Photo by Anthony Lindsey

What is it? Where is it?

Pencil Vania—the “Forest of Pencils”—is a mixed media art installation in a three-story stairwell at the private home of Jaina A. Davis in San Francisco, CA.

Who made it?

Jason Mecier; San Francisco’s beloved “Celebrity Junk Drawer” artist. He designed and installed the entire piece without any assistance. He did consult with Jaina about some of the ideas, and incorporated art pieces by other artists, including a sculpture made from the branch of a tree fitted with pencil tips (artist unknown, bought in France). Lighting designer Jenny B. of Shady Lady Lighting, designed and installed all of the lights, including wall sconces with flickering flame bulbs, and a one-of-a-kind ceiling fixture adapted from a gigantic chandelier. The installation covers the walls, banisters, ceilings, molding, trim, shelves and three doors from the first floor, up two landings, and all the way to the top of the third floor. That's 980 square feet plus 20 feet of handrails!

How many pencils are there?

Eleventy billion. OK, really, according to our number cruncher (thank you, Kate Fenker) there are 185,252 pencils. If you don’t believe it, feel free to come do your own calcualtions!

How long did it take?

Five years; 1997–2002.

Did Jason work on it every day?

No. Sometimes he’d take a break—but not often!

How much did it cost?

A lot.

Where did all the pencils come from?

From as many sources as you can imagine! The bulk of the pencils were purchased from two local reuse centers (redistributors of reusable materials that would have gone to landfill) SCRAP and The East Bay Depot For Creative Reuse. Many pencils were ordered in bulk from office and school supply catalogs, including discounted misprints! A few dozen were custom ordered to feature the names of friends and inspirations, and to thank the many people who donated pencils throughout the project. Jaina held a garage sale that accepted no money in exchange for goods—only pencils! The house is located near two schools, and Jaina would pick up abandoned pencils on her daily excursions. Jason's mother is a teacher, and she donated all the broken pencils that her students had discarded. A friend of Jason’s even went door to door in Berkeley, asking for unwanted pencils! Sometimes boxes of pencils were left anonymously on the doorstep, and friends often brought back souvenir pencils from their vacations.

Is there anything other than pencils in the installation?

There are erasers, pencil sharpeners, the random pen, and a few assorted office supplies; staplers, rulers, compasses, scissors. There's also a huge rubber-band ball on the banister!

How did Jason come to do this strange and marvelous thing?

Jason and Jaina met each other through mutual friends in 1989 and performed for many years together in the now-defunct San Francisco band Enrique and in many of the band’s original musicals—such as Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls—by D'Arcy Drollinger. Jason also contributed to Jaina's self-published magazine, Flatter!, which had a running theme about office supplies. When Jaina bought the property on Potrero Hill in 1997, she invited her artist friends to have their way with the interior. Jason conceived the idea to connect all the styles of the different rooms through the winding staircase.

How does the pencil mosaic connect all the different themed rooms?

The stairs embark from the Haunted Victorian Parlour, so Jason copied a design from an original Victorian wallpaper pattern—in pencils! The second floor is carpeted with remnants from the Circus Circus casino, so he used brightly colored pencils to continue the circus theme. As the stairs climb toward the third floor, the pencils fade from the many colors to white, silver, and iridescent, which sparkle in the sunshine pouring through the skylight. A clever beaded curtain made of pencils hangs between the final landing and the mysterious Opium Den.

Who's that face made of pencils?

That's “Granny”—a futuristic portrait of Jaina when she's 88.

What else do you see along the way?

A garden of pencil flowers, a pencil-skyscraper cityscape, shelves made out of pencils holding pencil sharpeners and erasers, a “stained glass window” made from colorful translucent rulers, a necktie featuring a pattern of pencils, and a custom-made hat that looks exactly like an eraser, by Miss Fitt and Co. At the very top of the stairs is a framed letter from the president of Faber-Castell; the oldest pencil manufacturing company in the world!

What did Jason use to adhere the pencils to the surfaces?

Mostly Aileen's Super Tacky Craft Glue. He also drilled holes in which to insert pencils and also threaded fishing line through hollow mechanical pencils to suspend them from the ceiling with thumbtacks.

What inspired this unusual idea?

Jason visited Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village as a child, and learned folk arts and crafts from his own grandmother. Jaina had always loved unusual homes, such as the Winchester Mystery House and Hearst Castle, and dreamed that one day she would live in one of her very own!

How old is the house?

It was constructed in 1896, and has survived both of the major 20th Century earthquakes quite well.

Does your landlord know about this?

Jaina gets asked this all the time by people who don't realize she actually owns the place.

What's it like living within walls of pencils? What does it smell like?

It's like the first day of school every day! Mmmmm!

Are there any problems with living within walls of pencils?

Sometimes long skirts can snag on the tips. That's about it.

Are you worried about lead poisoning?

No. Pencils are made of graphite and wood.

Do you have a favorite part of the pencil mosaic?

After living with pencils for a decade, Jaina's favorite part is discovering the little details she never noticed before—like the pencil with erasers at both ends!

What will happen to the pencils if you sell your house?

Jaina plans to keep the house her whole life, and is considering her options for the distant future.

Has the pencil masterpiece ever received any acclaim or accolades?

Nest Magazine did a ten-page feature of the stairwell in their 8th issue. Weird Homes, a Canadian cable TV show, featured the house in a 2001 episode. San Francisco TV show, Evening Magazine, did a piece about the stairs in 2002, and in 2006, HGTV showcased the famous stairwell on their program, Offbeat America. In 2003, Pencil-Vania received the coveted “Best of the Bay” award from the San Francisco Bay Guardian—for “Best Stairwell!” Look for the pencil stairwell in an upcoming issue of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!

Can I come see it?

The house is opened to the public on occasion. Contact us to be put on the announcement list.

Why pencils?

Jaina is a writer. She prefers to write with pens. But, pencils are the ubiquitous writing instrument! And they are beautiful iconic, objects—like soup cans.