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“Rock, Paper, Scissors” churns art with recycling

on December 3, 2008


The copper-hued door to the Rock, Paper, Scissors Collective is always unlocked during business hours, and almost always left ajar. Outside is the urban streetscape of Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street, pock-marked like any city sidewalk by hardened gum, urine stains and various pieces of litter. Inside — among the sewing machines, hand-made clothes, oversized cafe menus, calendar of classes, and a tree made of recycled goods advertising an upcoming art exhibition — a half dozen women sit chatting and knitting.

The hand-stenciled bench outside of Rock, Paper, Scissors Collective reflects the organization's emphasis on DIY projects.

“Old time [dude] likes to play his guitar.”

It’s a too-hot Sunday afternoon in November, and a middle-aged man has wandered in. He is African-American and tall, towering over the craft table, casting shadows on heavy-skeined balls of yarn. The women before him go silent as he breaks into an impromptu rap about a man and his guitar. (His word choice was not as generic as “dude,” but for the sake of propriety, let’s say it was.)

“Old time [dude] is not a P-I-M-P,” the man continues, pulling at his oversized green sweatshirt to reveal the word “pimp” emblazoned in one corner.

The women go right on knitting, but the man doesn’t give up. He speaks a few more lines of rap. When it sounds like he might be finished, Lesley Moore, the woman leading the knitting class (known as Sunday School for its back-to-basics approach to purling and slip stitches), asks if he would mind letting them get back to the lesson. No one else looks up. The man recites a few final lines and slips away, back onto Telegraph Avenue.

“People come in here all the time,” Moore tells her students once they are alone. “The collective is pretty good about it. I don’t know. You have to run your business and be a part of the community at the same time.”

A lot has been written about the gentrification of Oakland’s flatlands, particularly the influx of white artists – and the artist-types and developers that followed – since early 2006, when the area between Koreatown and the Auto Row business district, known as the city’s “uptown,” became the scene of a monthly street party known as Art Murmur. Every First Friday, in the vein of San Francisco’s First Thursdays, Oakland’s art scene emerges from hidden galleries and pours onto 23rd Street and Telegraph. Rock, Paper, Scissors has been involved with Art Murmur from the beginning, and despite early attempts to fit in comfortably with its neighbors, the collective got a bad rap. In one East Bay Express article, a few months after the Art Murmurs had gotten underway, a couple of years ago, a patron at the local bar Cabel’s Reef, which has since closed, called the property line between the bar and the collective “the new Mason-Dixon line.”

The article was called “Hipster Invasion,” and Rock, Paper, Scissors wrote right back to defend itself. “RPS is dedicated to working on these difficult issues” of gentrification and classism, wrote the collective, in a collective voice.

With a new art show opening this week, the collective is still trying to figure out how to reconcile its home with its mission. But what exactly is the mission of a self-described “volunteer-run organization that fosters creativity and collaboration in order to strengthen local communities and encourage sustainable practices and alternative models”?

The initial concept behind Rock, Paper, Scissors, which first opened its doors more than four years ago, was a retail space featuring art by local artists. This idea, however, evolved quickly as more and more volunteers got involved and offered a bit of their own expertise.

As such, Rock, Paper, Scissors became one-part school. November’s classes included Knit Your Own Legwarmers; Kraut Making (“make a frickin’ adorable stuffed toy!”); and the return of Church of Craft, a Sunday afternoon devoted to all things crafty. In December, the collective will offer classes on transforming old t-shirts into rugs, tote bags and puppets.

The collective is also one-part art gallery, holding open calls for art submissions throughout the year. Like all of the collective’s projects, the calls for submission are open to anyone who is interested, and at least in the case of December’s exhibition, anyone who has recyclables hanging around at home. “Second Coming,” this month’s show of art from recyclables, arts, coincides with the next Art Murmur, opening Friday, Dec. 5.

And not to give up on its original concept, Rock, Paper, Scissors is a store, selling posters, pins, t-shirts, ‘zines, jewelry and various gift items. The retail space, which features work by local designers, crafters and artists — professionals and amateurs alike — along with donations from supporters and event attendees, helps the collective pay its rent each month.

Throughout its life, the collective has been run by anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen “coordinating members” who endure a six-month training process and work on a volunteer basis to make sure everything runs smoothly. Today, there are five coordinating members, the all-time low since the collective’s inception in 2004. Rock, Paper, Scissors, is far from being a five-man band, though; there are currently more than 30 active volunteers from a database of more than 200 names of people who have been, at some point in the past four years, available to help out by teaching classes, cleaning up after events and manning the cash register at the store.

“We spend a long time on our mission,” says Mark Nicola, a volunteer since Rock, Paper, Scissors’s inception in 2004; Nicola is now a coordinating member and the collective’s resident bike expert. “It has evolved a lot over the years. The gist of it is connecting people, different communities, to different resources. But still people come in here like almost every day and ask, ‘What is this?’ Well, it’s a lot of things.”

A week after Sunday School and Church of Craft made a comeback at Rock, Paper, Scissors, 31-year-old Nicola — who works full-time in computers and spends nearly as many hours volunteering for Rock, Paper, Scissors — is ending the weekend feeling kind of beat. He spent the evening giving a bike-riding lesson to a community outreach volunteer and helping bicyclists work out problems, like a flat tire and broken chain, in a free workshop called “Mess with Bikes.” The outreach volunteer couldn’t quite get the hang of Nicola’s instructions, and the chain was declared a lost cause. The tire, at least, rolled out of the shop fully inflated.

To help show the community what the “weird-looking” shop with mannequins and trash in the windows is all about, Rock, Paper, Scissors has launched youth-oriented programming like internships, classes and a fashion workshop slated for next summer, and “partnership” projects with community organizations like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, offering classes on-site, away from the Telegraph Avenue storefront. At weekly meetings, coordinating members discuss what else the collective can do.

“Even now, what the collective is isn’t really solidified. We’re still changing and morphing,” says Cielle Taaffe, one of Nicola’s fellow coordinating members. “We really try to respect the fact that we came into this neighborhood.”

The good intentions, however, haven’t fostered amiable relationships overnight.

Rock, Paper, Scissors was broken into twice last winter, including once on Christmas Day when computers, a scanner and with them the collective’s accounting information was stolen. And Kathy, a newly initiated volunteer, says that interactions with neighbors are still hit or miss.

“It’s really all over the place,” says Nicola of the relationships that, after four years on Telegraph, the collective is still trying to forge. “There are some neighbors that we know. Some we don’t know. We’ve been in the neighborhood long enough to know who’s who. We try to be sensitive and receptive. Usually when people hear what we are, what we’re doing, they say, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ But that doesn’t mean they come back.”


  1. theo konrad auer on December 3, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    I appreciated your non – biased take on the well trafficked intersection of gentrifacation and art in Oakland. That said, you are rather off in your description of where the Art Murmur takes place. The galleries are mostly situated inbetween Koreatown and the Auto Row Business district. The area is also known as “Uptown.” The infamous,and at times slanderous East Bay Express article you mention certainly made an impact for all its exaggerations and distortions. It was mostly notable for amount of retractions printed off of it and the conversation on race it quite clumsily started and actually served to inflame at first. West Oakland, which IS historically a predominant black area was also mentioned in that article so perhaps that is where the confusion began. Cabel’s Reef was longtime hangout of the working class gay black community which has been replaced by a more upscale leaning black gay bar.

    I should say all this as a Oaklander, born and raised. I helped start the Art Murmur and have written about Oakland’s art world for several years.

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  5. Tom Smith on June 23, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks for this article

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