Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

Since 1979, East Bay Open Studios has shed light on where and how local artists work. Come and see creativity in its natural habitat.

Art is everywhere. It is in the lobby of your office building, on the walls of your doctor’s office, and maybe even your home. But do you know the artists?

Pro Arts would like to introduce all of us to the artists in our midst. The annual East Bay Open Studios, sponsored by the Oakland arts agency, will pull back the curtain on more than 400 local artists, who invite the public into their workspaces for two June weekends. “We try to make our artists visible to the community,” explains Margo Dunlap, executive director of Pro Arts. “The artists open the doors of their world, allowing us a glimpse of the artistic life.”

When Open Studios was launched in 1979 there were few exhibition opportunities in the Bay Area. The local gallery scene has taken off in the intervening decades, but so has Open Studios. The first year featured the workspaces of 50 artists. Five years later, they showcased several hundred over one weekend. Today, Open Studios runs two full weekends, June 3-4 and June 10-11, in 13 East Bay cities across two counties. It’s a chance to visit mid-career artists with plenty of momentum making the work they love without the commercial constraints of the gallery system. For us, it’s a terrific way to see work without having to face the imposing white walls of a gallery and the rather aloof person dressed in black behind the reception desk.

“Manzanita,” oil on canvas. “Burger Depot,” oil on canvas. Photos courtesy Kanna Aoki.

“It’s great to go to someone’s messy studio and feel like you’re finding all these treasures,” says Albany artist Kanna Aoki, who opened her studio for the first time last year. “I had heard that it is mostly your friends who come to visit, but it turned out not to be true. The best thing was having a lot of people I didn’t know come by and look at my work.”

Mixed-media artist Michael Grbich says Open Studios has helped him connect to his neighborhood in the Oakland hills. “The vast majority of my sales are within a quarter-mile radius of my house,” he says. “Almost everyone on my block owns one of my paintings.”

But Open Studios is also an opportunity to visit neighborhoods you never knew existed. Jingletown is a tiny, mostly Latino-populated area of Oakland. It got its moniker long ago from silver clanking in the pockets of Portuguese cannery workers just paid for canning fruits in Fruitvale.

The cannery workers are long gone, but artist Fernando Reyes is helping to ready Jingletown for Open Studios. The Jingletown arts and business organization, situated mostly on the west side of I-80 and next to the Oakland Estuary, of which Reyes is a member, is organizing the entire neighborhood into a one-stop destination: park your car, get a neighborhood map, spend a few hours walking to all the surrounding studios, and then hop over to a local café for lunch. The jingle you hear may be the sound of Reyes ringing up your purchase.

Or maybe not—Open Studios welcomes window shoppers, too. “Buying a painting for $500 to $2,000 is not something people do with a snap of the finger,” says Berkeley artist Kathleen King. “They need to think about it. They might need to look at your work a couple years in a row. It’s a bigger decision than buying a couch.”

With that in mind, Glen Helfand, Adjunct Professor in the Graduate Fine Arts Department at the California College of Art, and author of Collecting Art: A Journal to Get You Started, recommends bringing along a digital camera. If you like a piece but are unsure, ask the artist if you can photograph it. You can take the snapshot home, obsess about it, even hold it up to your walls. A simple rule about purchasing art: only buy work that speaks to you. Don’t buy art as a financial investment, Helfand advises.

“Bored with Ironing, ” acrylic and metal. Photo courtesy Michael Grbich.

“Consider it only as an investment in culture,” he says, “something that will make your world a little bigger.”

If your heart is set on something out of your price range, however, do not try the approach a visitor used on artist Margo Mercedes Rivera-Weiss at a previous Open Studios. “She started bargaining with me in a really insulting way,” Rivera-Weiss recalls. “She picked out different parts of a watercolor and asked if they were mistakes; she also questioned the matting and framing. Then she offered me less money than I was asking. I said no. If she had said, ‘I really enjoy this painting, can you give me a better price?’ I would have done it. More than my art, she needed to pay for a class in manners.”

