Business Briefs: Lesbian artist is SF's go-to calligrapher

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday January 10, 2018
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Anyone attending a gala event hosted by such San Francisco cultural institutions as the Asian Art Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, or the city's ballet or opera companies has located their dinner table seat by finding their name beautifully written on a place card.

For those who opened a Christmas card last month, or in years past, from the late Mayor Ed Lee or his predecessor Gavin Newsom, they should have noticed their name and address were hand lettered in a stylistic flourish.

The penmanship, done in various calligraphic styles, is the work of Oakland resident Rona J. Siegel, a lesbian artist who has become the go-to calligrapher for City Hall and local civic institutions.

"Rona is the calligrapher to the stars. She does the calligraphy for all the social set as well as for the major arts institutions in San Francisco," said former Bay Area Reporter publisher Thomas E. Horn, the honorary consul of Monaco, who for years has hired Siegel to address his holiday cards. "I met her through the mayor's office of protocol, and she is sweet to squeeze me in even though she is used to more rarified company. I am glad her art is being recognized."

Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, the chief of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco, hires Siegel not only to address the mayor's annual holiday cards but also to do the place cards for the annual consular brunch the mayor hosts for local foreign ambassadors and consular staff.

"When carrying out foreign affairs on behalf of the people of San Francisco, we in the Office of Protocol want to showcase the very best talents of our local business and artisans. When we are working on something special, Rona's calligraphy helps us to communicate to the communities we serve with elegance, adding a little bit of human touch that is often overlooked in our fast-paced society," Shultz told the B.A.R. "Her beautiful calligraphy plays a significant role in setting the tone for San Francisco's engagement with our global partners while maintaining what I think is a wonderful and timeless tradition. We take great delight in sharing Rona's talents with the world."

How Siegel came to hold such a position is largely due to chutzpah. She had been working at the now-closed Flax art supply store at the corner of Valencia and Market streets, where for 15 years she was known as "Miss Information," when a customer came in looking for someone to hire for an art project that was to be a gift for her husband.

Siegel said she could do the work. Pleased with the outcome, the woman came back to ask her if she could do 100 place cards for one of the San Francisco Symphony Gala dinners she was chairing. Even though she had never done such work before, Siegel told the woman she could complete the assignment.

"She was very pleased. It started a whole future of my working with the symphony on their special events," said Siegel, 66, who grew up in Forest Hills in the New York City borough of Queens.

Her interest in the art of calligraphy was sparked during a childhood visit to the Met Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's branch dedicated to medieval art.

"I saw the artwork of these illuminated manuscripts and my heart just fluttered," recalled Siegel. "I said I want to do that. It was the most incredible art I had ever seen."

While she wanted to work for an advertising agency, her parents suggested she become an art teacher, and Siegel graduated with a bachelor's degree in arts education K-12 from Hofstra University on Long Island. Then in her 20s she moved with her family to Huntsville, Alabama where she worked for a printing company that handled classified contracts for the U.S. Air Force.

But a white employee accused the owner, who was black, of mishandling the documents, in what was a racially motivated allegation, said Siegel, who testified during the resulting trial. The company lost its government work and was forced to close, leading Siegel to decide to move west.

So after seven years living in the South, she relocated again, this time on her own, to San Francisco in 1990, about six months after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Within a year she had landed her job at Flax and found a studio apartment in Bernal Heights, and by 1992 she had met the woman of her dreams, Joan Zawaski, a certified public accountant whom she would later marry.

Outside of her art store job, in addition to her working on gala events, Siegel started doing wedding invitations and other written materials for brides and grooms.

"I am self-taught," said Siegel, who bought herself calligraphy books to learn the craft.

Twelve years ago, with backing from Zawaski, she quit her job at Flax and officially launched Siegel Fine Art Studio. She currently rents a small office space in San Francisco's Mission district that is jammed full with various pens, paper, and other supplies.

"It was a leap of faith and a total dream," recalled Siegel. "Had it not been for the fact Joan and I were together, I could not have done it. She said, 'No, I will not support you because you are going to be just fine.' In June 2006, I said goodbye to Flax, we signed up for a cruise to Tahiti, and when we got back Siegel Fine Art Studio was on its way."

She soon formed a working relationship with a local wedding planner, Kathryn Kenna. Couples who go the extra mile to hire her to produce calligraphy elements for their ceremony, whether it is the invites or place cards to menu chalkboards for their receptions, are showing their guests they are appreciated, said Siegel.

"It tells the guests they care about them enough to make something beautiful," she said. "If you see in your mailbox a beautifully handwritten letter or junk mail, what are you going to open first? All the junk mail is going to fall by the wayside."

As children have less and less reasons to utilize penmanship, due to the advance of electronic communications, Siegel fears they will not appreciate the value of calligraphy in the world.

"Everyone around me tells me, 'You are doing a dying art.' Clearly, the next generation is missing out on something that is very necessary," said Siegel, who does not use a computer but does utilize email via her smartphone. "I get calls from mothers who want me to help their children improve their handwriting. We are losing a bit of humanity when we don't teach kids how to write."

To learn more about Siegel's services, call her at (415) 314-1019 or email [email protected].

