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Arts & Culture: Artisans 

A Region That Gives Crafters Their Due

There's such a vast reservoir of artistic talent in the Bay Area that it can be overwhelming; we have a deep, deep bench, and particularly in the East Bay, home to so many 1990s Bay Bridge refugees who fled with their barrows and pushcarts when the capitalists walled up the West (cue lugubrious music). Okay, the City's loss, and the Axis of Emeryville's gain (cue sprightly music). Nowadays, consequently, you could, given abundant curiosity, iron eyeballs and butt, and a fairly economical set of wheels, spend your whole life checking out galleries, art centers, open studios, and other aesthetic treasure troves — or at least hunting for them, as I do, with seemingly ever-smaller maps. The downside to this creative cornucopia is that there's too much to write about, given space and time constraints, which is frustrating, so it's great to step outside the charmed fine-art circle for a bit and focus on interesting artisans and craftspeople, who, by the way, are now rightly considered full-fledged artists (as evidenced by CCAC's recent C-ectomy), just like architects who design teapots or artists who design T-shirts. Listed below are a few artists who caught my eye. There are of course many others equally deserving of your interest and support.

Robin Cowley of Oakland combines her interest in abstract painting, astronomy, and nature with her feeling for fabric texture and color. Her wall-hung art quilts, made from hand-dyed or commercial cottons, silks, and taffetas, are pieced, fused, appliquéd, and textured with embroidery and stitching. They're refined and beautifully colored, but light-hearted rather than austere, with painterly textures playing against the generally geometric forms. Cowley: "I work intuitively and draw inspiration from the world around me and beyond. Source materials include architecture — particularly avant-garde Japanese architecture, views of earth and the skies from afar, and the many colors and textures in nature. My work combines the best of both worlds, using color and space in an abstract manner to engage viewers with humor and lightness." That sense of humor is conveyed in her titles: "Fool Metal Jacket," "Pocketful of Wye," "Dessertigo," and "Stonehenge: Still Standing." Her rayon-covered stones, dressed in skin-tight kimonos, are pretty witty, too.

Shaya Durbin of Berkeley, who comes from a family of artists and jewelers, takes pride in making everything in her jewelry, including the earring wires and clasps, from scratch (i.e., sheet metal and wire). Her "Etruria" chain necklace, named after the ancient Italian civilization, is composed of links of fine fused silver, and is elegantly understated. Her "Hathor" choker, named after an Egyptian goddess, is fashioned of silver loops, with a second, partial, ring hanging from the first, "like swinging full moons." "Calypso," referring to the sorceress of The Odyssey is a necklace of small circles that hangs from the neck like a delicate, flexible, chain-mail pectoral, or breastplate. "Jezebel," named after the Biblical bad girl, Baal worshiper, and defenestration victim, is "a necklace to get you noticed," made of circlets that both punningly intimate and then draw the eye down to the — ahem — pectoral area. Durbin also makes pendants, bracelets, rings, and earrings.

Kate Kerrigan studied mosaics in Ravenna and Venice and employs traditional tools and methods (hammer, hardle, smalti) for her work, which is based on her urban landscape photography, depicting shadows and silhouettes that exude an aura of timelessness but also suggest stories. The combination of photography's instantaneity and mosaic's time-stopping discipline and enforced stylization makes for arresting images. "Golden Gate Bridge - Perspective" is a wide-angle view from the top, with a curved horizon and sunlight sparking on waters with the optical shimmer of a Seurat or a Klimt. "February Morning" and "Walk in the Rain" are both views down onto pavement in which Kerrigan playfully assembles her tesserae into an optical surface for the eyeball out for a stroll. Her "Serengeti," "Half Dome," "Joshua Tree," and "Climber at Pinnacles" show her not merely masterful at pictorial transposition, but also at design: the varied sizes and shapes of the mosaic shards are dynamic and dramatic, seen abstractly. Kerrigan's accomplished photographs of Europe, Africa, and the Bay Area are also available — and well worth comparing to the mosaics she makes using them for reference.

Erin McGuiness of Berkeley crafts organic forms of elegant simplicity in stoneware and porcelain. While the pieces are individually pleasing, they gain in complexity and liveliness when clustered in groups, with the intervals between pieces and the pieces' implied psychology leading viewers to make social interpretations: "conversations [are] sparked," she says. They're "a visual chorus of ideas interacting." The streamlined organic forms recall Arp's lyrical and humorous biomorphism. McGuiness' "White Porcelain Slip Vessels," comprised of egglike forms bulging gently from funnel-topped columns, read as flasks or candlesticks — but also personages of varying physiques, or open-mouthed eels at various stages of digesting their meals. One of her "Black Mountain Vessels" in satin-finish gunmetal glaze resembles a fusion of man and bowling pin; others suggest chesspieces and balloons. Her "Shino Vessels" feature a warm, lustrous, transparent ocher glaze. —DeWitt Cheng

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(Sorry, no information is currently available for other years in this same award category.)

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