Open for Business
The compassionate, authoritative voice of KQED's Michael Krasny trickles through my somnolent clock-radio haze: "People are visiting museums in record numbers. Museums have become more popular than sporting events." Krasny isn't joking around. A Sunday morning drive down Third Street confirms it: all those lovely shiny signs offering "New Artists' Lofts" with bright red arrows pointing to a squeaky new artist's habitat located in the midst of a picturesque industrial landscape. A stream of shiny new cars cruises down Third, hugging the turns with state-of-the-art German engineering. "Lust for Life" vibrates in the urban-osphere. They turn down Evans, past a gargantuan headless rocking horse, through a guarded checkpoint, and into the Hunters Point Shipyard, for the Spring Open Studio -- for art.
This is one of only two weekends a year that the former U.S. Navy base is open to the public -- providing you have valid ID, car registration, and proof of insurance. With upward of 200 artists working in five buildings, sprawled over eight acres, the shipyard is thought to contain one of the largest studio complexes in the United States. Some artists have been here since the early '80s -- painting, sculpting, drawing, and developing photographs -- in World War II-era barracks leased at 50 cents a square yard. The artistic dilettante imagines the shipyard will be a lively community made up of brightly colored walls and late-night conversation, but the reality is somewhat more austere. Most of the year, solitary artists roll in and out of the gate at irregular hours, flashing ID cards, unloading supplies from hatchbacks by flashlight, scurrying into the pale wooden buildings with hardly a word to anyone. A few stray pieces of scrap-metal sculpture buried in the brown grass and an abandoned desk painted like a cow might be the only hint of what's inside.
But not during Open Studios.
Balloons fly from every chain-link fence and traffic sign. Huge hand-painted banners flutter from windows, enticing art lovers and buyers to visit. Music of every possible variety spills out of doorways and down stairwells. Lawn sculptures decorate the grass in front of Building 101 -- the sprawling epicenter of Hunters Point Shipyard Artists. Volunteers sell snacks, sodas, water, and wine, but it's unnecessary: Each artist offers something appetizing and intoxicating in his studio -- fresh strawberries, wine, brie, popcorn, corn chips, wine, tortas, quiche, wine. The sunlight sparkles across the bay and the parking lot sparkles with recently purchased cars -- Porsches, BMWs, Jeep Cherokees, Buick La Sabres, Chevy Cavaliers, and Ford Tauruses. There's money in the air.
"If you're used to hanging out with starving artists, the money factor can be a little strange [during] your first Open Studio, especially if you don't do the gallery circuit," explains Jasper Dane, a 24-year-old Oakland resident who calls herself a builder rather than a sculptor. "But the fact is, artists don't buy art. People with money buy art, and that counts out 90 percent of the artists, right? So, it's all about sweaters and 1.5 kids."
As if on cue, a young, perky brunette slides open the third door on her minivan to unbuckle her infant and her toddler while Dad stands nearby, looking over a shipyard map. "They're so isolated out here," observes the woman. "You'd never even know they were here at all.
If we find something nice, I'd like to get a print for Mom, something to go in her living room."
"Art as interior decorating," says Dane.
In 101, folks swarm through the halls, ducking in and out of rooms, carrying purchases along with plastic cups of wine, discussing the attributes of the work most recently viewed -- everything from floral prints to myopic renderings of domestic violence. In some cases, the studios themselves prove nearly as interesting as the work -- songbirds, palm trees, and Persian rugs or dust bunnies, coffee fil-ters, and rusting scrapheaps; choose your temperament.
A group of firemen is drawn away from an incredulous inspection of the fire escape by a hallway sample of Diane Krevsky's work -- highly animated, three-dimensional paintings of Middle American life in super-technicolor. The trail of cartoonish spaghetti dinners, carnivorous handbags, beauty pageant winners, and bus stop terrors leads the firefighters to Krevsky's studio, where they stand captivated in front of Freeway Portraits -- side panels of real cars with the faces of road rage painted inside the rearview mirrors.
"I drive by [the shipyard] all the time," says one of the firemen. "I had no idea this kind of thing happened in here. It must be pretty great."
"This is very different than the way it really is," says Krevsky, smiling and taking in the smell of fire that clings to the men like turpentine. "People think the artists socialize; no way. Most of the time, you just see shadows, people working. No one has time."
"Time -- there's never enough of it. You're always trying to stop it or find it or make it," says Liz Mamorsky of her rolling "timenorahs" -- small clocks set inside beautiful disks made of antique wooden molds, computer innards, and industrial scrap metal -- that are placed on casters so they can be wheeled from room to room like toy pets. Mamorsky's studio crawls with strange, delightful characters painted in ruddy hues -- giraffes with glowing tulip lampshade ears, reindeer tables with spice-rack antlers and hot-water-tap tails, little robots made of hard drives and foundry patterns, wall-people made of dartboards and large spoons. Her small paintings, created on Mexican bark paper, are darker and somehow more private, but Mamorsky says painting feels like goofing off; it keeps her from her real work. Recently Sony spent a pretty sum on three of her largest pieces -- Twiga Delovely, Big-Tie-Moose-Short-Pants, and Forever Amber (Illuminosaurus) -- but when an overeager admirer knocks a piece off the wall, she only laughs and says, "Don't be afraid to touch, it's all recycled goods anyway. It's been handled a million times before."
In Bill Rivas' studio a comically desperate figure made from a rescued volleyball, a lampshade, driftwood, and galoshes with a hand protruding from its crotch states Will Trade Art for Cash; a piece of driftwood smokes a cigarette; rusted scrap metal does the Russian Dance; and a taco shell in a frame sells for about $150.
"I really appreciate his sense of humor, but is it art?" asks 46-year-old Darren Votreski, pondering the 21st-century question. "I mean, really anybody could do that."
"But he did," replies his savvy companion.
" 'Art.' What a ridiculous word," says Dane. "It's a game-show host, not an expression."
"Make sure to check out the outer buildings," says Open Studios producer Estelle Akamine who, while an artist-in-residence for the Sanitary Fill Company, created formal evening wear for the Black and White Ball out of reclaimed typewriter ribbons. "The artists in the outer buildings tend to be a little heavier, a little more intense. They like their privacy a little more."
Indeed, only a few artists in the surrounding buildings have opened their studios to the public, and some that are open seem barely hospitable, with sketches tossed across the floor and piles of rubble in the hallways. A couple of doors exhibit signs warding people off. An artist sits in front of one such door like a sentry: "I don't need to see other people's work, and they don't need to see mine. A person's vision should be unadulterated.
No TV, no movies, no galleries, no magazines, just my mind, my thoughts. Of course, if Redevelopment has its way, and they double our rent, I'll be forced to engage the wine-sipping paradigm, won't I?" After a moment, the woman gets up and walks off. "I shouldn't even be here today," she says. "I knew I wouldn't be able to get anything done."
In front of one of the last barracks stands a sculpture by Nathanial Price -- a huge head with blank, slightly forlorn features and waggish ears cast in amber resin that captures the setting sun and turns it into honey. Inside his studio, the head is repeated again and again and again, in a variety of colors and materials. All huge. All breathtaking.
"I guess I just don't get it," says a friend who has dropped by to show his support, "but it's your artistic expression."
"That's OK," says Price with genuine tenderness, standing near a slab of clay beginning to take form. "That's OK."
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By Silke Tudor