Passionate photographer, skillful builder and creative artist: a gentle man with an insatiable desire to create beauty and balance in life, for himself and others.
By Heide VanDoren Betz
Stepping into the world of Ron Henggeler is leaving our customary presence and any notion of the ordinary behind. A genius mind is at work, creating and processing. Ron Henggeler’s home, surely on the way to becoming a private museum, is brimming with objects and materials old and new – collectibles, paintings, sculpture, thousands of Classical music vinyl records, of cameras, taxidermy, historical and contemporary photographs, art books (5000+), objects d’art and… oh yes, a cat named Alice (in Wonderland). By most standards it is bursting at the seams, yet Ron is working feverishly to create more art.
Heide VanDoren Betz: Tell us a bit about your background, your upbringing
Ron Henggeler: I was born on July 12, 1953, in Columbus, Nebraska. I was part of the baby-boomer generation and was the oldest of six boys. I grew up in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, and attended college at Kansas University, Lawrence, Kansas, majoring in painting and sculpture. In 1974 I moved to San Francisco where I studied graphics, painting, and sculpture with Tom Phillips and photography with Mark Anstendig.
HB: You worked as a waiter at the iconic Big Four Restaurant, Huntington Hotel, where you established quite a reputation. How did this all come about?
RH: I’ve lived in San Francisco for 49 years. For 46 of those years, I worked as a waiter in several fine-dining restaurants in the city. The last place I worked was at the iconic Big 4 Restaurant in the Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill. I absolutely loved my job at the Big 4 and couldn’t wait to be back in the dining room each new day. Not only was I the senior waiter at this establishment, I was also the florist, holiday decorator, in-house historian, and on-call photographer for both the Big 4 Restaurant and the Huntington Hotel. When the Coronavirus pandemic shut everything down in March 2020, I could see by the end of that summer that things were never going to be the same. Consequently, in December 2020, I retired from the industry and left the Big 4 for good. I had always joked with co-workers that I would never retire, but instead would die in the dining room serving customers. As of this date, the Big 4 restaurant is still closed, with the prospect that it may never reopen.
HB: How are you dealing with your retirement?
RH: I love the freedom that has come with being retired. In some ways, I’m busier now than when I was working five days a week in the restaurant. I wake early each morning, grateful and thankful for another day. I have several works in progress that keep me happily busy and productive. Curating and editing 46 years of photos keeps me especially busy these days. I always try to maintain the thought and attitude that if this were my last day alive on earth, what can I do to the best of my ability on this final day to make it meaningful and memorable, for myself and others. I’m not a workaholic, but I like being busy and not waste precious time.
HB: Describe a typical day for you
RH: I wake at 5:30-6am, make a tea, then feed Alice the cat, usually as the sun is coming up. If the morning light of the skyline catches my attention, I photograph the scene with the Canon camera that is always on the tripod at the window, ready for me to use at any moment. With the cup of hot tea by my side, I make the first entry into my daily journal and then begin work on my photos until around 9am. Currently, along with photos that I have recently taken, I’m also beginning to cull, edit, catalog, and archive the tens of thousands of photos that I have taken in the past 46 years. I’ve recently realized how important it is for me, at the age of 70, to begin curating this vast photo collection. During the day, I’m usually doing maintenance work and chores at a house with 20 rooms. It is a never-ending process. In the evenings, if I am not at the computer working on photos, I’m likely watching a program on PBS or an old movie on the Turner Classic Channel.
HB: You live in a mansion which you are slowly and meticulously turning into a private museum of “curiosities”. How do you do that? RH: I live here and view this house as my personal sanctuary and living museum. I have a lot to work with. There are several major collections in the house that I am curating, organizing, and when possible, putting on display. There are the large oil paintings and hundreds of pencil drawings by Tom Phillips, thousands of photo prints by Mark Anstendig, my own photography, a library of books and LP records. Plus all the rooms in the mansion are filled with my jar sculptures on display.
HB: You the Photographer: When did you start taking photos? Tell us a bit about the history of your photography
RH: Taking photos began in the late ‘70’s when my parents gave me an Olympus XA camera for Christmas. It was a small little workhorse of a camera that took fairly decent picture. I had it with me wherever I went. It certainly helped turn my picture-taking into the hard-wired passion that drives me to this day. It was for me then what the iPhone camera is for me now.
HB: Is there someone who influenced your photographic journey?
