the Scenes | By
Since 1979, East Bay Open Studios has shed light on where and how local artists
work. Come and see creativity in its natural habitat.
is everywhere. It is in the lobby of your office building, on
the walls of your doctor’s office, and maybe even your
home. But do you know the artists?
Arts would like to introduce all of us to the artists in our
midst. The annual East Bay Open Studios, sponsored by the Oakland
arts agency, will pull back the curtain on more than 400 local
artists, who invite the public into their workspaces for two
June weekends. “We try to make our artists visible to
the community,” explains Margo Dunlap, executive director
of Pro Arts. “The artists open the doors of their world,
allowing us a glimpse of the artistic life.”
Open Studios was launched in 1979 there were few exhibition
opportunities in the Bay Area. The local gallery scene has
taken off in the intervening decades, but so has Open Studios.
The first year featured the workspaces of 50 artists. Five
years later, they showcased several hundred over one weekend.
Today, Open Studios runs two full weekends, June 3-4 and June
10-11, in 13 East Bay cities across two counties. It’s
a chance to visit mid-career artists with plenty of momentum
making the work they love without the commercial constraints
of the gallery system. For us, it’s a terrific way to
see work without having to face the imposing white walls of
a gallery and the rather aloof person dressed in black behind
the reception desk.
great to go to someone’s messy studio and feel like you’re
finding all these treasures,” says Albany artist Kanna
Aoki, who opened her studio for the first time last year. “I
had heard that it is mostly your friends who come to visit,
but it turned out not to be true. The best thing was having
a lot of people I didn’t know come by and look at my
artist Michael Grbich says Open Studios has helped him connect
to his neighborhood in the Oakland hills. “The vast majority
of my sales are within a quarter-mile radius of my house,” he
says. “Almost everyone on my block owns one of my paintings.”
Open Studios is also an opportunity to visit neighborhoods
you never knew existed. Jingletown is a tiny, mostly Latino-populated
area of Oakland. It got its moniker long ago from silver clanking
in the pockets of Portuguese cannery workers just paid for
canning fruits in Fruitvale.
cannery workers are long gone, but artist Fernando Reyes is
helping to ready Jingletown for Open Studios. The Jingletown
arts and business organization, situated mostly on the west
side of I-80 and next to the Oakland Estuary, of which Reyes
is a member, is organizing the entire neighborhood into a one-stop
destination: park your car, get a neighborhood map, spend a
few hours walking to all the surrounding studios, and then
hop over to a local café for lunch. The jingle you hear
may be the sound of Reyes ringing up your purchase.
maybe not—Open Studios welcomes window shoppers, too. “Buying
a painting for $500 to $2,000 is not something people do with
a snap of the finger,” says Berkeley artist Kathleen
King. “They need to think about it. They might need to
look at your work a couple years in a row. It’s a bigger
decision than buying a couch.”
that in mind, Glen Helfand, Adjunct Professor in the Graduate
Fine Arts Department at the California College of Art, and
author of Collecting Art: A Journal to Get You Started,
recommends bringing along a digital camera. If you like a piece
but are unsure, ask the artist if you can photograph it. You
can take the snapshot home, obsess about it, even hold it up
to your walls. A simple rule about purchasing art: only buy
work that speaks to you. Don’t buy art as a financial
investment, Helfand advises.
it only as an investment in culture,” he says, “something
that will make your world a little bigger.”
your heart is set on something out of your price range, however,
do not try the approach a visitor used on artist Margo Mercedes
Rivera-Weiss at a previous Open Studios. “She started
bargaining with me in a really insulting way,” Rivera-Weiss
recalls. “She picked out different parts of a watercolor
and asked if they were mistakes; she also questioned the matting
and framing. Then she offered me less money than I was asking.
I said no. If she had said, ‘I really enjoy this painting,
can you give me a better price?’ I would have done it.
More than my art, she needed to pay for a class in manners.”
who mistake an artist’s studio for a flea market aren’t
the only drawback for those brave enough to open their workplaces
to the public. Kathleen King sometimes catches visitors rifling
through her belongings, or sorting through her bookshelf, rather
than looking at her paintings. “I think people sometimes
confuse Open Studios with Open House,” she says.
despite the occasional lapse in manners, Open Studios is mostly
an opportunity for a friendly exchange of ideas, art, and currency.
Rivera-Weiss is a case in point. “I love that my friends
like my work,” she says, “but it’s a great
compliment when a stranger stops by and says, ‘This is
fabulous. I enjoy what you do. And I have to have this!’”
East Bay Open Studios,
June 3-4 and 10-11.
and directories of the Annual East Bay Open Studios
are available at the Pro Arts gallery and by visiting www.proartsgallery.org
special exhibit previews work by this year’s
Open Studios artists; May 3-June 18, at the Pro
Arts Gallery, 550 Second Street, Oakland. For information
call (510) 763-4361.
Kanna Aoki grew up in Albany and is now raising a family there. While
her children are at school, Aoki paints in a room of her own in their
newly renovated home.
After a stint in commercial art creating surface designs—images
that can be printed on fabrics or dinnerware—for Joe Boxer and
Pottery Barn, Aoki, 42, returned to fine art five years ago. Her current
paintings, most of them less than four feet square, continue the tradition
of Bay Area figurative painting, echoing especially the work of David
strongest oil paintings are based on easily recognized local
landmarks that have been around since her childhood—the
Albany Bowl, the Hotsy Totsy Club, Solano Avenue’s Burger
Depot, or the 580 freeway. The works offer glimpses into the
daily life of a town and its times. This is exactly what the
Bay Area Figurative School was driving at more than 40 years
ago—trying to bring the quotidian element of life, captured
long ago by the French Impressionists, back into the modernist
Like those assertive painters of the Bay Area School, Aoki has a bold
sense of color. Laying down swaths of blues, purples, and yellows, her
brushstrokes bring to life our region’s glow. Aoki underpaints
with an orange that seeps through the images, generating the fading warmth
of autumnal light or the retina burn of summer.
occasional plein air painter—foot traffic distracts her,
she says—Aoki prefers instead to paint figures from life
and to work from snapshots. “I like to use a photograph
as a reference or a starting point. I don’t try to copy
the photo. I try to let the essence of the scene or person
Aoki has shown at the Albany Community Center, selling out most of her
solo show there in 2004. A piece that sold early on was a horizontal
painting of the 580 freeway near Golden Gate Fields. The buyer then hired
Aoki to create her largest painting to date—an 8x3-foot horizontal
painting of the Diablo Valley, home to the patron’s office.
“ Commissions are the work side of making art,” Aoki says. “I
like doing them. But painting my own ideas is what I really enjoy doing.”
Kanna Aoki, 1019 Pomona Avenue, Albany; www.kannaaoki.com
on canvas. “Burger Depot,” oil on canvas.
Photos courtesy Kanna Aoki.
Michael Grbich is a phoenix. He was orphaned in infancy in 1932. The year after
his wife died, the house they built together was reduced to ash in the Oakland
Hills fires. Through it all, when he gets knocked down, he keeps getting back
serving in the military during the Korean conflict, Grbich took
advantage of the GI Bill and went to art school beginning in
the late 1950s. The early ’60s
were the time when the proto-pop artists were prominent in the culture—painters
like Jasper Johns and sculptors like Robert Rauschenberg. These two figures have
had a big influence on Grbich’s style. Using similar palettes, materials,
and objects he has crafted a type of painting best described as abstract-funk:
Large-scale works feature chromed auto parts, rusty license plates, masses of
keys or cracked door jambs, fastened onto fields of densely-layered, pockmarked
paint. His palette is subdued, but every so often a vibrant spasm of red or orange
bursts off the canvas.
turning to art making full-time, Grbich taught art at Miramonte
High School in Orinda. Retiring after 25 years, he picked up
his brushes and palette again and started back to work.