Stoli plans Harvey Milk vodka bottle

The makers of Stolichnaya vodka plan to issue a commemorative bottle this year honoring the late gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, whose election to his board seat in 1977 made history for being the first time an LGBT person won elective office in the city as well as the state of California.

According to a December 22 email from Center Link, the organization for the country's LGBT community centers that has received funding from Stoli, the tribute to Milk would be the company's "first-ever LGBT bottle" and celebrate the 40th anniversary of his being sworn into office in January 1978.

"Stoli is also a proud partner of the important work of the Harvey Milk Foundation for global equality, and through this project will be making a donation to commemorate while encouraging others to do the same," stated the email, which asked recipients to take part in a survey about the proposed Milk vodka bottle.

The six questions asked if the person knew of Milk, who was assassinated in November 1978, and if so, how well they did; if they had ever bought an LGBT-branded bottle of vodka; if they would buy a Milk vodka bottle that raised money for "global equality;" would they switch from their preferred vodka brand to buy the Milk Stoli bottle; and would they buy such a bottle as a keepsake.

"Stoli is sensitive to the needs and values of the LGBT community and appreciates feedback on future activities and being informed of your interest," stated the email.

It is unclear when the Milk bottle will be released. It could be timed to the annual celebrations held on May 22, which was Milk's birthday and is a day of special significance in California, or sometime in June during Pride Month.

"This is in very early stages, but I will be in touch as soon as we have updates to share," Alison Walsh, the global director for public relations and digital at the Stoli Group USA, told the B.A.R. this week in response to questions about the rollout of the Milk bottle.

In 2013, Stoli was the target of a boycott in the U.S. pushed by LGBT activists upset with Russia passing anti-gay laws as the company had long promoted itself as producing Russian vodka. Gay bars across the country were encouraged to stop carrying the brand, and at several that did, employees poured out their Stoli stock.

Yet the brand is actually owned by the Luxembourg-based SPI Group, whose principal owner fled Russia in the 1990s after being accused of stealing the Stolichnaya name from the government. The vodka is now produced in Latvia, but uses raw alcohol distilled from grain grown in Russia.

Due to the attacks from American LGBT activists, Stoli launched the website to explain that the Stolichnaya vodka sold in Russia is owned by a different company. It also highlighted the fact that its North American subsidiary, Stoli Group USA, supports LGBT rights and has offered domestic partner benefits since it was created in 2013.

The website also notes that the company four years ago pledged $300,000 over three years to the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center for its Leadership LAB initiative. During Pride Month last June, Stoli launched its "Raising the Bar" platform at to highlight its 35-year commitment to the LGBT equality movement.

Since 2012 Stoli has donated $1 million to various LGBT nonprofits, including the San Francisco-based Positive Resource Center and the Milk foundation, which last year awarded Stoli Group USA President and CEO Patrick Piana a Diversity Honors Award due to the company's commitment to LGBT causes.

Gay former San Francisco supervisor Bevan Dufty, who held Milk's seat on the board, called the branding of a vodka bottle after Milk "a mixed bag" when told of the idea by the B.A.R.

"On the one hand having Harvey and his legacy out in the world is better than having him be forgotten. On the other, seeing another bottle of vodka for sale is not as exciting," said Dufty, who now serves on the BART board.

Gay bar owner Tom Temprano does not carry Stoli at his Mission watering hole Virgil's Sea Room and recalls patrons asking him if he did back in 2013 at the height of the boycott effort. He told the B.A.R. he "might consider" stocking the Milk vodka bottle if it was tied to a fundraising effort benefiting LGBT causes.

"This could be their acknowledging their brand took a real hit," suggested Temprano, an elected member of the board that oversees City College of San Francisco and a former president of the city's Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.

Chinese firm buys Grindr hookup app

A Chinese technology firm has gained full control of the West Hollywood-based Grindr, the gay hookup app that launched in 2009 and now has 3.3 million daily active users across the globe.

Kunlun Group Limited, based in Hong Kong and a subsidiary of Beijing Kunlun Tech Co., Ltd., last January paid $93 million to acquire a 60 percent stake in Grindr and control of three of the five seats on the Grindr board. It bought the remaining stake in the company January 5 for an undisclosed amount.

As part of the terms of the deal, Grindr CEO and founder Joel Simkhai exited the company, and Yahui Zhou, the chairman of the board of Grindr, became interim CEO last Friday. Additionally, Grindr's current vice chairman Wei Zhou was named executive vice chairman and CFO, and former Facebook and Instagram veteran Scott Chen joined Grindr as CTO.

"I'm beyond proud of what we've built as a team and how Grindr has been able to make a meaningful and lasting contribution to the global community," stated Simkhai. "We have achieved our success because of the strength and global reach of our community. I look forward to Grindr and Kunlun's continued commitment to building tolerance, equality, and respect around the world."

Zhou thanked Simkhai "for his inspiration and service as the founder of Grindr" and wished him "all the best in the future." He added that, "looking forward, we are extremely excited about the excellent work Grindr is doing in becoming a leading global technology company, serving and supporting our users no matter where they are in the world."

Got a tip on LGBT business news? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected].