The gang hanging out in the lobby of Alameda County’s juvenile hall this August afternoon doesn’t fit the profile. Most of the 270 kids locked up here are probation violators, runaways, petty thieves, and drug offenders from East O. The staff tends to mirror the inmate demographic, and visitors usually look a lot like the young woman standing in the foyer, wearing a tight pink halter top and a confused look on her face. She bends down to the receptionist’s hole and asks, “Who are all these people?”
The plump receptionist shrugs. “They’re here for art.”
The woman backs away and stares at the odd collage of wrinkled Caucasian faces, T-shirts, jeans, white name tags, and horn-rimmed glasses. It looks as if a community college teachers’ convention got lost on I-580, wandered into the San Leandro hills, and ended up in this dilapidated stucco building.
Some do, in fact, teach at community colleges, but only to pay the bills while they bide their time for a chance like this. These thirty or so people are finalists in the biggest public-arts competition the East Bay has ever seen. A 1993 ordinance states that any new county building means new money for the arts — so the 60-acre, 370-bed Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center under construction on the hill above the old kiddie jail has minted $2.3 million for art and art programs at the new facility, including $1.6 million in potential public-art commissions to be doled out this fall.
And the artists have flocked: Heavy hitters like John Werley, Daniel Galvez, and Johanna Poethig stand center stage on the black marble-colored linoleum making chit-chat. Younger, darker, edgier artists with worse chances of hitting the big money observe from the wings. Burdened by the irony of the prison-industrial complex playing the Medici family, some of them are feeling ambivalent. “There’s a lot of contradictions,” says Oakland’s Keba Konte, a photojournalism-trained montage artist with credits from Spin and Vibe who is trying to cross over into public murals. He also actively fought to stop construction of the new $133 million juvenile facility. “My fourteen-year-old cousin was giving me shit, like, ‘You working for the jail!?'”
Konte isn’t the only one who feels weird about it. Muralists Catalina Gonzalez and Tim Martinez sit next to him while cartoonist Isis Rodriguez tries to work the room. Their four unique visual styles make for some of the most cutting-edge murals in the Bay Area. Consequently, they’ll have the hardest time getting their work through the miles of red tape, 45-plus bureaucrats and public critics, and a banal public review that ends up before the county’s Board of Supervisors. Rarely have artist and censor seemed so destined for a showdown.
Catalina Gonzalez’ off-the-rack, white button-down sleeveless shirt and quiet demeanor belie her toughness. She’s a self-taught photorealist who fled life as a Modesto farmworker to catch her first break doing nude portraits for San Francisco strip clubs. She has called neighborhoods like Hunters Point and West Oakland home for more than a decade.
Tim Martinez also plays it low-key in the lobby while sporting twin tattoos of fire and water underneath his long-sleeved sweater. His guerrilla muralist team, Justin Artifice, has stealthily zapped dozens of blighted Oakland buildings with a grab-bag of instantly recognizable urban forms against vibrant neon backdrops.
Isis Rodriguez is the only finalist with flowers in her hair. Her black T-shirt featuring one of her cartoon characters references the curves and lines of graffiti. A former stripper with a fine-arts degree, whose résumé includes several murals in SF’s Mission District, numerous cartoon exhibitions, and work in Low Rider magazine, she was featured in the 2002 book Vicious, Delicious, and Ambitious: 20th-Century Women Artists.
While they wait, these long shots among the ten mural finalists calculate the personal stakes of this meeting. Officials will pay $15,000 each for a dozen murals, and an artist can win up to four — a $60,000 purse. “I can barely survive,” Catalina explains. “This is life-changing money. I could pay off some credit-card bills, fix my car. Honestly, the first thing I’d do with my share is maybe go buy some new clothes and a new collar for my dog. I’d like to save some for a down payment on a house, too.”
“Honestly, I’d just like to get better materials,” says Tim, an accomplished carpenter who recently bought a 150-year-old house with his girlfriend on a sideshow-marred block of Chestnut Street in West Oakland. “I could paint you the most beautiful piece of art with the right materials. I’d buy the best Colorfast paint, and when it comes off the brush, the strokes, the quality of the lines — it’s so much better than the garbage you buy at Home Depot.”
