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Ruth Santee, director and co-owner of Transmission Gallery, stands in front of a painting by William Harsh.

Contemporary art gallery opens in West Oakland

on August 23, 2012

A contemporary art gallery in West Oakland debuted this month with an exhibition of Bay Area artists, filling the top floor of a former auto service center with abstract paintings, whimsical sculptures and an old, wooden chair cast in aluminum.

“It is open and inviting, not that stuffy art gallery thing,” said Ruth Santee, director and co-owner of Transmission Gallery at 770 West Grand Avenue. The space is open the first Friday of each month from 7-9 pm (for Oakland’s monthly art walk) and every Saturday, 11 am-5 pm.

From the outside, Transmission is marked only by a non-descript gray door. But upstairs, the sunny, l-shaped gallery showcases a range of contemporary art pieces: Intricate white paper lanterns hang from the ceiling while a rusted metal sculpture rests on the floor by the front windows. Fanciful statues, reminiscent of figures in a Dr. Suess book, wait in the back room, and mounted to the walls is a selection of colorful paintings, a trio of cardboard Virgin Mary’s and even a white sculpted deer head.

Santee, 47, opened the gallery with her husband of 22 years, Cameron Brian. They are both art teachers, she in Stockton and he in Bakersfield. The pair hopes their gallery will be a valuable addition to the art scene in West Oakland, a neighborhood that is off the regular path of First Friday art walks. Two other galleries recently opened within a few blocks of Transmission.

She has always had an interest in art, Santee said, and has been a working artist most of her life. When she was a young child, she asked her parents for a horse. When they said no, Santee found some scrap wood and built one in her backyard.

“It dawned on me that I could make my own realities,” she said. “I was hooked.”

A decade ago, the building on Grand Avenue housed Valco Transmission Repair, which inspired the gallery’s name. Santee and Brian bought the building in 1999 and fixed it up. There is even a kitchen in the space—Santee and Brian used the top floor as their apartment for a short time before they decided to open an art gallery.

Now, natural light streams through the windows of the 2000 square foot space, lined with pristine white walls that provide a neutral backdrop for the series of art exhibitions the couple has planned. Their ideas range from an erotic exhibit for Valentine’s Day to one on hibernation and stasis.

Santee purposefully stocked her first exhibition with artists from the region, reaching out to friends, former teachers and mentors from her generation. This resulted in a mature collection—the youngest artist with a piece in the opening is 38 years old. The oldest is in his mid-sixties.

“A gallery opening is like a barn raising,” she said. “You bring in family and friends to help.”

She pointed out a large William Harsh painting hanging on the wall next to the kitchen entrance. “He’s just such a good painter,” Santee said, looking at the curving forms, intricate shading and rich colors on the canvas. In contrast to this original painting, she said, many young artists in Oakland appropriate imagery, collaging things together and re-using old items to create something new.

“It’s refreshing to see work by mature artists,” Santee said. “I think youth culture is so well represented at Art Murmur. I’m not 20, and I’m not going to pretend to be.” Santee said she could see the Transmission Gallery filling a different niche in the Oakland art scene.

But she is not looking at age for her next exhibition, opening in October. It will be political, Santee said, to compliment election season. She is not sticking with the regional theme either: the next round will feature artists from across the United States and around the globe, including Sue Coe, an English artist and illustrator.

Santee also wants to hold public gallery talks, panel discussions and book readings at Transmission. Aside from selling the pieces she features, Santee said she also wants to invite people into the gallery space simply to learn about contemporary art. “It’s the teacher in me,” she said.

The inaugural exhibition, titled “Opening,” features 19 Bay Area artists and will run until September 15.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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