jennifer downey
Contra Costa Times / Oakland Tribune
June 4th, 2009

Art Made Here
See Where Creativity Blossoms on Pro Arts Open Studios Tour
June 4, 2009
by Laura Casey

Pro Arts’ East Bay Open Studios event is an invitation to be nosy. Hundreds of artists around Alameda and Contra Costa counties throw open the doors of their studios, sometimes even their homes, and invite the public to see their work and where they make it.

Sometimes snacks are involved. Sometimes fun and games are offered , as is the case with AlbaStudios & Gallery in North Oakland. AlbaStudios, run by Benny Alba, is in a nondescript building near Oakland’s Children’s Hospital at 4219 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. You may drive by it on your way to Highway 980 and never blink.

But inside is 7,000-square feet of space used by four artists, including Alba. Eight more artists have packed their photography, painting and sculpture into the building for the Open Studios event.

Peel open the blue door, and you’re welcomed inside by Alba herself. The quirky 60-year old artist has been making a variety of work for about 40 years—paintings, jewelry, glass on copper and stained glass.

“Everything I do is museum-level quality,” she says, pointing to her rich, multilayered paintings of the night, “but it’s not museum priced.” Alba has set up a darkened room where visitors can use flashlights to look at some of her work, which sparkles in the light. She’s also placed some jewelry in cabinets with nooks and crannies to explore. Some necklaces and pendants can be had for $15.

Across from Alba’s work is Oakland resident Maggie Cockrell’s station. Cockrell is fascinated by flowers and light. You can see that in her delicate photographs of plants. She’s also on a mission, she says, to prove there are nymphs in trees. Take a look at one of her pictures of the bark of a tree, and you’ll likely see a human figure somewhere. She sells cards for $3.50 and 16-by-20 inch posters for $75.

Nearby, Alys Briggs, a retired public defender for Alameda County, also has photography for sale. Her work is based on her travels to Italy and France. She has a series of photographs based solely on the bicycles she saw while traveling.

Painter Olivia Eielson is the dark horse of the group. Her bleak canvasses illustrate the end of Western civilization. They are strong and complex paintings, decidedly unlike the work of the other painters in the studio, L. Hickox Robinson of Orinda, Sherry Wacker of Oakland, and Alameda’s Jennifer Downey.

Downey’s work focuses mostly on nature and women. She says she likes to “honor the quiet power” she sees in the feminine figure. Downey’s been (sic) perusing art for five years an sells framed prints for $25. She also sells her work on the arts and crafts Web site Etsy.
There is even a pet portrait artist, Michelle Levy, who lovingly captures the spirit of the furry and feathered members of the family who have died.

“Every animal has a different personality, and I never get sick of it,” she says.
Visitors will linger over the jewelry made by Walnut Creek artist Catherine Herdering, a former psychotherapist who turned to jewelry-making about three years ago. She’ll tell you about the rich gems she collects at gem shows and from sellers she has built a relationship with. And every one of her pieces, which sell from $75 to $500, has a name and a story behind it.
If you like to wear your art, Matlena Hourula will have hand-painted cloting and scarves for sale, although you shouldn’t miss looking at her light boxes and photography in encaustic wax.

And that is just one studio. Pro Arts Open Studios features more than 400 artists in studios across 14 cities, from Richmond and Oakland to Pleasant Hill and Dublin. Some are within walking distance of each (sic) another while others require a drive. All are self-guided tours.

The purpose of the annual event is to get artists in touch with art lovers who one day may become art patrons, says David Huff, exhibition and programs coordinator for Pro Arts.
“It’s a no-stress way to look at art,” Huff says. “There’s really definitely something for everybody.”
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