Bargain-hunters who mistake an artist’s studio for a flea market aren’t the only drawback for those brave enough to open their workplaces to the public. Kathleen King sometimes catches visitors rifling through her belongings, or sorting through her bookshelf, rather than looking at her paintings. “I think people sometimes confuse Open Studios with Open House,” she says.

But despite the occasional lapse in manners, Open Studios is mostly an opportunity for a friendly exchange of ideas, art, and currency. Rivera-Weiss is a case in point. “I love that my friends like my work,” she says, “but it’s a great compliment when a stranger stops by and says, ‘This is fabulous. I enjoy what you do. And I have to have this!’”

Kanna Aoki

“Buy One-Get One Free,” color woodcut block print. Photo courtesy Fernando Reyes.

Kanna Aoki grew up in Albany and is now raising a family there. While her children are at school, Aoki paints in a room of her own in their newly renovated home.
After a stint in commercial art creating surface designs—images that can be printed on fabrics or dinnerware—for Joe Boxer and Pottery Barn, Aoki, 42, returned to fine art five years ago. Her current paintings, most of them less than four feet square, continue the tradition of Bay Area figurative painting, echoing especially the work of David Park.

Aoki’s strongest oil paintings are based on easily recognized local landmarks that have been around since her childhood—the Albany Bowl, the Hotsy Totsy Club, Solano Avenue’s Burger Depot, or the 580 freeway. The works offer glimpses into the daily life of a town and its times. This is exactly what the Bay Area Figurative School was driving at more than 40 years ago—trying to bring the quotidian element of life, captured long ago by the French Impressionists, back into the modernist dialogue.
Like those assertive painters of the Bay Area School, Aoki has a bold sense of color. Laying down swaths of blues, purples, and yellows, her brushstrokes bring to life our region’s glow. Aoki underpaints with an orange that seeps through the images, generating the fading warmth of autumnal light or the retina burn of summer.

An occasional plein air painter—foot traffic distracts her, she says—Aoki prefers instead to paint figures from life and to work from snapshots. “I like to use a photograph as a reference or a starting point. I don’t try to copy the photo. I try to let the essence of the scene or person come through.”
Aoki has shown at the Albany Community Center, selling out most of her solo show there in 2004. A piece that sold early on was a horizontal painting of the 580 freeway near Golden Gate Fields. The buyer then hired Aoki to create her largest painting to date—an 8×3-foot horizontal painting of the Diablo Valley, home to the patron’s office.
“ Commissions are the work side of making art,” Aoki says. “I like doing them. But painting my own ideas is what I really enjoy doing.”
Kanna Aoki, 1019 Pomona Avenue, Albany;

Michael Grbich

Michael Grbich is a phoenix. He was orphaned in infancy in 1932. The year after his wife died, the house they built together was reduced to ash in the Oakland Hills fires. Through it all, when he gets knocked down, he keeps getting back up.
After serving in the military during the Korean conflict, Grbich took advantage of the GI Bill and went to art school beginning in the late 1950s. The early ’60s were the time when the proto-pop artists were prominent in the culture—painters like Jasper Johns and sculptors like Robert Rauschenberg. These two figures have had a big influence on Grbich’s style. Using similar palettes, materials, and objects he has crafted a type of painting best described as abstract-funk: Large-scale works feature chromed auto parts, rusty license plates, masses of keys or cracked door jambs, fastened onto fields of densely-layered, pockmarked paint. His palette is subdued, but every so often a vibrant spasm of red or orange bursts off the canvas.

“Me and My Shadow,” watercolor by Margo Mercedes Rivera-Weiss. Photo by Dana Davis.

