Barge into the Kala Institute, bark out the old cliché “stop the presses!” and you very well may trigger a major shutdown. That’s because the 25-year-old art institute’s 8,500-square-foot main studio is inundated with more varieties of presses than you can shake a lithograph at. There are giant presses and baby-sized presses, venerable old presses and shiny new presses, presses used for one form of printing or another, presses used to meld one form of printing with another and even a press sporting an eye-catching, 6-foot-wide crank wheel that, over the past quarter-century, at least one artist has probably stood behind and suddenly felt compelled to lapse into his or her Long John Silver impersonation.
“Every piece of equipment has a story,” says Kala Institute Executive Director Archana Horsting, who co-founded the institute with fellow Paris art student Yuzo Nakano 25 years back. “We saved enough to each buy one-half of a press, and got a little lumber to construct a table. A couple of artists joined us and brought some tools, rollers, that sort of thing. We jury-rigged a hot plate. We still have that first press we ever bought. We had one press willed to us, some of the larger presses we got through equipment grants, and a couple are long-term loans. Over time, we’ve built up equipment.”
Over time, they’ve also built up clientele. The tiny art studio that Horsting and Nakano opened up as a single press in a San Francisco garage now serves roughly 80 artists a year out of its home in the former “ketchup kitchen” of the old Heinz plant on San Pablo Avenue.
“Even though we’re on the third floor, we’re still something of an underground organization,” jokes Horsting. “The average person around here might never have heard of us. But artists in Japan, Norway, Iceland, South America and all over Asia have.”
This international appeal is no coincidence. Horsting and Nakano aimed to create a diverse, multi-national atmosphere right from the start (in the name “Kala,” for example, the founders picked a word that has “good vibes” in Greek, Sanskrit, Japanese, Hawaiian, Turkish and Hebrew, just for starters). The idea is, if you bring artists from varying backgrounds together to work shoulder-to-shoulder in the studio, the process of osmosis ought to benefit everyone. In furthering this goal, the Institute features “artists in residence” from all over the globe. These internationals work alongside the six-to-12 artists a year who receive Kala fellowships and the dozens and dozens of others who pay a fee for the right to utilize the Institute’s numerous facilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It’s always totally in flux,” says Kala Institute administrative assistant and self-described “Jill of all trades” Elisheva Marcus. “We’re open 24 hours a day, so you can never really predict (when people will show up).”
Yet the Kala Institute is more than just an art studio. More than 700 students a year take the 80-plus courses offered through the Institute (in fact, Kala’s course catalog looks much like UC Berkeley’s – except it’s smaller and sprinkled throughout with much better artwork). Kala sends a number of artists into local schools and communities through its “Artist in the Schools” Program. The mural on the yet-to-be-completed downtown Berkeley Public Safety Building was painted by local schoolchildren and organized by the Kala Institute. Also, Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley kids have gone on numerous field trips to the Institute.
And while a major focus of the Kala Institute will always be the art of printing, the studio offers artists and students alike more than just presses. The Institute is equipped with an art library, an oft-used gallery, darkroom facilities and, most impressively, a rather high-tech Electronic Media Center. Located in a large single room protected by more locks than one would expect to find on a front door in the Bronx, the media center comes chock full o’ computers, scanners, printers, video editors, digital samplers and more.
This unusual juxtaposition of printing presses – some of which utilize processes developed thousands of years ago – and cutting edge digital equipment is the subject of the symposium the Kala Institute is planning for its 25th anniversary celebration.
Entitled “High Touch/High Tech: Making Art in the 21st Century,” Kala has organized a number of speakers and expert panels for the April 8 event at the Oakland Museum. The number of artists and authorities in attendance will analyze the current art scene, and, of course, ponder the big question: What comes next?
The look backwards and forwards seems to be a fitting celebration for the Kala Institute, a progressive institution based around an eons-old practice. And as is the case with so many Berkeley nonprofits born out of the 1960s and ‘70s, founders Nakano and Horsting have outlasted the lean years, and can’t believe how time has flown.
“I think Nakano and I had no idea we’d still be doing this,” chuckles Horsting. “I guess we’re both kinda stubborn as hell.”
For more information on the Kala Institute and the upcoming symposium call 510-549-2977 or visit the Institute’s web site at http://www.kala.org