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Open Studios show a special forum for public and artists

By Matthew Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday June 08, 2002

What do a former army captain, a marketing executive, a construction worker, and an executive search firm owner have in common?  

They’re all part of Open Studios 2002. 

This weekend and last, artists from across the East Bay open their doors to the public. And while the art is sure to impress, often the most fascinating things on display are the artists themselves. 

Open Studios is presented by ProArts, an organization that promotes and supports East Bay visual artists. Now in it’s 20th year, Open Studios 2002 will showcase the work of nearly 500 local artists.  

For artists, Open Studios offers an opportunity to expose their work and make sales in the East Bay’s crowded, competitive art market. The public gets something even more valuable – a chance not only to see and buy original art, but to talk intimately with the artist in a comfortable and casual setting. 

“There is this whole mystique about art, and gallerys are more into that end of things,” said Berkeley artist Jeanne V. Diller, who along with 17 other artists are sharing exhibition space in the West Berkeley Senior Center.  

“This is a lot less intimidating. At open studios its more my neighbor down the street who’s never been to a gallery.” 

Open Studios demystifies art by demystifying the artist behind the work. When talking to the artists they are not unapproachable or aloof, but interesting and multifaceted people who put their passion and experiences into their work. 

One such artist is Karla Stevens Wilson of Oakland. After undergoing a mastectomy in 1997, Wilson, a recently retired marketing executive, began making art to battle depression. “My mother said get out of the fetal position. Here’s a brush. You need a project.”  

For the past five years Wilson’s main project has been refinishing wood. She buys or sometimes makes wooden furniture and then uses resin, foil, and paint, among other items, to create ornate coatings on the flat wooden surfaces. 

Wilson’s battle with breast cancer invariably finds its way into her work, most prominently in her sketches.  

The sketches document Wilson’s own experience after her surgery. One sketch depicts a woman in a swimming pool with a prosthetic floating beside her. “When you dive into a pool, its easy to lose your prosthetics. I remember when it happened thinking, ‘Oh my god, that must be mine’,” Wilson joked. “I try to do it to honor breast cancer victims and make other women more comfortable and see that there is life after breasts.” 

A few booths over from Wilson sits Lila Wahrhaftig. Having gone to art school later in life, Wahrhaftig has made a career as a professional etcher and paper maker. She says her work is inspired by Judaism and nature, but anyone gazing at her art notices there are an inordinate number of chickens.  

“I grew up across the road from a chicken farm,” said Wahrhaftig. “We used to make bombs out of chickens and saw dust.”  

One picture features several chickens and roosters in various poses and postures. It turns out that each fowl represents a person close to the artist. “Chickens have a lot of personality, people do too, so they make good chickens,” Wahrhaftig said. 

The hospitality evident at the senior center can be found at studios throughout the East Bay. 

At the Wild West Berkeley Studios, which is artist Joyce Shon’s basement, the participating artists offer guests insights into their art, and tidbits about their lives that give added depth and meaning to their work.  

Shon was born and raised in Berkeley. She spent much of her career working for the city as a public works construction site operator. A ceramics artist who had dabbled in making Eskimo and Aleutian shamonistic masks, she now focuses primarily on this work because it offers her insight into her ordeal with cancer. The masks traditionally have small mouth and eye holes, which often conjure a look of surprise or fear. 

“The masks are amazing by what the reveal,” Shon said. “The mask was telling me what was wrong with me. Some part of me knew what was happening.” 

Among those sharing Shon’s studio are Julie Wong, a freelance graphic designer, who makes sterling silver and crystal jewelry, and Marca Lemore, a Berkeley-born painter who was raised overseas but returned after serving seven years as an Army Captain. 

Basement studios, like Wild West, are not uncommon in Berkeley. In a city with so many artists in a tight real estate market, sharing limited space has become the norm. So has fighting for limited gallery space.  

According to Shon, doing public relations work helps her and the other Wild West artists get into galleries. For these artists and many in the East Bay, Open Studios is a rare opportunity to introduce their work to the public. And artists such as Lemore are more than happy to show guests around. “There is a very loving feeling here,” she said.