“It’s an epic adventure about a boy trapped in a telephone booth that has somehow been sealed in concrete. Using the items in his pockets — three coins, a dictionary, a pen, and forty feet of dental floss — he has to execute an escape plan before the air runs out!”
Jason Shiga isn’t talking about the latest Hollywood adventure-escape thriller, but rather his latest minicomic project. Shiga, who lives in Oakland, is one of almost one hundred local zine and comic artists featured in the Richmond Art Center’s Scenes and Zines exhibition (April 16-May 31, 2540 Barrett Ave., Richmond), sponsored by KALX, UC Berkeley’s radio station.
The Art Center’s exhibition space has been converted into a giant living room. Visitors can kick off their shoes, plant themselves on couches, and spend the afternoon leafing through the art. They’ll realize pretty quickly, say curators Amy Stimmel and Karen Switzer, that the days of flower-power Fillmore-poster aesthetics — still the malingering stereotype of Bay Area graphic design — are long gone.
Most zines and minicomics are one-person operations and make do with relatively limited, grassroots-type distribution through local stores and the Internet. Jason Shiga usually prints only about a hundred copies of his comics. So does Sugene, another Oakland zine artist who produces All This Is Mine in her spare time. She puts a lot of tender loving care into each copy — cutting and gluing numerous pop-ups, collages, found items, original prints, wallpaper samples, and stickers. “I don’t really know who my audience is, because I don’t get much feedback,” she says. “Sometimes I think about ending the whole zine thing because it feels like all that effort goes into a vacuum. But then I become obsessed with an idea for a new issue and I have to make one more!” Sugene’s boyfriend, by the way, is Matt Kelly of Cool Beans!, a well-established local zine that features a different theme and a compilation CD in each issue.
The “Scenes” half of the exhibit includes more than three hundred CDs and LPs from Bay Area record companies and designers who operate on the less commercial, more “indie” side of the music industry: Alternative Tentacles, Astropitch Inc., Hip Hop Slam, Adam McCauley, Galaxia, Jill Bliss, Arhoolie, and more. Many of them are freelance artists like Oakland’s Johnny Bartlett, who works by day at a high-tech consulting company and creates music packaging in his spare time for bands and record companies such as HighTone, Estrus, and Dionysus.
Bartlett is also in two local bands (the Saturn V featuring Orbit, and Chase Gowdy and his Rusty Nails), runs his own label, Hillsdale Records, and is married to zine-artist-cum-novelist Lynn Peril. All those connections have led to a lot of freelance business, he says, but graphic design is still an isolated activity; he’s never really gotten to know any other local designers who are involved in the indie music scene. For him, as for Jason Shiga and Sugene, Scenes and Zines will be a rare opportunity to connect with other artists who devote their spare time to these labors of love. And it will be a fabulous opportunity for the rest of us to get to know some of the art happening right in our own backyard, under the mainstream radar.