RH: Yes, in the mid ‘80s, Mark Anstendig, my partner and mentor, bought me an F3 Nikon. In 2006, Mark presented me with the best digital camera at that time, an EOS-1Ds Canon, which I still use regularly. So much of what I know and understand about optics and photography is because of Mark. He generously and enthusiastically shared his knowledge of photography with me for more than 40 years. His influence on me cannot be understated. Mark, who studied orchestra conducting at Julliard under Jean Paul Morel, continued his studies in Berlin. In 1959, he was awarded a German Government Grant to study conducting with Professor Maerzendorfer, at the time with the Berlin Staedtische Oper. In 1961 he was chosen by audition as one of the few Active Conductors in the Herbert van Karajan conducting practicum. But while in Berlin, Mark’s professional activities changed direction from music to photo-optics. For ten years (1960 to 1970), he was the associate of Mr. Joseph Dahl, the inventor of the Messraster focusing device. Mark photographed James Baldwin, President Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, W.H. Auden, and Valeska Gert to name a few. His photos appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Paris Match, Der Tagesspiegel and Spiegelreflex in Germany and U.S. Camera and for PIX, Inc. in America and were on display at the Fotokina exposition in Cologne and in the Berlin Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.
HB: What do you wish your photos to convey?
RH: Perfection. The miraculous and mystical qualities of light and the ongoing drama of each moment in everyday life. To quote Walt Whitman, “To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle, every cubic inch of space is a miracle”.
HB: How do you publish or share your photos?
RH: Over the years, my photos have regularly been used in numerous magazine articles. I have not yet published my work in a book, although the idea has recently been proposed again for me to approach San Francisco-based Chronicle Books.
For the past 18 years, I have been sharing my photography by creating and posting Photo Newsletters on my web site. The Photo Newsletters section now contains over 36,000 photos. I have a mailing list of nearly 2000 followers who receive a brief email from me when I’ve posted another collection of photos as a newsletter. With this audience in mind, I feel that the work that I’ve put into creating these Photo Newsletters over the past 18 years has helped hone me into a better photographer and artist.
HB: Tell us about a few special projects over the years
RH: From 2007 until 2014, I photo-documented the historic restoration of the 1905 Murphy Windmill at the south end of Golden Gate Park. Roebuck Construction gave me carte blanche to the work site and I shot thousands of photos during that time, recording every detail of the iconic windmill’s reconstruction.
A work project in progress that began in 1978 with my first camera and that continues to this day is the photo documentation of street life and the homeless population in San Francisco. Susan Goldstein, City Archivist at the San Francisco Main Library, is very interested in adding this sizeable body of work to the San Francisco History Center’s image collection.
Another project is the stately City Hall building. The third-floor windows of my house near Alamo Square in San Francisco have unimpeded views of the city’s skyline. Five blocks away the City Hall building, with its magnificent dome, topped with a gold copula, is the center-piece in my skyline view. I have my EOS-1Ds Canon camera on a tripod at the window, and I have been photographing the view almost daily for 28 years. The sunrises, sunset light reflecting off of building’s windows, different weather conditions, new high-rises being built, the different colored flood-lights on City Hall at night; all of these ‘events’ are being captured and chronicled in an unprecedented and original way.
I also have hundreds of photos of the American composer Virgil Thomson who I knew for 11 years and hundreds of photos of Jane Goodall, who I have known for 24 years.
In August 2016, I was given rare and special access to visit and photograph from the top of the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. This opportunity had always been a first on my bucket list. The day I photographed from 746 ft. above the water on the bridge tower was a long-sought-after dream come true. Homeland Security is involved with protecting the iconic bridge and being granted this permission was a serious matter. For security reasons, I am not allowed to sell or share on social media the photos that I shot from the top of the tower.
HB: You the Artist: You are well known in art circles for your
“Outsider Art” jar sculptures. How are these created?
RH: “The Jars” is an ongoing work in progress that is now over 45 years old. Having worked in San Francisco restaurants for 45 years, I’ve always asked the bartenders to save me the gallon jars that martini olives and maraschino cherries come in. I have over 1,200 glass gallon jars that are filled with everything imaginable and each one is topped with a sculptural headdress. Many of the Jars contain historical artifacts from San Francisco- glass from the Sutro Baths, porcelain shards from the Gold Rush, burnt items from the 1906 earthquake and fire. “The Jars” are unique time capsules filled with tangible evidence of times that are now gone forever. These sculptural Jars hold personal histories, stories, and memories. They are like three-dimensional pages from my daily journal and contain all the collected flotsam and jetsam of my daily life experiences. Working on the Jars is often like a meditation and being in the moment with them is very calming and therapeutic. Many of the Jars are planned and the contents painstakingly and meticulously arranged. Some are created without much thought. There is always a consideration in filling a jar as to what items remain next to the glass, so that the objects left showing are the ones telling the story.
HB: Since there are well over 1000 jars, how do you catalog them or do you?
RH: A particular focus and side-line project these days is to label and catalogue each of the Jars. As of this date, I have labeled 749 Jars. My ‘labeling machine’ is a beautiful in-mint-condition, shiny black 1915 Underwood typewriter. Each label, taped on the outside of the Jar near the bottom, has a catalog number in the upper left corner of the label. The Jar’s label corresponds to more information about that particular Jar in a Microsoft Word document that is currently 90 pages long and contains 24,817 words.