Before turning to art making full-time, Grbich taught art at Miramonte High School in Orinda. Retiring after 25 years, he picked up his brushes and palette again and started back to work.
When fire destroyed his home, Grbich snapped up some of the pieces of his former life: hardened puddles of molten metal from his sports car’s engine block, seared roofing nails, and corroded drywall screws. All would show up later in his paintings, helping him to transform a personal tragedy into a universal art experience.
Already a tapdancer, the 74-year-old grandfather of six has most recently taken up tight-wire walking. Besides being a physical challenge, it also represents something philosophical for him. “That’s what life is,” he explains, “trying to maintain an equilibrium, whether it’s literal, like balancing your checkbook, or metaphoric, like trying to keep on the right path.”
While Grbich’s older pieces are about stuffing and layering objects and paint into a tight spatial grid, the new works are pared down, exuding a sense of precariousness. Monochrome fields of color are now backgrounds to two objects, connected by a very fragile line.
Michael Grbich, 6538 Gwin Road, Oakland;

Fernando Reyes
Fernando Reyes paints and draws from life. Using professional and amateur models, he fashions drawings, paintings, and prints that blend the austere compositions of Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele with the erotic grit of Tom of Finland.
His cavernous studio is fitted with a movable stage. Reyes poses his models on it, then steps down, moving around the room until he is in the perfect position to begin sketching.
Though Fernando Reyes studied art a little in college, it failed to hold his interest as a young man. Instead, he spent 17 years as a junior executive in Bank of America’s bankruptcy division. When his partner Daniel—who was also in the business world—decided to follow his dream and go back to school for clinical psychology, Reyes quit his job, too. At the age of 37, he left San Francisco and headed to the Windy City to begin studies for an undergraduate degree at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“ When I decided to pursue an art career, I got really interested in it again,“ he explains with a chuckle. “Devoted, almost.”

“Swim with the Swimmers,” acrylic on canvas. Photos courtesy Kathleen King

Reyes’s devotion has paid off. For nearly ten years, he has been a full-time working artist. Reyes currently sells his block prints and figure drawings through two galleries in San Francisco—Larry Warnock Fine Arts and Alabaster.
In the past, Reyes has explored landscape and still life, but two years ago he honed in on the human figure, making it the exclusive focus of his work. Influenced by Lucian Freud, Paul Cadmus, Bay Area figuratist Nathan Olivera, and artists from the Italian Renaissance, Reyes’s charcoal and pastel drawings are lively and energetic, full of marks that move your eye across the paper and through the composition. His paintings are more staid, loaded with an intention that gives them a more mannered feeling. The prints, mainly woodcuts and monoprints, fall somewhere in between. They feature some of the ornament of the paintings, but also the simplicity seen in Matisse or Modigliani, all the while seeming to percolate with a barely subdued energy.
Fernando Reyes, 2934 Ford Street, Studio #26, Oakland;

Margo Mercedes Rivera-Weiss

“The Fishing Pier,” digital print. Photos courtesy Coygon Robinson Jr.

Margo Mercedes Rivera-Weiss’s mother, Elsie Zahler, dreamed of being an artist. She won a scholarship to attend art school in New York City, but it was during the Great Depression, and her family in Newark could not afford to have her attend. She spent the next four years working in their shop instead.
Later when Elsie lived in Miami, she went on a date with a Peruvian immigrant, Jaime Rivera. Neither spoke the other’s language, so they brought along a dictionary. They later married and had daughter Margo, remaining in Miami until she was four, and then made their way west, to San Leandro.
The early years in Florida still have a hold on Rivera-Weiss. “I use palm trees and tropical fruit in my art—mangos, papayas, plantains, and melons. I think you can see Miami in my grapefruits,” enthuses the outgoing artist. You can, but you can also see in her palette the colors of Paul Gauguin, a French post-Impressionist painter who lived briefly in the tropics. Rivera-Weiss remembers as a child going with her mother to see the work of another post-Impressionist, Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. Rivera-Weiss was deeply moved. Her mother may not have gone to school for art, but she shared her love of it with Margo.
The community outreach manager for the Women’s Cancer Research Center in Oakland, Rivera-Weiss started an art gallery at the Center in 1998, adding curator to her résumé. She lives and works in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, painting at her living room table and showcasing her work below in the finished garage. Her paintings are from life—bowls and plates laden with fruit. Her partner, Hadas, eats the fruit when Rivera-Weiss is finished with the composition.
Rivera-Weiss has taken a few art classes at local community centers, but she is basically self-taught. Rivera-Weiss exhibits a sure hand in her watercolors, pooling up the pigments to make saturated images that blast out waves of intense color.
Lately Rivera-Weiss’s father, who is now in his 70s, has started picking up the brushes himself. “My mother died when I was 15, but she would have thought Open Studios was the best game in town,” Rivera-Weiss says. “She loved to talk to people. She loved art. And she loved to sell stuff at flea markets. If she were alive, she would be sitting here throughout the day, talking to all and offering them a drink.”
Margo Mercedes Rivera-Weiss, 2607 School Street, Oakland;

