The Big Easel 

A wide world of art — East Bay style — is at Pro Arts’ annual Open Studios.

Michael Parayno -- Asian-American history professor by day, birdhouse maker by night -- says his birdhouse creations are just a hobby. He works on them only when he feels like it. He never draws up plans beforehand, and he doesn't do any custom work. Still, he ends up selling one almost every week -- to friends, to real estate agents and loan brokers who give them to their clients, and even to passersby who are brave enough to ignore the "Beware of Dog" signs and knock on the front gate.

Parayno makes his birdhouses out of recycled wood -- mostly driftwood and construction-site leftovers. They're all different; some are inspired by real-world architecture, and others look like no house you've ever seen. They hang all over his yard on Ellis St. (a few blocks south of Ashby) and his car has four of them attached to the roof, with his Web address ( painted on the side door. For Parayno and hundreds of other local artists who are always looking for new ways to market their work, this year's East Bay Open Studios will be another great opportunity to reach potential customers.

The 20th Annual East Bay Open Studios is produced by Pro Arts, a nonprofit East Bay arts organization. The event lasts for two weekends, June 1-2 and 8-9, and nearly 500 local artists will participate, opening their studios to the art-loving (and buying) public. If you like art but find traditional galleries intimidating and pricey, it's a perfect opportunity to browse in a much more casual environment and buy directly from the source, without the typical gallery markup. Prices range anywhere from a few bucks to thousands of dollars.

Some of the participating artists are full-time painters, sculptors, photographers, etc. Some of them would love to break into the professional art world, but haven't yet. Some, like jewelry-maker Gwendolyn Reed, are happily retired and think of Open Studios more as an opportunity to interact with the public than as a moneymaking event. Reed and twenty other artists from her neighborhood will be showing their work at the West Berkeley Senior Center, where you're sure to find something different, interesting, and affordable. While you're there, you can enter Jeanne Diller's "Name That Painting" contest by suggesting a good title for one of her creations. Diller, an Open Studios participant for several years now, says she likes it because it breaks down the intimidation barrier, the mystique of "the artist."

Pro Arts is now showcasing one or two works by each participating artist at its downtown Oakland gallery (461 9th St. at Broadway) and at its Web site (, so you can figure out beforehand which studios you want to visit. An official map and directory of studio locations will be available in the Express, at Pro Arts, and at numerous other galleries, cafes, and bookstores around the Bay Area.

Pro Arts is open Wednesdays through Sundays 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and will host a reception for the artists -- free and open to the public -- on Thursday, May 30 from 7-9 p.m.


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