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A man in a blue short-sleeved collared shirt stands with arms folded before four prints -- two large and two small, the one closest to him is large and is of tangled tree branches.

Artists open Jingletown studios to give public a glimpse at what they’ve been up to

on December 4, 2023

More than 20 artists opened their studios in East Oakland’s Jingletown neighborhood last weekend during East Bay Open Studios, a bi-annual tradition where visitors can see both artists’ creations and their creative spaces. 

Inside the Gray Loft Gallery on Ford Street, nine artists showcased jewelry, paintings, and photographs. Jan Watten, the founder of the Gray Loft Gallery, has been participating in East Bay Open Studios for decades. 

“Open Studies provides an opportunity to put a bunch of work out, and have people come and look at it,” Watten said. “Collectors come, friends come and see your work, families can see what you’re up to.” 

Artists in cities throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties participated at this year’s event

Nine panels, three by three of artists' work, from top left: white flowers on red background; red beaded necklace with three metal snails; black and white shadow photo with line and circles; (next row) purple and blue abstract; black and white photo of S curve of water cutting through muddy field; blue and white and brown abstract; (bottom row) photo of a foggy field; turquoise and salmon colored hoop earings; photo of little red flowers on a bush.
The work of nine artists participating in Open Studios at Gray Loft Gallery (Courtesy of Jan Watten)

Jingletown has a long history as an artists’ enclave. Artists in the 1980s converted neglected warehouses into spaces to live and work. Watten recalled the area was sleepier but brimming with artists in search of an affordable place to live. 

“When I first lived here in the ’80s’, we just called it East Oakland,” Watten said. “All those warehouses went into disuse, like this one, and artists took these over.”

Open Studios was bigger in the earlier days, but it continues to be an important way for artists to experiment and get feedback. For this year’s East Bay Open Studios, Watten displayed her black-and-white photographs.  A self-described minimalist who likes simple images and abstracted elements, she’s been working with nature images and botanicals recently. 

“The camera I use is very low tech and intentionally makes me just focus and connect with nature,” Watten said. “It’s a matter of slowing down, looking at the image, and being one with nature, without sounding corny.”

Looks like white feathers with tiny beads
“Asparagus Virgatus,” analog capture, pigment print by Jan Watten (Courtesy of Jan Watten)

Any visual artist who has studio or exhibition space in Alameda County or Contra Costa County can participate. 

Jenny Sampson, a photographer showing her work at the Gray Loft Gallery,  brought along “Skaters and Skater Girls,” her collections of tintype portraits of skateboarders on the West Coast. Tintype is a form of wet-plate collodion processing that was especially popular during the Civil War.     

Sampson said seeing art in person is becoming a lost experience, and open studio days encourage people to experience artwork.  

“The photography I make is very tactile. I shoot film, I print on silver gelatin prints, I make tintypes, I do collage. There’s a lot going on there that just does not translate digitally,” Sampson said. 

The personal interactions can also be valuable. Earlier in the day, Sampson heard a woman at the gallery telling her husband the story behind one of the tintypes. 

“She knew the whole story,” Sampson recalled. “And she told me she had one of my postcards on her desk. Of course, I would love people to buy my work, but that kind of stuff is also meaningful.” 

A woman in a blue knit shawl and dark curly hair, gray in front, stands in a stuio in front of famed photos.
Photographer Jenny Sampson (Courtesy of Jan Watten)

A short walk away on the same street, Fernando Reyes, a printer and print maker who does figurative and abstract work, was at the studio he opened in 1999. 

He said participating in the event is still a great way for beginning artists to get their foot in the art world.

“You just never know. Somebody could contact you a month, two months, or even a year or longer, and say, ‘Do you still have that piece? I keep thinking about it,’” he said. “That’s happened to me many, many times.” 

Reyes said the neighborhood has gentrified since he moved here decades ago. Many artists have left, and tall condominiums have gone up. 

Reyes no longer lives in Oakland.  He and his husband bought a 10-acre property in the Sierra Foothills a few years back. But he continues to show his work in Oakland and considers the area his home. 

“There’s still areas of Oakland here, in the Fruitvale-Jingletown neighborhood, that echoes the past,” Reyes said. “The building that I’m in now — it’s a great place to be as an artist, and it’s a great neighborhood.” 

East Bay Open Studios will be back for the first two weekends of June, and the artists of Jingletown will be ready to open their studios for the public to tour again. 

(Top photo: contemporary figurative and abstract artist Fernando Reyes, by Holly McDede)

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