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Tiny gallery brings together art, community

on February 3, 2011

Nestled in between a multicultural hair salon and vacant lot on San Pablo Avenue, Michelle Blade’s small art gallery has captured the imagination of its neighbors since opening more than a year ago.

“Sometimes it’s a little confusing,” said Frank Otis, a barbershop owner from two stores down. “I’m just like ‘wow–what is that?’ I don’t even know how they come up with the ideas over there.”

Snake skin, wooden sticks, softball-sized stones and a plastic yellow gas tank occupy the space in the Sight School Gallery’s glass panel windows. Featured artist Mike Calway-Fage said this combination of materials is meant to inspire viewers to think about the purpose of used objects.

“I love hearing their feedback because as people not involved in the art scene, they have a really nice perspective,” Blade said about her neighbors. “Sometimes it’s fresh and very interesting, other times it’s ‘this is some weird shit, tell me more.”

Sight School regularly hosts local artists. Photo courtesy of Michelle Blade.

Other monthly exhibitions, film screenings, and experimental performances by artists run the gamut of artistic expression. Last Saturday, Brooklyn-based musicians Dubknowdub performed with a shopping cart rigged with microphones and a car battery.

Blade, 29, describes Sight School as a studio with multiple platforms for supporting Bay Area artists. ”I’m trying to build this as an art space for learning how to see together as a community,” she said, noting the limitless possibilities for how she can use her space. Starting next month, Blade is introducing Café Sunday, a weekly brunch in the studio prepared by guest chefs for neighbors.

“This is a labor of love,” Blade said. “It’s not financially sound, but it is a nice way to connect to the community and create a bigger dialogue between East Bay and San Francisco artists.”

Sight School’s gallery, where Blade  lives with her dog, Shine, is open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. When she’s not running the gallery, Blade prepares for upcoming exhibitions at local galleries. Next month, she’ll be featured at Pro Arts in Oakland.

Her paintings, drawings and sculpted installations have been featured at multiple galleries in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Philadelphia and Copenhagen. “My work serves as a reminder of our persistent isolation and our equally persistent and timeless desire to connect with something beyond ourselves,” Blade said, and “is as much a direct perceptual experience as they are a reference to a spiritual and sacred realm.”

Before moving to Oakland in August 2009, Blade lived in San Francisco for three years while earning a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the California College for the Arts. Besides running Sight School, she also works part-time as a watercolor teacher for adult students at The Berkeley Art Studio.

When she first  stumbled on  the San Pablo storefront in August 2009, Blade found  the space in a dusty building that had been abandoned for nearly a year. The landlord said she could lease it as long as it served some public function.

Initially, “I was just looking for a place to live and paint,” she said. “Oakland for artists is more affordable for more space.”

But Blade and her artist friends had bigger ideas for the  space. By November, they had hosted their first event—a public reading from Art Work, a free Chicago-based newspaper that publishes  essays on the art world and academia with a Marxist twist.

The evening began with an essay about the “artist as entrepreneur.”

Local artists, scholars and art school students crammed into the gallery space to discuss the readings and address the question, “What is a just arts economy?”

Blade said support for Sight School has multiplied since then. About a hundred people pass now through the Sight School’s door on the opening night of a new exhibit.

“All of this comes back to trying to figure out where that line between being a living artist and working artist is and how you support yourself and your community,” she said. These are the conversations, Blade said, that are the backbone and heart of what Sight School is about. “There are ways to enhance your career and community even if you’re not making money.”

Blade is also a recipient of the Southern Exposure, Alternative Exposure grant program, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides financial support to several Bay Area public art spaces and projects. In the last round, the organization awarded $65,000 to 19 projects. Sight School received $3,000 and was joined by five other Oakland-based projects.

Michelle Blade opened Sight School, also her home, in the winter of 2009.

With this grant, Blade will present an exhibition this year by Tom Thayer and Dave Miko, two Brooklyn-based artists, who will be given a live/work space in Oakland to use during the duration of the show. The idea is to give non-local artists the ability to engage with Bay Area art communities through talks, events and workshops related to their exhibition.

“I’m excited about the voices and projects that are coming out of Oakland,” said Blade. She describes the city’s art scene as a Do-It-Yourself, “kind of punk mentality.”

Oakland is notorious for its many do-it-yourself-style galleries and underground warehouse spaces, but Blade said she feels it is lacking when it comes to galleries that consistently display and discuss contemporary art.

Blade said she thinks her theoretical background in fine arts pushes her to create a higher level of dialogue around “why it is what we do rather than just making something for no reason or making something for fun.”

Jasmine Moorhead, owner and director of the Oakland art gallery Krowswork, opened her studio at the same time as Blade’s. “[Sight School] is really helping to anchor the burgeoning San Pablo corridor art scene,” Moorhead said, “and I think we are both approaching the ‘gallery’ as a holistic and dynamic entity—not just a white box for art.”

It’s not just the artists that benefit from the studio. Blade said the people from nearby business always come in and look at what’s on display.

“It’s been a positive buzz for the community,” Otis said. “The stuff they have, it’s different.” For example, there’s a surreal rendering of one of the barbers in the window that keeps the barbershop customers coming back to take another look.

Otis said from the time Blade first moved in and brought over a case of beer to introduce herself, she has continued to include him and neighbors to join in on the various late night get-togethers and exhibition openings regularly hosted.

Although Blade didn’t have an “aha” moment when deciding to call her gallery the Sight School, she said she appreciates the “learning to see together as a community” translation that it’s morphed into.

“I didn’t want to say that I have all the answers for curating a space,” she said. “I want to learn together with other people in the neighborhood.”

From February 10 to March 13, Sight School will be presenting “Damn Your Eyes,” New Works by Joel Dean. The exhibit, described by Dean, “chronicles the idiosyncrasies of a personal visual vocabulary broken down, then remodeled in response to specific architectural circumstances to create a single painting.” He is  based in Oakland where he helps to operate an experimental project space called Important Projects.

Sight School has a mailing list on its website with more information about past and upcoming events.


  1. M. Himel on February 4, 2011 at 9:38 am

    For other people who are curious like I was, the website gives the address as 5651 San Pablo, which Google Maps shows as near Aileen/56th Street, across from the Golden Gate library branch.

  2. Sight School « RVCA on February 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    […] School is a small art gallery and project space run by Michelle Blade in Oakland California. Here is an article written about them on […]

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