fire destroyed his home, Grbich snapped up some of the pieces
former life: hardened puddles of molten metal from his sports
car’s engine block,
seared roofing nails, and corroded drywall screws. All would show up later
in his paintings, helping him to transform a personal tragedy into a universal
a tapdancer, the 74-year-old grandfather of six has most recently
taken up tight-wire walking. Besides being a physical challenge,
it also represents
something philosophical for him. “That’s what life is,” he
explains, “trying to maintain an equilibrium, whether it’s literal,
like balancing your checkbook, or metaphoric, like trying to keep on the right
Grbich’s older pieces are about stuffing and layering
objects and paint into a tight spatial grid, the new works are pared down,
exuding a sense
of precariousness. Monochrome fields of color are now backgrounds to two objects,
connected by a very fragile line.
Grbich, 6538 Gwin Road, Oakland; www.michaelgrbich.com
with Ironing, ” acrylic and metal. Photo courtesy
Fernando Reyes paints and draws from life. Using professional and amateur models,
he fashions drawings, paintings, and prints that blend the austere compositions
of Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele with the erotic grit of Tom of Finland.
cavernous studio is fitted with a movable stage. Reyes poses his models on
it, then steps down, moving around the room until he is in the
to begin sketching.
Though Fernando Reyes studied art a little in college, it failed to hold his
interest as a young man. Instead, he spent 17 years as a junior executive in
Bank of America’s bankruptcy division. When his partner Daniel—who
was also in the business world—decided to follow his dream and go back
to school for clinical psychology, Reyes quit his job, too. At the age of 37,
he left San Francisco and headed to the Windy City to begin studies for an undergraduate
degree at the Art Institute of Chicago.
I decided to pursue an art career, I got really interested in
it again,“ he explains with a chuckle. “Devoted,
devotion has paid off. For nearly ten years, he has been a full-time
working artist. Reyes currently sells his block prints and figure
drawings through two galleries in San Francisco—Larry Warnock
Fine Arts and Alabaster.
the past, Reyes has explored landscape and still life, but two
years ago he honed in on the human figure,
making it the exclusive focus of his work.
Influenced by Lucian Freud, Paul Cadmus, Bay Area figuratist Nathan Olivera,
and artists from the Italian Renaissance, Reyes’s charcoal and pastel
drawings are lively and energetic, full of marks that move your eye across
the paper and through the composition. His paintings are more staid, loaded
with an intention that gives them a more mannered feeling. The prints, mainly
woodcuts and monoprints, fall somewhere in between. They feature some of
the ornament of the paintings, but also the simplicity seen in Matisse or
all the while seeming to percolate with a barely subdued energy.
Reyes, 2934 Ford Street, Studio #26, Oakland; www.freyesart.com
One-Get One Free,” color woodcut block print.
Photo courtesy Fernando Reyes.
Margo Mercedes Rivera-Weiss’s mother, Elsie Zahler, dreamed of being an
artist. She won a scholarship to attend art school in New York City, but it was
during the Great Depression, and her family in Newark could not afford to have
her attend. She spent the next four years working in their shop instead.
when Elsie lived in Miami, she went on a date with a Peruvian immigrant, Jaime
Rivera. Neither spoke the other’s language, so they brought along
a dictionary. They later married and had daughter Margo, remaining in Miami
until she was four, and then made their way west, to San Leandro.
early years in Florida still have a hold on Rivera-Weiss. “I use palm
trees and tropical fruit in my art—mangos, papayas, plantains, and melons.
I think you can see Miami in my grapefruits,” enthuses the outgoing artist.
