Open Studios is a misnomer. The ten-year-old Berkeley art and artisans' show deserves to be called Holiday Open Houses, Garages, Workshops, Yards, and the Occasional Studio. There certainly are "real" studios on the tour, places with concrete floors, paint drippings, and diffuse light spilling through clerestory windows. And the people working in these studios also seem to produce some of the most refined work on display. But at a time when artists' lofts have become the hip abodes of nonartists, and genuine artisans have trouble affording places to work, what constitutes a studio has changed.
What is striking about the Open Studios tour is how the process of making art or crafting artifacts has become organic to daily life for people in and out of the show. It's as if many have returned from travels inspired by the aesthetic of places such as Bali, Oaxaca, or Tibet. Consider my own neighbors, who returned recently from Nepal and then draped the upper stories of their house with prayer flags but painted part of the facade in brilliant bands of yellow, red, green, and blue.
The point was further underscored last Saturday by my six-hour Open Arts excursion. I first stopped by Penny Brogden's house, which wasn't actually part of the Open Studios tour. She and her sister Dorothy grew up on Walnut Street, in a house that is now painted a deep, rusty salmon trimmed in a Hunterwasserian yellow. Both sisters are artists, and more than half the elements in the house seem to have been handcrafted by them or their friends, from the dense sponge-painted walls to the fireplace tiles. Every room of the place embodies how art and life combine on the level of the everyday. The only difference Saturday was they had lined up their wares in rows and stuck a chalkboard out on the sidewalk welcoming strangers in.
While the point of Open Studios is to provide a curated experience of such arts and crafts, it may paradoxically come closer to highlighting the desire many of us have to produce original objects of beauty and utility -- whether or not they ever are displayed or dubbed art. In Berkeley, this urge appears so strong that it has spilled onto the streets around people's houses, and often includes their dwellings and gardens. Next door to the Brogdens, their neighbors -- teachers -- have painted the door of their peach house a startling royal blue and strung green lights in the bare persimmon tree. Across the street, a neighbor displays mannequins in her window and mannequin body parts with effusions of flowers out by the front door. A few more houses south, another resident installed a bench fronted by a white dog baying and clutched by a fallen angel.
Two blocks away I found a group of Arabic-speaking women also unconnected to Open Studios selling artifacts made by Palestinian women from Ramallah. The mood there was rather grim; the beauty of the garments was altered by the strife that prompted their sale. In stunning contrast, up the road a little farther, a jeweler named Malgosia was happily helping her friends sell their beaded necklaces. She was eager to alert me to her own open studio next weekend on Ward Street near Berkeley Bowl, in which a pack of fiftysomething craftswomen will have their high-end wares on sale.
For my first official Open Studios stop of the day, I drove the eight or so blocks from Vine and Walnut streets to a house near Holy Hill, where Danute Nitecki, a scientist and Lithuanian refugee, displayed her precise paintings of experimental color pencil on vellum. Her friend, Julia Montrand, had her watercolors of Guanajuato, Florence, and elsewhere arrayed in the living room.
After chatting briefly with the painters, I headed over to Cedar Street to see Susan McAllister's watercolors of houses and dogs -- what one might call pastel vanity pooch paintings for the animal lover. Apparently there is a market of dog owners who want portraits of their beloved canines, and McAllister is happy to oblige them. Go figure.
From there I headed south to the Potter's Guild on 4th Street and Jones where I found more than a half-dozen rooms of eclectic and often-eccentric pottery, ranging from Kimi Masui's peerlessly light, elegant porcelains in rich clear glazes, to Julia Kirillova's wacky figured vessels. With a few exceptions, the ceramics trod the same well-traveled, serviceable ground that Berkeley ceramics have traversed the last several decades. Very few artists produced hand-built work or asymmetrical shapes -- wheel-made bowls, mugs, and plates ruled. Nor was such dutiful if highly competent expression limited to the ceramic arts. Over the course of the day it appeared in many venues, and by the end of the day I found the absence of radical experimentation puzzling. That made the ferocious, sinuous beauty of some of the objects made at Pinzette Glassworks over on 8th Street in the Sawtooth Building thrilling.
Hyun hai kim's Korean-inspired ceramics down the hall from Pinzette also were a welcome change. Made based on the methods of punch'ong ware from the 15th and 16th centuries, his pottery had a lively combination of light surface design and robust form, traditional in function but alive. Growing tired, I plunged around the corner and found Heidi Tarver's painted furniture and tools, which, like Hyun's ceramics, pressed against the boundaries of the expected. While painted furniture is a not uncommon sight these days, Tarver pushes the envelope not only by applying intricate geometric patterns on such things as chair seats but with her elaborate decoration of tools. A small scythe is not only edged in gold, but made girlish with a string of beads one might see on a belly dancer's skirt. The shovels, ladders, and other utilitarian objects similarly defy their conventional object status and become more complicated, as well as beautiful and alive in new ways.
As it grew dark, I made a dash for Nexus Gallery, another group not affiliated with Open Studios, where I was promised younger artists than the mostly over-forty crowd dominating the scene. But I found few, so I rushed over to Strawberry Creek Design Center, remembering a friend's comment on the serious art produced in the studios there. Photographer Thea Bellos fit the bill with her Argentina shots, and so did painter Christopher Peterson, a guy who had to finish the song he was singing when I arrived before he could talk about his work. This is a painter who finds ironic glory in old pickups glimmering in the naked California sun as well as in thick, seismically reinforced freeway underpasses, which he has painted with a Diebenkornian palette and shown in a Metropolitan Transit Commission art show earlier this year.
My final stop, visiting a guy whose work I see virtually every day, brought me full circle. Michael Parayao, a lecturer in Asian-American history at UC Berkeley, began making birdhouses as an extension of his garden. For the last several years I've watched as they spilled out onto the parking strip along the sidewalk on Sacramento Street, across from the BART station, and crept closer and closer to his neighbors. Someone came by and asked to buy one, Parayao said, and he sold it. He thought it would stop there, but pretty soon, a trend began. Now he makes the birdhouses at another location and returns to the garage for events such as this, selling his "Affordable Housing for Birds of Color" -- which have names like the Berkeley Co-Op, the Lake Tahoe Timeshare, and Crouching Bird Hidden Earthworm -- to anyone willing to pay $40 to more than $200. He reported that he had done well that day, seeming unsurprised. And that reminded me, as I walked back to my car, of local radio commentator Scoop Nisker, who every night used to say: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." Now we can add to the list: If you don't like the art, go out and make some of your own.
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