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Checking Out Your Neighbor’s Art

on June 14, 2009

With 400 artists to choose from and more than a few in North Oakland, it was difficult to decide which studios to drop by on the last Saturday of this event. I didn’t want to waste my time driving around – it’s not often that you get the opportunity to chit-chat in your artist-neighbor’s living room or garden while eating cheese with toothpicks and checking out their ultra-private oeuvre.

I chose to comb over a small square of the crowded artists’ map, (which came as an insert in last week’s East Bay Express) hoping that random chance would throw some interesting work my way.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Courtesy of Proarts / By Alyssa Tomfohrde

Courtesy of Proarts / By Alyssa Tomfohrde

I started with Photos by Alyssa, a studio in the artist’s house off of Telegraph, which was by far the sexiest exhibit I was to come across all day.  Alyssa Tomfohrde photographs women covered in provocative objects, preferably ones that say something about their personality.  Pennies, cardboard puzzle pieces and keys were among the objects of choice.  Her work was easily palatable and (not surprisingly) Erotica magazines had been courting her all day.  She wasn’t interested.

I found Liz Maxwell in her studio a few blocks away on Chabot drinking coffee in the garden and listening to Bach.  A copy of Fitzgerald’s short stories sat next to a small black and white painting she was working on. I couldn’t help but covet her two lovely studios in back, one decorated with the warm tones of the rectangle-obsessed Mexico wall art series, the other dominated by three pale, blue-green paintings – “fog” – evoking a surprisingly strong, melancholic mood.  It was delightful. Some of her drawings inside her home displayed a penchant for lines – not surprising for a former statistician.

Some of the fruit and vegetables depicted in Wendy Yoshimura’s watercolor prints a few streets away were luminous.  She’s inspired by light, Yoshimura said.  The bright oranges and blues of Squash on an Italian Plate made me salivate; I’ve never been moved by squash in the past.  One of her friends tartly asked if I brought my checkbook.  No, thank god.

Moving on: the living room at Melissa Garden Streblow’s house off of Piedmont was covered with drawings and some paintings on reconstituted materials (street signs, old window frames) reflecting an interest in the natural world that goes back generations – Alexander Garden, a famous Scottish botanist who lived in the 1700’s (the Gardenia was named after him) was a relative. An oddly contoured octopus illustration on an equally odd wooden tabletop stood out.

After a quick stop in Susan Leibovitz Stauman’s studio – her work was dark, cakey, paint on canvas that evoked sludge and the city – the bright blue door labeled Alba Studios next door on MLK Jr. revealed a small studio commune: 12 artists in one building.

But first there was Benny Alba’s work, the owner of the building herself.  Her installation about the beauty of night was most remarkable for its setting: a completely dark room that required wielding a flashlight and ignoring a table full of mannequins playing poker against the wall.  “She’s a naughty girl,” the artist said, pointing to a female mannequin, who had somehow come into possession of a cigar. The smattering of bright colors on her eye-catching enameled doubloons was a relief after the darkness.

Other memorable work in this concomitant cluster was Olivia Eilson’s ‘After Piranesi / After Us’ oil on canvas collection.  The sharp lines and fierce industrial fire of her work was inspired by the work of 18th century Italian artist Piranesi.  Jennifer Downey’s oil paintings featured an archetypal woman in different landscapes; Downey said she was trying to express a quiet strength she sees in women in society.  Her sketches of faces were particularly moving, as was a gorgeous oil of a thundercloud.

Sherry Wacker’s ‘The Bridge’ was striking for its lines and unmistakable rusty red and blue color as seen through her sun roof while driving over the Golden Gate. An antique Chinese carved elephant necklace with green cord provoked conversation in Catherine Herdering’s jewelry collection.  L. Hickox Robinson’s bright, fanciful paintings were tempered by grounded phrases incorporated into the image.  She was a dancer but became a photographer and painter later because “the art itch has to be scratched one way or another.”

Courtesy of Pro Arts / By Sherry Wacker

Courtesy of Pro Arts / By Sherry Wacker

By the end of the day I was exhausted but not too exhausted to note that a theme had emerged: few of the artists I had picked at random focused on the human figure or even the human experience, preferring instead to explore aspects of the natural world and the effects of environmental destruction. They were also, coincidentally, all female.  There’s still one more day to go – the East Bay Open Studios event concludes after Sunday, June 14.

Text by Alexia Underwood.

Lead image: From Pro Arts. Watercolor by Wendy Yoshimura.


  1. Oakland North » North Oakland Now 6.17.09 on June 18, 2009 at 11:02 am

    […] Oakland North was at yesterday’s  marathon budget meeting  from start to finish.  We also checked out some art and artists at East bay Studios It was so nice we did it […]

  2. Alyssa Tomfohrde on July 6, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks for stopping by my studio and including me in this report on the North Oakland artists! I am honored to be amoungst such awesome talent!

  3. Benny Alba on August 27, 2010 at 1:11 am

    Looking for Jen Downey’s most recent accomplishments, I came across this set of comments regarding AlbaStudios. What a delight!
    UPcoming: survey show for Benny Alba
    Open to Life: Benny Alba. A Retrospective 1983 – 2010 1515 Clay St. (State Office Building Atrium floor)
    Craft and Cultural Arts Gallery.
    Opening reception Sept. 16 5-8 PM tho the show opens Sept 13.
    Closing reception (live jazz, artist talk) Oct.21.
    Both receptions during citywide “Third Thursdays”.
    Do Come!

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