News & Views
I am speeding down Fruitvale Avenue, across International Boulevard, when I spy two large yellow metal towers poking through the gloom on the horizon, the Fruitvale Bridge.
If I make a beeline for it and the drawbridge is down it will take me over to Alameda, land of laughing children kicking soccer balls on soft grass and hand-holding couples taking slow strolls along the sandy beach with charming views of the San Francisco skyline. If the drawbridge is up, however, I am left to my hometown Oakland, surrounded by factories, empty train tracks and barbed wire fences. It’s an easy choice: I’ll take Oakland. Besides, I’m a block from the city’s artistic soul, Jingletown.
I pull a hard right onto East Seventh, jump the tracks and roll past little Victorian houses nestled between trucks and sliding fences and parking lots with pallets stacked high. A left turn onto Peterson brings me to a sudden explosion of color on an incredible block-long wall of murals and mosaics with a landscaped garden path running alongside. A mosaic raccoon peers out happily atop his trash throne and a glistening oak tree spreads its branches in a warm embrace.
Oakland artist Kim Larson designed the centerpiece, a stunning mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe, surrounding by a flash of light and shooting stars. Larson describes the project as “A coming-together of the neighborhood artists,” and adds, “That wall was a big place for gangs to tag, leave garbage and burning cars etc. So the neighborhood decided to reclaim it.” Cynthia Elliot, the neighborhood activist who made the project happen, adds, “It was also a homeless campground, dump site and dead dogs were dumped there after they lost a fight.”
Now people visit the wall to leave offerings for the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Welcome to Jingletown, arguably Oakland’s coolest neighborhood. Local legend has it that Jingletown was named after the sound of coins in the pockets of the Portuguese cannery workers who used to stroll these streets before the factories went bust. Since the 1980s these warehouses have been converted into live work spaces for the many artists who have flocked to this groovy neighborhood, though it’s a safe guess the jangle these days comes less from pockets full of coins and more from the buckets of tile or gem or pieces of rescued iron of hard-working artists.
Like many newbies, I first entered Jingletown two blocks from here, through the purple portal of the Institute of Mosaic Art, which, according to visitoakland.org, is the largest mosaic education center in the country, offering a wide range of classes and workshops. I’m not cool enough to have found Jingletown on my own. My wife brought me here about five years ago after her world was rocked by a community mosaic workshop at the IMA. I remember feeling lost in a fog of warehouses when suddenly a sparkling mosaic castle appeared, then huge flowers with hidden faces, all on purple walls, the work of IMA’s founder, Laurel True (now moved on to New Orleans).
Celeste Howell, the current Director of the IMA, says the mosaic movement has grown not just locally but nationally since they opened their doors in 2005. “We were one of two places in the country but now once people learn it, they are teaching it out of their studios. It has definitely grown.” We sit a long white table in a casual studio with orange walls and dangling disco balls, between a shop full of tools, books and supplies and a backyard courtyard, filled with beautiful mosaic sculptures. Outside and in, classes are offered such as “Mosaics 101,” “Tempered Glass Mosaics,” and “Community Mosaic Projects.”
Howell says the mosaic movement has weathered the recession remarkably well, in part, because of its DIY spirit. “One of the things is that people are not taking the extended vacations or buying that new car or completely redeveloping the new house, but they are doing things for themselves. People continue to take classes because they want to learn it themselves: do that backsplash instead of hiring someone else to do it.”
I leave the purple palace and explore Jingletown a bit more. Just past the immense Ford Street Studios, a small sign announces “Automania – Appointment only” with beautiful metal work on the bars on the windows. A handsome rust colored small crane sits outside, like a faithful urban giraffe waiting for its owner. The more you look around Jingletown, the more art you discover: 4:20 Gallery, Apples and Oranges Gallery, live work lofts here, studios there ... This place is crawling with artists!
Let’s face it, Oakland is undergoing a city-wide artistic revolution. Uptown, the monthly Art Murmur is no longer just a thing, it’s a THANG: streets closed, party atmosphere, food trucks, movies, open studios and people literally dancing on the walls (See the stunning Bandaloop “vertical dance troop” if you get a chance. A colleague of mine said it was so beautiful he wept.). Downtown, huge murals are suddenly appearing on blank walls. Up in the hills in Montclair, large gray sidewalk planters are being transformed by local artist Gina Dominguez into gorgeous works of art; five are finished with 33 more to go. Dominguez is also the owner of the stylish and friendly shop, Snapshot Mosaics, which opened its doors around the same time as the Institute for Mosaic Art, offering supplies and classes as well as mosaic parties for kids and grown-ups.
Dominguez, who has been at it for 17 years, says of mosaic art in Oakland, “I think it’s gaining in popularity. Ten years ago people were thinking that it was coming to a peak, but I think it has just gotten stronger. You see more much of it popping up around the neighborhoods.” Dominguez is increasingly responsible for this pop-up art, not just in Montclair, but also in the Dimond District, my hood.
Leaving the car behind, I take a stroll down Fruitvale Avenue for a morning bun at La Farine Bakery. As I pass the Dimond Library, I step onto a gorgeous blue silver kite-shape mosaic embedded in the sidewalk, about two big steps long and two wide. In the center, a rainbow trout flips its way down a stream and the four corners point the wanderer towards four destinations: Chabot Space & Science Center up there, Sequoia Elementary over there, Sausal Creek off to that side and Dimond Business District straight ahead.
As I approach the roar of MacArthur Boulevard, I find another hidden mosaic, this one featuring a heron, also pointing me towards four destinations. There are five such hidden jewels in the Dimond, called “wayfinding” mosaics by Jean Quan, who helped fund the project when she was a councilmember. They are also designed by Gina Dominguez.
Munching on a fresh pastry, I take the advice of that first wayfinding mosaic and head a couple blocks up to Sequoia Elementary. Starting on Lincoln Avenue and wrapping around for the equivalent of an entire city block, is one long mosaic wall, overseen by local artist (she lives a block away) Debbie Koppman, who is also the artist-in-residence at Sequoia Elementary. Koppman, who along with artist Mandy Lockwood also created a large community mural on the side of nearby Farmer Joe’s market, clearly did not have issues of control when working on this immense wall. She proudly points out, “All the kids in the school have participated, a lot of the parents and all of the teachers.” Both projects have convinced Koppman of one thing. “Oh my god, I’m in love with community art!”
Where did she get the bug? A community mosaic workshop at the IMA in Jingletown.
Are you getting the Jingletown bug yet? Would you like to see what’s going at the heart of Oakland’s art scene?
It so happens, this weekend - Dec. 1-2 - the Jingletown Arts and Business Community will host the Seventh Annual Jingletown Art Walk. According to the JABC web site, a record 35 artists have already signed up to throw open the doors of their studios and give us a rare peek into their strange and mysterious lives. In addition there will be a parade and food trucks. So, rest your eyeballs all week and do your neck exercises. Then come to Jingletown this weekend, fully prepared to revel in and gawk at the urban, gritty awesomeness of Oakland’s artistic soul.