Isis doubts she’d profit that much after expenses, but she has other motives. “It’ll really benefit my career as an artist,” she says. “It’s a hustle out there, and you gotta be a person who’s willing to take on a project that might not pay shit and have a good attitude about it. You don’t know what the project will get you.”
All four know what they’re likely to encounter during today’s focus-group-slash-parole-hearing mashup: Kids from their own neighborhoods who have too much time and not enough supervision. The same kids who skip school to hang out at Walgreens. The ones with absent parents. The ones who’ve broken into their cars, tagged their stuff, scared off their neighbors, and tried to sell them drugs.
One of the artists asks Robert Calvin, the juvenile hall manager, what to expect. “The children you’ll meet today have been chosen according to their stated interest in art,” he replies, then adds, “Of course, behavioral concerns are taken into account.”
Deeper within the facility, beige walls, fluorescent lights, and fishnetted glass hijack the aesthetic. Heavy wooden doors are locked and unlocked. The sounds of keys and industrial air-conditioning units echo down long hallways that bend out of sight. The artists and staffers collect in one such passage so guards can lock them in and then usher them to the large cafeteria, whose only salient features are bad renditions of ducks and fish on the walls, along with a sign that reads “O.C. Pepper Spray Is Used In This Institution.”
“We ready?” Calvin asks his burly staff member, once the artists are in place.
“They’re coming in right now.”
The heat brings out the freaks on Friday, August 5, the night of Oakland’s biggest art event of the year. All around Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street, young white twentysomethings with thrift-store clothes and choppy haircuts mob the sidewalks. The drug dealers that once dotted these walkways have yielded over the last five years to squads of underground art fans smoking weed and drinking beer, doing the hipster equivalent of a pub crawl. Five galleries in a five-block radius host openings tonight to celebrate the neighborhood’s transformation into ground zero of the underground art scene.
Tim Martinez and Geoff Dorn — coconspirators of Justin Artifice — hold court in 21 Grand, a onetime meth den turned art gallery, which tonight sizzles with bright red and yellow from their latest mural. Friends and scenesters saunter in, pay tribute, have a Sierra and a few smokes, and talk about the other work they’ve seen before staggering off into the night. The party lasts past 2 a.m. — even visiting artists from Berlin and London are amazed at the vitality of the scene.
But the accepted reality of Oakland visual art is that almost all of it is pro bono. Everyone showing tonight has a day job of some kind that pays for their materials and time. “This was $400 out of our pocket,” Martinez explains. “That was PG&E money. Food money.”
If Oakland’s underground artists all were to quit grant-writing or teaching tomorrow to pursue making their foam monsters and photorealistic murals full-time, they’d be as homeless as the vagrants who once roamed the gallery district in droves.
Two independent but parallel art worlds run through Oakland: the bright, sexy, edgy, very visible underground scene, and the near-invisible world of older designers who make a living stocking hospitals and government buildings with the artistic equivalent of tapioca pudding. Seeing that world requires a trip to the sixth-floor conference room of a gleaming government tower on the shores of Lake Merritt, where the glass doors have gilded handles, and the carpets are the color of money.
This is where members of the Alameda County Arts Commission meet one afternoon a month to dole out grants to public artists. The Wednesday after the big Telegraph Avenue bash, Rachel Osajima, the commission’s executive director, reminds panel members that the murals will be nine feet tall and forty feet long, and will sit above basketball courts inside the new prison’s security pods, where the inmates are housed. She runs quickly through slides of each muralist’s work, and the commissioners rubber-stamp the ten finalists, who have been preapproved by subordinate committees stocked with local talent.
The commission has existed since the 1960s, but the 1993 ordinance, which sets aside 2 percent of all county capital-project funds for public art, brightened its star considerably. Since then, the commission has been able to support a small full-time staff and an average annual grant budget of around $100,000. Thanks to the new prison construction, the commission’s 2005 budget is orders of magnitude higher than average, and more than double its second-biggest windfall.