Kathleen King

“Morning, Indian Rock Park; Berkeley, California” by Zach Pine (a composition of freshly-fallen eucalyptus leaves on a eucalyptus stump). Photo by Zach Pine.

The Philip Guston retrospective at SFMOMA three years ago made a big impression on North Berkeley painter Kathleen King. Though Guston is best known as a leader of the return to figurative painting in the 1970s, his post-war Abstract Expressionist paintings were what captured her eye and her imagination.
Drawn in by his nuanced sense of color and his ability to weave horizontal and vertical brushstrokes together seamlessly, King soon set off on an exploration of her own. Tackling some of the same issues Guston explored, her painted results are terrific, but of course different from the modern master’s. Where Guston’s shapes tended to come trudging out of a muted, almost foggy field of color, King’s boldly blast out, held in check by a field of color gripping at their edges.
Kathleen King attended U.C. Berkeley in the early ’80s, at a time when many of the leading lights of the Bay Area art scene where holding court on campus. Local luminaries like Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown were shaping young hearts and minds—King’s included.
“ What I like in art is excitement, something that can really bring you out,” explains the exuberant painter. “Abstract Expressionism is very physical.”
King, who supports herself doing graphic design, draws her inspiration from her environs. Marks on a sidewalk, graffiti, the texture of skin, all resonate for her and are translated into her painterly poetry. “It’s similar to gumbo; you put it all in there and it cooks for a while,” she says. “That’s what I like about Abstract Expressionism, in this short amount of time you build stuff up—creating information that is visual, intellectual, emotional, and a little bit spiritual.”
Most of the painters she admires paint in oil. King paints in acrylic, and often on a smaller scale than her heroes do, but like them, she mixes her own colors. Her new paintings, seen in her San Pablo Avenue studio, are pure delight, crammed to the point of bursting with marks and color. In a previous series, the brighter colors looked to be held down by sheer will. The latest ones seem to be missing their lids.
Kathleen King, 1509 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley;

Coygon Robinson Jr.
When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and the surrounding area, it wiped out Coygon Robinson Jr.’s career. Robinson is a painter and printmaker—formerly based in Biloxi, Mississippi—who spent a good part of each year marketing his art throughout the Southeast, from Louisiana to Florida. Ninety percent of his patrons were in New Orleans. Retired from the Air Force, the 55-year-old artist has made a living selling and privately teaching art since 1997 on the Gulf Coast. In the aftermath of last season’s hurricanes, many of the shows he would normally participate in are now on hold or canceled.
Fortunately for the Bay Area, Robinson is not a quitter. When his insurance settlement arrived, he hit the road to Oakland to live with his sister and opened a studio shop in Oakland’s Grand Lake district in December.