You can, but you can also see in her palette the colors of Paul Gauguin, a
French post-Impressionist painter who lived briefly in the tropics. Rivera-Weiss
as a child going with her mother to see the work of another post-Impressionist,
Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. Rivera-Weiss was deeply moved. Her mother may
not have gone to school for art, but she shared her love of it with Margo.
community outreach manager for the Women’s Cancer Research Center in
Oakland, Rivera-Weiss started an art gallery at the Center in 1998, adding
curator to her résumé. She lives and works in Oakland’s
Fruitvale neighborhood, painting at her living room table and showcasing her
in the finished garage. Her paintings are from life—bowls and plates
laden with fruit. Her partner, Hadas, eats the fruit when Rivera-Weiss is finished
with the composition.
has taken a few art classes at local community centers, but she
is basically self-taught. Rivera-Weiss exhibits a sure hand in her watercolors,
pooling up the pigments to make saturated images that blast out waves of
Rivera-Weiss’s father, who is now in his 70s, has started
picking up the brushes himself. “My mother died when I was 15, but
she would have thought Open Studios was the best game in town,” Rivera-Weiss
loved to talk to people. She loved art. And she loved to sell stuff at
flea markets. If she were alive, she would be sitting here throughout the
talking to all
and offering them a drink.”
Mercedes Rivera-Weiss, 2607 School Street, Oakland; www.geocities.com/incajew.
and My Shadow,” watercolor by Margo
Mercedes Rivera-Weiss. Photo
by Dana Davis.
The Philip Guston retrospective at SFMOMA three years ago made a big impression
on North Berkeley painter Kathleen King. Though Guston is best known as a leader
of the return to figurative painting in the 1970s, his post-war Abstract Expressionist
paintings were what captured her eye and her imagination.
in by his nuanced sense of color and his ability to weave horizontal
and vertical brushstrokes
together seamlessly, King soon set off on an exploration
of her own. Tackling some of the same issues Guston explored, her painted results
are terrific, but of course different from the modern master’s. Where
shapes tended to come trudging out of a muted, almost foggy field of color,
boldly blast out, held in check by a field of color gripping at their edges.
King attended U.C. Berkeley in the early ’80s, at a time when
many of the leading lights of the Bay Area art scene where holding court on
campus. Local luminaries like Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown were shaping young
and minds—King’s included.
I like in art is excitement, something that can really bring
you out,” explains the exuberant painter. “Abstract
Expressionism is very physical.”
who supports herself doing graphic design, draws her inspiration
from her environs.
Marks on a sidewalk, graffiti, the texture of skin, all resonate
her and are translated into her painterly poetry. “It’s similar
to gumbo; you put it all in there and it cooks for a while,” she says. “That’s
what I like about Abstract Expressionism, in this short amount of time you
build stuff up—creating information that is visual, intellectual, emotional,
and a little bit spiritual.”
of the painters she admires paint in oil. King paints in acrylic,
and often on a smaller scale than her heroes
do, but like them, she mixes her
Her new paintings, seen in her San Pablo Avenue studio, are pure delight,
crammed to the point of bursting with marks and color. In a previous series,
colors looked to be held down by sheer will. The latest ones seem to be
missing their lids.
King, 1509 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley; www.studio1509fineart.com
with the Swimmers,” acrylic on canvas. Photos
courtesy Kathleen King
When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and the surrounding area, it wiped
out Coygon Robinson Jr.’s career. Robinson is a painter and printmaker—formerly
based in Biloxi, Mississippi—who spent a good part of each year marketing
his art throughout the Southeast, from Louisiana to Florida. Ninety percent of
his patrons were in New Orleans. Retired from the Air Force, the 55-year-old
artist has made a living selling and privately teaching art since 1997 on the
Gulf Coast. In the aftermath of last season’s hurricanes, many of the shows
he would normally participate in are now on hold or canceled.
for the Bay Area, Robinson is not a quitter. When his insurance
he hit the road to Oakland to live with his sister and opened a studio
shop in Oakland’s Grand Lake district in December.
one to sit still, he is also organizing an outdoor arts walk
with the support of neighborhood merchants. And he is beginning
to teach a marketing class for other artists. “I’ve
found that a lot of artists just don’t have a clue on how
to get their stuff out there,” he says. “I’ve
just about done it all—from going door-to-door in subdivisions
selling my work to exhibiting it in galleries and museums.”
a painter, Robinson has recently begun making limited-edition
photograph-based prints with his digital camera and computer.