The county’s No. 2 arts-spending spree included a mural and dozens of local art purchases installed two years ago at Highland Hospital, whose new state-of-the-art trauma center is the primary destination for victims of East Oakland’s knife and gun club. Which leads to a curious circumstance: Theoretically, come next year, the audience with the greatest exposure to the most expensive public art projects in county history will consist of juvenile delinquents injured while committing a crime.
Up the hill from the current Juvenile Hall, cranes raise gigantic prefab concrete slabs — the makings of the inmate pods — over exterior walls, while down the hill nine young men enter the cafeteria in a neat line and take their seats opposite the finalists. The artists beam huge welcoming smiles as though the kids had just won a spelling bee. It’s their attempt to defuse the parole-hearing atmosphere: Everyone has notepads. Someone is transcribing. All eyes and ears are focused on the kids. They’re wearing old shoes with Velcro straps. Faded, loose-fitting sweatpants with the words “Juvenile Hall” running down the thigh. Faded blue T-shirts or sweatshirts.
Arts Commission facilitator Herschel West — an imposing man who looks as if he could drop two of the boys at once, should he choose — tells the artists he has had a chance to talk with the kids the day before and that the kids are here to share their ideas. The young men introduce themselves, but it’s barely audible: “John, James, James, Mark …” They trail off into whispers. Rachel asks them to speak up. The artists introduce themselves briefly.
“Now tell them what we talked about yesterday,” Herschel tells the kids. “Tell them what you’d want to see.”
The room is quiet; then the least shy of the bunch pipes up. “We want to see something with color and life and positive images …”
“Kids going to college, graduating from high school …” another says.
“Doing something positive like winning a Nobel Prize …”
“Maybe like Cesar Chavez or the United Farm Workers symbol …”
Each glances at Herschel for confirmation that he’s saying the right thing. It all feels rehearsed, and Keba and Tim bristle. Keba once proposed painting a lit bomb on the side of a cargo container destined for the port, and earlier this year he installed a photocollage of bullets and Bibles in the African American Museum and Library of Oakland. He quietly fumes at the idea of putting something as clichéd as Cesar Chavez or MLK in yet another mural, let alone one of his own.
An SF State graduate with a communications degree, Keba has been to Africa and Europe. And he notes that he’s the youngest and only black muralist in the group. “Early on I didn’t even know if I wanted to be in this thing,” he admits. “Working for the prison system causes me pause, but a lot of prison activists work and teach art and writing at jails, so any apprehensions dissolved with some thought about it.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy. “Any doubts of mine concern the audience and trying to find that line where work is accessible to young minds without being dumbed down. It also has to get past the bureaucrats, so it’s an interesting path,” Keba continues, making a snaking motion with his hand. “That said, they’re saying what they want us to hear. ‘Oh, I want to see Cesar Chavez up there and give him a Nobel Peace Prize.’ Come on. They know the deal. With so many adults and authority in their lives, they know how to push buttons. … All that MLK shit, no way. It’s been done. One kid talked about Tupac, though. There’s something interesting there.”
Tim, sitting next to Keba, also dreads such clichés. “I’m interested in modernizing the mural,” he says. “I was looking back over stuff by Diego Rivera, and the mural really hasn’t changed since the ’50s and ’60s. It’s a collage of symbolism and dramatic portraiture. We live in a different world. Young people know what Chavez did, but there’s other great people since the ’50s.”
Among these four relative newcomers to public art, Tim’s work has the most legitimate crossover appeal. Justin Artifice, his duo, speaks the language of the commercial billboard, but with a very pro-Oakland message. The son of a working-class machinist father and homemaker mother in Colorado, Tim remembers drawing and playing with photos from a very young age. His parents frowned on it as a career and he left for San Francisco in 1997. Real skills with carpentry led to furniture design and a small art output while he lived in Hunters Point. The dot-com bubble pushed him to the East Bay, where he teamed up with the other half of Justin Artifice and began taking West Oakland beautification into his own hands. “We all got tired of saying how crappy the neighborhood was and how no one was doing public art where people lived, so we just did it,” he says. “We did these bright geometric shapes on four-by-eight-foot wooden panels and bolted them onto an abandoned building in broad daylight.” That blighted building, the artist points out, was owned by the California College of the Arts.
