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The old American Steel warehouse becomes a showcase for art

on January 23, 2010

The warehouse in West Oakland used to belong to the American Steel company. Now it’s covered in artists. So last Friday night I found myself exploring the expansive six-acre space in mud caked shoes for the opening of the art show “Belly.”

An eight-ton 30-foot-tall woman with shipyard chains for hair greeted me at the entrance. She had plenty of head room — the ceiling’s peaks are 46-feet high. There was indoor parking for many of the 500-plus people who joined me.

“Belly” is the brainchild of a 26-year-old painter Cheyenne Pallo. Pallo, a graduate of Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, has never curated a show in her life. It was both a dream and something she felt was necessary, she says. Artists can no longer afford to limit themselves to galleries in light of the financial pressures of the current recession, Pallo says.

Pallo says “Belly” was inspired by the blockbuster success of 2004’s “Beautiful Losers,” a collaborative traveling museum exhibition celebrating street artists, featuring the same aesthetic that prevails in the East Bay, a style that Pallo says creates a beauty out of things that might otherwise be characterized as dark and grotesque. Artists in the show are offering a range of items from $5 zines to $20 hand-painted bags containing screenplays and DVD shorts to a $12,000 collection of large-scale figurative woodcuts. The monster-size metal sculptures weren’t for sale — they live there separately, it turns out, as part of the work of artists Karen Cusolito and Dan Das Mann, who lease the entire warehouse to more than 100 artists.

Pallo financed the $9,000 it took to produce “Belly” with money saved over the last year from working as a caregiver for a family in San Francisco. Pallo has not asked any of the ten artists featured in “Belly” for a penny. Now is not the time to profit from your fellow artists, she believes — now is a time for being resourceful about finding alternative arenas, even if that means breaking the bank a little for a city inspection, a permit, and security.
“I’m such a romantic — I’m about to sound like such a sap,” Pallo says. “Artists offered to pay me as a gallery and I turned it down. I told them as long as I can afford it, I can afford it. Their work is their own.”

Also romantic: the notion that throwing an event with music in an Oakland warehouse would be a cakewalk. The city has been unhappy with warehoused artists collectives of late. NIMBY, an artist collective known for its fundraising events in its former home in West Oakland, has clashed with Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid at its new home in East Oakland. As The San Francisco Chronicle noted last weekend, NIMBY used to get away with 40-foot tree houses and jellyfish on wheels, but trying to get a permit now has “dragged on for more than a year.” In the article, NIMBY organizer Rachael Norman reports having spent more than $17,000 on the process alone.

“They perceive this as a poor community so they think it’s OK to pull this kind of insanity,” Reid told The Chronicle. “These folks don’t give a crap about my constituents.”

NIMBY keeps the public posted about its ongoing struggles to continue its events in East Oakland on its site,

“Belly” is the second event Cusolito, 43, has thrown at the American Steel warehouse — now Big Art Studios — since she and her partner signed the lease on the building in April of last year, negotiating a generous agreement with Maurice Kanbar, creator of SKYY Vodka, in April, 2009. The first gala was “Sand By the Ton” in July, 2009, which featured two stages, three swimming pools and enough sand to fill the 14,000 square-feet.

“It’s not hard if you are willing to do it the right way, and that often just means it’s going to be expensive,” she says of putting on a warehouse event. “You need to hire security personnel, depending on the scale, and you need inspection from the fire department. So what happens is you’re allowed a certain modest number of events per year and anything beyond that you’re required to have a cabaret license.”

Plans are in the works for a third event which will again take place in the summer months. This time they are planning “Ice By the Ton,” which will feature ice sculptures. In the meantime, the warehouse will continue to provide working space to 120 artists and green-business owners. “We didn’t start the space to start the next hot party spot,” Cusolito says. “It’s about supporting the artists.”

Artists taking over warehouses is not a trend, she says. For her it was simply a necessity. She needed a space big enough to work with 10-ton bridge lifts and San Francisco, where she lives, has few if any places like the American Steel warehouse available. “San Francisco’s art scene went through a redefinition because of the dot-com era and a lot of artists came to Oakland — there are hundreds of artists here,” says Cusolito. “Oakland’s a fabulous place to be an artist now. There are all sorts of support networks.”

“Belly” can be seen at 1960 Mandela Parkway from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Tuesday, Jan. 26. Also a heads up for next week: East Bay art will also be featured in “CYNOSURE: New Work from East Bay Galleries” at U.C. Berkeley. “CYNOSURE” opens Wednesday, Jan. 27 beginning at 4 p.m. at Worth Ryder Gallery in Kroeber Hall and is a collaboration of local galleries and U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice.


  1. […] party took place at the old American Steele factory – now transformed into the largest working art space in the […]

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