Robinson creates images in six
genres: coastal landscapes, sea life, jazz music, fine arts, Black arts,
and productions of his mixed media paintings. His shots of the
scenic and peaceful
environs of the Gulf Coast are powerful stuff, especially when he tells you
how that majestic building or busy seaport is now vanished.
printing his pieces on an inkjet printer using archival inks,
works them over on the computer using imaging software, bringing out visual
patterns or textures he finds in the original. He also tweaks the colors—saturating
some, subduing others—to heighten the photograph’s emotions.
The finished pieces often feel a little sunburnt.
is just now beginning to process the devastating losses of Katrina
in his art, making a moody
collage out of a photo he took of the destruction.
While he is starting anew in Oakland, he is not forgetting to look back.
Coygon Robinson Jr. is beginning to donate a percentage of his sales
to his old hometown’s
schools and art colleges.
Robinson Jr., 3719 Grand Avenue, Oakland; www.coygonsarts.com
Fishing Pier,” digital print. Photos courtesy
Coygon Robinson Jr.
Zach Pine is a rock balancer. Sometimes his totems have a whimsical element to
them—a formation may bring to mind a waiter caught serving food in gale
force winds. Other works are presented on a more intimidating scale—a gigantic
boulder balanced on end at the tip of a precipice.
a hike in the woods or at Stinson Beach, Pine gathers up rocks
of varying shapes and sizes and stacks them,
often precariously, into temporary monuments.
If people venture by, he tries to engage them in the building process. When
finished with a larger piece he pushes the sculpture over and walks away. Pine
works like a rural graffiti artist: slipping into the scene, leaving his beautiful
mark for passersby to admire, and then taking off.
a kid, Pine loved to make sand castles, towers, and the like.
But unlike most of us, he never really stopped. As an adult,
he can still spend an entire day building stone constructions,
only now he ropes people into his impromptu art events, and the
scale of his projects is grander. His sense of wonder is what
has remained constant.
process of art making has a lot to do with exploration,” enthuses
the wiry 40-something. “I explore when I’m out there. I learn a
lot about the crystalline structure of rocks by trying to balance them. Certain
that look fine sitting on a flat surface crumble when forced to bear the weight
of other stones. This sparks my interest to try to find out more about that
kind of rock when I get home.”
addition to rock balancing, Pine also crafts twigs, sticks, and
leaves into abstract compositions similar to internationally
known artists like Andy Goldsworthy
and Richard Long. During Open Studios, Pine creates on the sidewalk area
in front of his West Berkeley space, encouraging visitors to
build their own pieces.
He is unable to do commissions, since his pieces are held together only by
gravity. At the encouragement of his wife, he has recently started digitally
photographing the pieces. Although he was reluctant at first given the demands
of photographing his work—some pieces may be too big to fit in the frame,
the light may have faded by completion, or the piece is just too unstable by
the time he can get to the camera—the rewards are starting to pay off.
People are buying prints and notecards, and he is able to get his work seen
around the globe via the Internet.
general, we like our art to be permanent. The idea of something
continuing on after us makes the future seem more humane. But
by offering moments rather than monuments with his sculptures,
Pine helps us focus on the present. Enjoy his tower now—a
strong breeze may be coming.
Pine, ActivSpace, 2703 Seventh Street, Studio #141, Berkeley; www.naturesculpture.com
Timothy Buckwalter, a painter represented by Rebecca Ibel Gallery, is married
to author Nell Bernstein. They live with their twins in Albany. Buckwalter
is The Monthly’s art critic.
Indian Rock Park; Berkeley, California” by Zach
Pine (a composition of freshly-fallen eucalyptus leaves
on a eucalyptus stump). Photo by Zach Pine.