Last year Justin Artifice scored $5,000 in grants to continue painting derelict buildings while doing fourteen gallery shows, the last of which made waves as far away as New York. Sunrise Over Oakland at the Richmond Arts Center soared fifteen feet high and screamed green and orange hues. The picture-perfect portscape complete with handmade cargo containers left many viewers in awe.
Tim and Geoff usually take photos of street icons — hydrants, ports, cranes, jalopies — and Photoshop them into arrangements and add a single-color background. They then print them out as transparencies. The duo uses a high-school projector to cast the images onto a wall, and then outlines, paints, and fills. The result is a striking and distinctive style, combining bright backgrounds with clean, crisp, professional designs.
Back in the prison cafeteria, things get more interesting when the discussion is opened up for questions. One of the artists asks what the boys wouldn’t want. Without hesitation, they point to the ducks and fish on the walls.
“That. We don’t want to see none of that …”
“Ducks, fish, birds …”
“No happy stuff …”
“No rainbows, stars, moons …”
“I could handle a moon,” the brightest of the bunch says. “Maybe a crescent moon …”
Real smiles and laughter appear, and spontaneous thoughts begin to pour out: “Maybe you can do a maze like those mazes that they put rats into, and they have to find their way to the cheese,” one boy says. “Maybe have a kid where the rat is, with the staff watching him run …”
Herschel calls for the next question.
“Who’s your favorite artist?” one finalist asks.
Silence. The kids look at their nails or kick at their sneakers.
“Steven Spielberg?” one says.
“You!” says the crescent-moon kid, pointing to Isis’ T-shirt. “I’ve seen that before in Low Rider magazine. I like that.”
Isis is flattered.
“He’s an artist too,” boasts Crescent Moon’s friend. “I’m his roommate and he draws all the time. His drawings are good.”
Crescent Moon blushes and tells him to shut up.
Soon after, the boys file out, hands behind their backs. Next up are the girls: nine young ladies in Velcro sneakers, white socks, and red and blue Juvie sweats. They appear sullen and a bit nervous. No makeup or hair products. The intro is similar, and Herschel asks what they’d want to see in “their house.”
“Stuff about girls not getting pregnant …”
“Something inspirational …”
“Something funny …”
“Something with community support …”
“Quotes from poets and community leaders …”
“A relaxing ocean scene …”
“Maybe some stars …”
Not much to work with, figures Isis, who can recall her own bitterness upon getting her period at age thirteen and realizing she could never again feel carefree about sex.
The Kansas-born cartoonist teaches art one day a week, but subsists mostly on illustrations and the murals she has done in the Mission. She arrived in the Bay Area from the Midwest after getting her undergraduate degree and enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. Finding it too expensive, she dropped out and immersed herself in the Chicano and sex-workers’-rights scenes, living in bad parts of town and battling against strip-club owners who imposed stage fees on their girls. By 2002, her cartoon tough-girls had developed a distinctive Chicano-ness along with a sly, fun wink.
When someone asks the juvie girls what animal they’d most like to be, Isis notices that nearly all choose predators: “Tough. Independent. They can’t be herded,” she says. “My dad used to call me Tigress, and that imagery has always been important.”
Isis’ 1997 series My Life as a Comic Stripper features a telling picture entitled No More, a topless woman wearing an American flag bandanna, and waving a gun with her legs spread wide. A Bengal tiger leaps from her crotch. Her work has since mellowed to more studied comics that eschew action in favor of form. She’s going the fine-arts route, but unlike Keba, is willing to do whatever the kids want. “I do two types of art,” she tells them. “Stuff for myself, and stuff for other people.
Catalina, who has otherwise remained silent during the meeting, asks the day’s most revealing question: “If you could open yourselves up and show us what’s inside of you, what would we see?” When the girls don’t respond, she tries again: “If we could rip open your chest, what would come out?”
Of the emerging muralists, Catalina is the most underrated and hence the one to watch out for. A high-school dropout who later got her GED, she comes off shy, but has scored numerous private commissions, including backdrops for rock concerts and full-size murals of album covers for San Francisco design company Wet Paint. “Being a farmworker growing up taught me a hard day’s work,” she says. “Wet Paint taught me how to work fast.”