HB: What were your influences in creating these jars?
RH: Both sides of my parent’s family were practical people living in rural Nebraska. As a child, I saw relatives storing things in old, recycled jars. My uncles and grandfathers kept nails, nuts, bolts in recycled jars. The aunts and grandmothers pickled and preserved vegetables and fruits in mason jars. I was raised Catholic, so the beautifully ornate reliquary boxes containing sacred objects became an inspiration for placing my personal “relics and artifacts” into jars. Joseph Cornell and his box creations have been an inspiration for me. I tell friends that the Jars are my “Cornell boxes.” I have always felt a kinship with Dadaists: Duchamp, Man Ray, and Max Ernst who used and displayed “ready-mades” (everyday objects) which they lifted to the status of art. The 18th- and 19th-century collections of curiosities that individuals created in their homes and manors resonate with me. The 1960’s hippie grocery stores with bulk staples placed in jars remain a vivid memory because oatmeal, rice, and fruit seemed like works of art just by being in those jars.
HB: What art historical label would you give your works?
RH: That’s a tough question. I can see aspects of Outsider Art, elements of Dada and the Surrealist Movements and there are also clear threads and elements of Folk Art. In my mind, the sculptural and elaborate headdresses that I have created atop the metal lids were originally inspired by the kachina dolls created by the Hopi, Zuni, and Navaho. These native people did not have a written language, but their oral traditions were passed down through the generations for centuries, using the kachinas as story-telling aids. Each kachina was imbued with great meaning and symbolism. Their ancient histories and honored traditions were clearly remembered through the sacred kachinas. The oldest 200 Jars and their headdresses in my collection are over 40 years old.
HB: Editorial Note:
Christies Auction House defines “Outsider Art” as art by untrained makers operating outside art world establishments, as an increasingly important and diverse area of today’s art world, with major museums establishing collections and holding retrospective exhibitions of artists in the field. Christie’s is the market leader in this category and holds the world auction records for highly important Outsider artists including Henry Darger, William Edmondson, and Bill Traylor.
The popularity of “Outsider Art” has increased substantially in the past decade and has been featured in auctions and international exhibitions . An auction in Feb ‘22 of Outsider Art at Christies, New York realized $2,239,625 for 143 lots with prices ranging from $ 400 to $ 175 000. A recent January 2023 auction at Christies realized $2,064,384 for 103 lots ranging from $252 to $302,400.
HB: What inspired you to now begin a new series of wood construction sculptures?
RH: They’re a nod to Louise Nevelson, whose work I admire very much. Her constructions are mostly geometric; my constructions are the exact opposite of that. I have an attic that is literally filled to the rafters with exquisite objects that I have collected and saved for the past 45 years. The twelve different wood constructions that I am currently building throughout the house are a way for me to put these collected objects and my creative energies to use. These 10 ft. tall constructions, when completed, will be beautifully crafted and ornately decorated cascades of wooden ornamentation in rich dark wood tones. I see these towers of constructed wood pieces like a beautiful exotic coral reef, filled with different life forms, but in dark finely-crafted wood that is carefully arranged in conscious, deliberate, and thoughtful ways. Although they are quite heavy, all of these constructions are free-standing and can be moved with a moderate effort. Three of the constructions are on wheels.
HB: What is your intent with these various projects – the photography, the jar sculptures, the new tall wood sculptures, the book collection, and ultimately the mansion.
RH: I have no specific intentions for any of it. But if I die tomorrow, I’ve written down where I would hope some of this lifetime of collecting will end up: The Oakland Art Museum, The San Francisco Historical Society, the History Center of the San Francisco Main Library, and SCRAP, maybe even SFMOMA.
HB: What are you most proud of?
RH: My photography and my fundamental life-loving good nature.
HB: How would you like to be remembered?
RH: A talented renaissance man, a passionate photographer, a skillful builder, and above all, a gentle man with an insatiable desire to create beauty and balance in life, for myself and others.
HB: Anything else you wish us to know?
RH: My dearest friend, partner, and mentor Mark Anstendig passed away on November 8, 2019. I had worked with and studied under Mr. Anstendig since 1974. He taught me how to see and hear and how to be still enough to sustain the finest, most rarified experiences. All that I know, love, and appreciate about music comes from Mr. Anstendig. It is the source of all my art, refinement, and artistic discrimination. From him, I learned the uncompromising pursuit of artistic vision. Mark’s motto, from his Orchestra teacher Jean Paul Morel: “You serve your art. It does not serve you.”
Without Mark’s training, support, and encouragement, my life could never have become as rich as it is today.