Awake at the Wheel 

Four East Bay ceramic artists spin magic at the Richmond Art Center.

What's she building in there?

Kim Tucker's downtown Oakland studio has a "NO TRESPASSING" sign on the front door and a tall fence around the back. Inside, her art is everywhere, and it's all staring -- dozens of bulbous, wide-eyed ceramic people. Their faces are vaguely reminiscent of Alfred E. Neuman, or maybe Felix the Cat, but with crazily distorted bodies. You can imagine Tucker sweating feverishly over her pottery wheel while the rest of the city sleeps, churning out these strange, intimidating, pitiful characters. Her neighbors must wonder what goes on in here late at night.

Tucker and three other local ceramic artists -- Michelle P. Kern, Shalene Valenzuela, and Monica Van den Dool -- have been selected to participate in the Richmond Art Center's "Bay Area Selections -- Ceramics" juried exhibition, opening June 1. The show, which rotates each year between ceramics, textiles, and metal arts, was established in memory of Ernie Kim, who was involved with the Richmond Art Center as an instructor and administrator for twenty years and passed away in 1997.

"Ceramics" might sound like a bunch of boring cups and saucers, but this year's four winners are all sculptors whose artworks are bold and subversive -- and often beautiful, too.

Michelle P. Kern works as the center's ceramics technician. She sees a lot of vases and teapots in her day job, but her own sculptures are much less functional and much more mysterious. Each one is shaped like a giant pendulum and sits on a wheeled cart. It's hard not to anthropomorphize their grayish, wrinkly bodies -- perhaps a bunch of senior citizens napping in their wheelchairs -- but Kern prefers to think of them in more cosmic terms. "They're about tools and astronomy and mapping," she says. "I'm trying to find a place where science, dreams, magic, and emotions all intersect."

Kern shares a studio on the Oakland Embarcadero with another one of the winners, Shalene Valenzuela. They were in the same graduating class at the California College of Arts and Crafts. "I think we're officially 'emerging,' " Valenzuela says with a smile when I ask her what this particular show means to their careers. Now that they're a few years out of school, this is an important step toward establishing their presence on the Bay Area's art scene.

Valenzuela painstakingly replicates everyday objects like toasted bread and cardboard milk cartons in ceramic, and then paints them with clever, punning words and pictures, exposing mayonnaise as a culinary crime against nature, for instance, or explaining that Goldilocks was actually a freeloader.

Her playful approach is balanced by Monica Van den Dool's interest in the macabre. Now a full-time artist, Van den Dool began college as an English major. "I studied a lot of overwrought, bleak, Southern Gothic writing, like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner," she says. "My work is about how we, as a culture, wrap stuff up in a pretty package to try to understand it."

"Bay Area Selections -- Ceramics" runs through August 17, with a reception for the artists on June 8 from 4-7 p.m., 2540 Barrett Ave., Richmond. 510-620-6772. Open Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Sat. 12-4:30 p.m. www.therichmondartcenter.org

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