On a cool evening in May, Devin Satterfield stood outside the elegant Rotunda building in downtown Oakland, watching well-put-together people walk by on their way to the Fox Theater fund-raiser inside. Most of the men looked like ophthalmologists or vice presidents of something, and the women generally resembled newscasters or weather girls. Devin, on the other hand, wore a thrift-store suit jacket with a faint spot on the lapel, a surreptitiously torn striped necktie, and his trademark nylon corsage.
"I'm nervous," he admitted, as he sucked down the first of the evening's many American Spirits, which he smokes when he can't get sweet brown Nat Shermans. As the evening progressed, he pointed out Fox Theater owner Phil Tagami, with whom he's on a first-name basis; Alan Dreyfuss, the architect spearheading a plan to turn part of the abandoned movie palace into a 550-seat cabaret-style performance space; and "Dr. Bruce," the physician to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. Tagami and Dreyfuss had time for only a little small talk before moving on to bigger fish. After all, this 22-year-old arts patron did not pay for his $75 ticket. And the only drink he partook of was the whiskey he ordered from the Cafe Van Kleef table, which he also didn't pay for.
One solitary drink was not nearly enough to give this brightly lit evening any flow. Even for a burgeoning arts diplomat like Devin, schmoozing on this grand a scale was still a bit much. So he spent the bulk of the evening taking smoke breaks, awkwardly ascending and descending the Rotunda's massive spiral staircase. This was no easy task for Devin, given that he wears a special shoe to accommodate a left leg significantly shorter than his right one, the result of a birth defect. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Devin ducked out of the fund-raiser to drink at the dim, hip Radio bar with Jen Loy and Nicole Neditch, his former employers at Mama Buzz Cafe, Ground Zero of downtown Oakland's art scene.
But Devin isn't afraid to stick his head out of the subculture if it means promoting the scene that he personifies, the West Oakland warehouse art scene. Thanks to the efforts of him and a handful of other pioneers, that scene is now reaching critical mass. Like the Mission District in San Francisco, Silver Lake in Los Angeles, Wicker Park in Chicago, or dozens of other neighborhoods before it, West Oakland's warehouse district is on the cusp of something truly great by subcultural standards. Artists and other subversively-minded people are renting out warehouses at a remarkable rate, building them out, and inviting people in for everything from punk shows to carnivals to art installations. Some crave legitimacy, but most exist largely underground. Thus, some West O spaces are illegal, while others are up to code but their inhabitants grapple with landlords who don't know exactly what's up. Most events get publicity covertly through fliers, Friendster-type online networks, or word-of-mouth. One of the handful of spots that does boast an aboveground profile is Liminal Arts, the most successful art and party spot in recent East Bay memory, largely thanks to the hustle of Devin, one of its founding residents.
Devin doesn't just occupy a position at the center of this barely-under-the-radar arts community, he also sits on the city's Cultural Affairs Commission. His friends, supporters, and fellow commissioners believe his participation in city government could do Oakland's creative community a lot of good. But Devin not only represents the tidy official way that governments wish the arts behaved, but the chaotic and messy way that art actually occurs. He simultaneously embodies the West Oakland art scene's successes, failures, hopes, and fears of homogenization.
It all started because Devin wanted a place where he could paint. When he was in his early teens, his family moved from North Oakland to New England. After a year of art college in Boston, Devin came back to the East Bay. Tired of subletting apartments and renting rooms in Berkeley, he and percussionist Rob Monk started looking at warehouses in West Oakland in May of 2000. But Devin was only nineteen, slinging espresso at the now-defunct downtown Berkeley cafe Wall Berlin. No one would return his calls. "Finally, I got a call from a place, this place," he recalled, waving his arm around the front room of Liminal. "They returned my calls, and they gave me a tour. And at this point, everything past this wall was under construction. It was all a big mess. And we walked in here, and the sun was shining through the bullet holes in the roll-up door, and there was dust everywhere. But the shape of the space is so nice. And I was just like, 'Fuckin' A. I want to live here. '"
Devin has been sculpting since middle school and painting and taking photographs for nearly that long, but his art has recently taken a backseat to his scenester mogulhood, and primarily finds expression in the fliers he makes for the events he's involved in. But back in 2000, the Liminal space seemed like an artist's paradise. So Devin and Monk raised approximately $8,000 and enticed four friends into joining them -- construction whiz Adam Hatch; painter Joseph Neustadt; Devin's then-girlfriend Lexi Gilbert; and Jason Sole, whom Devin met working at Wall Berlin. They built some plywood shanties and spent the next year showering at friends' houses, washing their dishes in the bathroom, and constructing a home from scratch. "It was like Boy Scouts for twentysomethings," he recalled.
On July 6, 2002, shortly after Devin's 21st birthday, the group held its first art show, Liminal Beginning, featuring art by the tenants and approximately twenty of their friends. To hear him tell it, Liminal Beginning was a grassroots, egalitarian event wherein three hundred folks of all races and classes walked through the metal door and got along. "We had guys from across the street; we had people from Berkeley, people from San Francisco; we had people from communes in the backwoods of god-knows-where," Devin said. "People were just looking at art and listening to music, and just enjoying it together and talking about how they felt about it with each other. It was fuckin' cool. That's what we want. We want the foodie from North Berkeley and the crack dealer from West Oakland; we want them all to look at the same piece of art and talk about it together."
From its inception, Liminal has stood apart from most other live/work warehouse venues. The space is phenomenal: It occupies most of the Myrtle Street side of an enormous warehouse at Myrtle and 19th streets, a building that also houses other live/work spaces, not to mention a warren of about 20 smaller private residences of varying dimension. But Liminal is the jewel. Its roughly six thousand square feet comprise a kitchen the size of a small restaurant's, a raised entryway that serves as a sitting room or stage, a permanent bar, a large open ground floor, another raised area at the back, a dizzying staircase leading up to one of two bathrooms, and six private bedrooms. The front entry area will soon be a dedicated gallery, and plans are under way to put in ceramics and screenprinting studios. The high ceilings and windows provide gorgeous -- if greasy -- light. When the cover of Kitchen Sink, a quarterly local mag with close ties to Liminal, featured art of a woman throwing papers at a tall grid of windows, anyone who'd been to the warehouse recognized the setting. In the last two years, Liminal has played host to some of the most challenging, eclectic, and fun culture gatherings in the East Bay.
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