When she first moved to the Bay Area, Catalina sold portraits and smaller things wherever she could. A strip-club proprietor commissioned a whole series of nudes to be framed in his clubs after seeing one of her portraits. The reserved artist then threw herself into erotica, painting live nudes and magazine-style pinups with uncanny Playboy gloss. Her benefactor would give away her paintings to favored patrons, and she amassed a stunningly competent body of photorealistic work.
The nudes led to her first real mural commission, which included putting portraits of 1940s movie characters on a nightclub ceiling. Her first mural wall came next, paid for by the same strip-club owner. “He said vagrants were ruining his construction wall, so just do whatever you want with it.” The result, titled The Beauty Way, shows some novice-level composition mistakes, but bears evidence of a savant’s skill. While the snobby art world tends to dismiss hyperrealism, most artists can’t do it. Catalina has that talent. Far more difficult for her has been mastering the public-commission process. “I’m not getting used to speaking in front of people, so this bid’s not going to be easy,” she says.
But when she asks the juvie girls what’s inside of them, it’s the right question: The room gets quiet, and a taller black girl with short braids going every which way and glasses magnifying perceptive eyes just starts talking. She tells the group about her most memorable dream: “I was on a mountaintop but I was still wearing these clothes, yet I was free. I knew I was free. I felt so good to be free. Then I woke up back in here. And it was horrible.
“If you could open me up and look inside me,” Ms. Braids says, making eye contact with each artist in turn, “you’d see despair. And sadness. Hopelessness and fear. Pain and doubtfulness and just questions about, ‘How are you going to go on?'”
Down the halls, keys jangle and doors slam. Tears pool in a few pairs of eyes.
“Now I have a question for you,” Ms. Braids says. “How many a you been locked up?”
Sideways looks. Slowly, some hands rise. The artists laugh hesitantly.
Ms. Braids has a point. Artists always ask, “What do bureaucrats know about art?” But what do Oakland’s muralists, even its edgiest ones, really know about incarceration?
“You been in?” She points to eager hand-raiser John Werley.
“Yeah, I taught in a juvenile hall, and …” he starts.
“No, I mean locked up. Arrested. Handcuffed. You?”
She looks at Galvez, who still has his hand up.
“I was arrested for littering,” he says. “I tried to leave some paint under a freeway underpass and someone got my license plate number and they got me. I was held for a few hours. It was really embarrassing.”
Ms. Braids nods.
One of the finalists for the lobby tile tells the room he was held for six months for going AWOL during the Vietnam War.
Keba and the other younger artists volunteer nothing, but later confess their sins privately. Without going into details, Keba concedes he has been in both San Francisco’s juvenile hall and adult jail. Isis was once cuffed for reckless driving. Catalina was briefly held for shoplifting. Tim doesn’t cop to anything.
All four muralists seem concerned about how their records might play before the various art panels. “It’s funny,” Tim says. “[The kids are] in there telling us what they think we want to hear so we can work on proposals telling another board what we think they’ll want to hear.”
The only mural finalist who answers the girl’s question is diminutive Miranda Bergman, an Oakland public-school teacher and member of this crew’s old guard. “When I was younger, I lost my mother and I went down a bad path for a while,” she says. “I stole a car and got picked up in a parking garage. I did several weeks. When I was older, I started getting arrested for political things like equal rights and equity.”
Ms. Braids nods approval and is thanked for her questions. The girls file out just as the boys did.
After the group breaks up, Miranda chats with Catalina. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do whatever we want?” Miranda asks.
“Yeah. It’s always: ‘Paint transportation. Paint naked women.'”
“I just want to paint.”
One of the last public projects Catalina “just got to paint” was a five-by-five-foot section of a Mission mural. Given the loose theme of “the artist’s burden,” she created a haunting scene starring a rainbow-haired Native American woman hunching over, knees buckling and arms spread wide like Jesus bearing the cross.
One of her hands holds a colorful painter’s palette, while the other steadies the load on her back consisting of an evil, dead tree and Cyclops cloaked in black. The Cyclops is gesturing with both hands — one granting the Artist permission to move forward, the other ordering her to her knees.