with those guys in the corner.

It's a Small World

Ilán Casián-Issenberg, actor and fifth grader on Hans Bricker in the Tropics

The worlds depicted in De Forest’s paintings speak to viewers across generations. The 10-year-old student and actor shares his thoughts on the fanciful work.

Does this painting remind you of anything?

I imagined it like this world inside a hollow mandarin and then everyone from outside is peeling off the rind and is looking into this small world inside. And then … whoever that person is on the outside is maybe calling to this brick man and like, “Come back, come back,” and he’s like, “I can't.”

If you could enter this painting, where would you go?

I'd probably go to this brick man and see what he or her or whatever it is really, you know. I'd like to talk to the brick man in English then try in Spanish, Pig Latin. I don't know maybe every language, he can adapt to whatever the speaker can talk. I’d go up to him and talk to him like a normal person or her like a normal person and just see what happens. 


Roy De Forest, Recollections of a Sword Swallower, 1968. Polymer and glitter on canvas, 62.25" x 62.25". Collection of Crocker Art Museum; Roy De Forest, Country Dog Gentlemen, 1972. Polymer on canvas, 66.75" x 97". Collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA); Roy De Forest, Hans Bricker in the Tropics, 1974. Acrylic polymer on canvas, 72" x 93". Collection of The Anderson Collection at Stanford University. All art © Estate of Roy De Forest/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photography: Kirk Marsh Photography (Frankie Stiletto), Courtesy of Francis and Norma Metcalf (Francis Metcalf), Terry Lorant (Ilán Casián-Issenberg).

Of Dogs and Other People

Explore Roy De Forest’s whimsical, many-faceted work from all angles.

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