Never one to sit still, he is also organizing an outdoor arts walk with the support of neighborhood merchants. And he is beginning to teach a marketing class for other artists. “I’ve found that a lot of artists just don’t have a clue on how to get their stuff out there,” he says. “I’ve just about done it all—from going door-to-door in subdivisions selling my work to exhibiting it in galleries and museums.”
Primarily a painter, Robinson has recently begun making limited-edition photograph-based prints with his digital camera and computer. Robinson creates images in six genres: coastal landscapes, sea life, jazz music, fine arts, Black arts, and productions of his mixed media paintings. His shots of the scenic and peaceful environs of the Gulf Coast are powerful stuff, especially when he tells you how that majestic building or busy seaport is now vanished.
Before printing his pieces on an inkjet printer using archival inks, Robinson works them over on the computer using imaging software, bringing out visual patterns or textures he finds in the original. He also tweaks the colors—saturating some, subduing others—to heighten the photograph’s emotions. The finished pieces often feel a little sunburnt.
Robinson is just now beginning to process the devastating losses of Katrina in his art, making a moody collage out of a photo he took of the destruction. While he is starting anew in Oakland, he is not forgetting to look back. Coygon Robinson Jr. is beginning to donate a percentage of his sales to his old hometown’s schools and art colleges.
Coygon Robinson Jr., 3719 Grand Avenue, Oakland;

Zach Pine
Zach Pine is a rock balancer. Sometimes his totems have a whimsical element to them—a formation may bring to mind a waiter caught serving food in gale force winds. Other works are presented on a more intimidating scale—a gigantic boulder balanced on end at the tip of a precipice.
On a hike in the woods or at Stinson Beach, Pine gathers up rocks of varying shapes and sizes and stacks them, often precariously, into temporary monuments. If people venture by, he tries to engage them in the building process. When he’s finished with a larger piece he pushes the sculpture over and walks away. Pine works like a rural graffiti artist: slipping into the scene, leaving his beautiful mark for passersby to admire, and then taking off.

As a kid, Pine loved to make sand castles, towers, and the like. But unlike most of us, he never really stopped. As an adult, he can still spend an entire day building stone constructions, only now he ropes people into his impromptu art events, and the scale of his projects is grander. His sense of wonder is what has remained constant.
“ The process of art making has a lot to do with exploration,” enthuses the wiry 40-something. “I explore when I’m out there. I learn a lot about the crystalline structure of rocks by trying to balance them. Certain rocks that look fine sitting on a flat surface crumble when forced to bear the weight of other stones. This sparks my interest to try to find out more about that kind of rock when I get home.”
In addition to rock balancing, Pine also crafts twigs, sticks, and leaves into abstract compositions similar to internationally known artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. During Open Studios, Pine creates on the sidewalk area in front of his West Berkeley space, encouraging visitors to build their own pieces. He is unable to do commissions, since his pieces are held together only by gravity. At the encouragement of his wife, he has recently started digitally photographing the pieces. Although he was reluctant at first given the demands of photographing his work—some pieces may be too big to fit in the frame, the light may have faded by completion, or the piece is just too unstable by the time he can get to the camera—the rewards are starting to pay off. People are buying prints and notecards, and he is able to get his work seen around the globe via the Internet.

In general, we like our art to be permanent. The idea of something continuing on after us makes the future seem more humane. But by offering moments rather than monuments with his sculptures, Pine helps us focus on the present. Enjoy his tower now—a strong breeze may be coming.
Zach Pine, ActivSpace, 2703 Seventh Street, Studio #141, Berkeley;
Timothy Buckwalter, a painter represented by Rebecca Ibel Gallery, is married to author Nell Bernstein. They live with their twins in Albany. Buckwalter is The Monthly’s art critic.

Find Art
East Bay Open Studios, June 3-4 and 10-11.
Maps and directories of the Annual East Bay Open Studios are available at the Pro Arts gallery and by visiting www.proartsgallery.orgA special exhibit previews work by this year’s Open Studios artists; May 3-June 18, at the Pro Arts Gallery, 550 Second Street, Oakland. For information call (510) 763-4361.

Faces of the East Bay

In the Philanthropic Swim

In the Philanthropic Swim

Rockridge residents John Bliss and Kim Thompson may live far removed the gritty flats of East and West Oakland. But this philanthropic couple see themselves as one with the citizens of Oakland, particularly those who are struggling financially, and they’re leading a campaign to get their “financially blessed” peers to invest in the community like they have by funding city programs to teach kids how to swim.