Made in Oakland

Made in Oakland

Hot Couture at the Crucible

Hot Couture at the Crucible. Photo: Heather Hryciw

In the East Bay, artists are working to make art visible, accessible, and economically viable.

This is how artists do fashion shows in Oakland: Live snakes. Live music. Stilt-walkers. Trampolines. Clothes featuring feathers, bones, antlers, LED lights, and metal. Acrobats and aerialists. And fire – so much fire. 

This was Hot Couture 2015, an annual “fusion of fashion and fire” held at the Crucible, an industrial arts space in West Oakland. The runway was filled with elaborate wearable pieces incorporating fire in quirky ways, complete with firefighter-models to put them out. Flaming whips were snapped and maneuvered while diligent fire safety team members hustled about; there were a couple of moments where runway-adjacent guests feared they might lose their eyebrows. 

The pieces were soulful, invigorating, and innovative, the atmosphere brimming with enthusiasm and energy – all terms that also describe the craft scene in Oakland. Here, artists are working to make their labors visible, to make art accessible, and to make craft economically viable. And the city has their back: Oakland’s newly elected mayor, Libby Schaaf, even included a “Made in Oakland” festival as part of a week of inauguration events.

Industrial arts 
West Oakland’s industrial roots run deep; the massive cranes at the Port of Oakland are probably the best-known aesthetic feature of this part of town. It’s no surprise, then, that West Oakland is home to the city’s industrial arts corridor, where active warehouses stand among those that are now artist spaces. Renowned sculptor Bruce Beasley has two blocks’ worth of studio space, archives, and a sculpture garden, which he recently bequeathed to the Oakland Museum of California. 

Just up the street from Beasley’s studio complex, the Crucible’s warehouse looms large, literally and figuratively: Its 56,000-square-foot space hosts classes from blacksmithing, ceramics, and glassblowing to – of course – fire performance. 

“You’ll find anybody and everybody inside the walls of this building at some point,” says Nick Fynn, former communications manager. 

Rents are rising with alarming speed and ferocity in the Bay Area. However, the Crucible works hard to boost the accessibility of the arts: The organization reserves 20 percent of its classes and summer camps for neighborhood youth who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Local families also know the Crucible for its regular Bike Fix-a-Thons, when neighborhood kids can bring in their broken bicycles and watch – and learn – as they’re repaired. The success of these programs has boosted demand for courses in frame building, restoration, and the craft of the custom art bike, says education director Kristy Alfieri. And it turns out to be a pretty cool way to interest kids in welding. 

Says Fynn: “In the big picture, we’re trying to talk about creativity as something that in and of itself is valuable; we want people to be creative here regardless of their economic background.” 

About a mile away, on Mandela Parkway, there’s another giant in Oakland’s industrial arts scene: American Steel Studios, whose cavernous space attracts metalworkers and other artists (especially those who work on a very, very large scale). 

Heart of craft 
Head north on Broadway and you’ll find California College of the Arts. Formerly known as California College of Arts and Crafts, it was founded in 1907 and with its San Francisco campus today enrolls some 2,000 students; its Oakland campus is home to programs in ceramics, glass, jewelry/metal arts, sculpture, and printmaking. 

The impact the school has had on contemporary craft is immeasurable: Ceramist Viola Frey taught there, as did glass artist Marvin Lipofsky, who founded the glass program in 1967. Ceramist Peter Voulkos and fiber artist Kay Sekimachi are among its prominent alumni, as is furniture maker (and Oakland icon) Garry Knox Bennett, whose workshop is near Jack London Square. 

Creativity overflows into the areas around the campus. Nearby Piedmont Avenue is full of appealing shops; visitors can browse home and garden goods at Neighbor, for example, or covet the jewelry at Lireille. 

Meet the makers 
Oaklanders love to gather for semi-organized community outings, and artists are increasingly taking the chance to show their wares and tell their stories. 

The nonprofit Oakland Art Murmur has been a major force in this arena, organizing a First Friday gallery walk with more than 40 participating galleries, from Uptown’s Creative Growth, an art center for adults with disabilities, to Old Oakland’s Marion & Rose’s Workshop, a small retail space with a well-curated selection of art and craft. The Art Murmur vibe depends a bit on which neighborhood you’re in, but in general, it’s a happy mix of artsy types, adventuring families, and party-seekers, all talking about art in a decidedly non-stuffy atmosphere. 

First Friday galleries are especially concentrated in Uptown, but there are clusters throughout the city, as well as related offshoots on other designated days. In East Oakland, for example, the Jingletown neighborhood has a 2nd Friday Art Walk, where participating galleries host receptions, demos, and live music. 

Hiroko Kurihara, a textile artist and founder of the 25th Street Collective in Uptown (known as 25C), notes that people are eager for connections to makers and to the meaning behind what they’re making. “Seeing the manufacturing is more alluring,” she says. “It gives people a connection to what they’re buying.” So even if First Friday isn’t always a great night for sales, Kurihara says, “I’m telling a lot of stories.” 

At the same time, Kurihara and 25C are working to create economic structures that allow artists to make a living from their work – and allow them to stay in Oakland, even as it grows more expensive. 

Another nonprofit, Oakland Makers, aims to bring together the city’s diverse artisans to celebrate their contributions, facilitate sharing tools and skills, and serve as “a centralized, supportive organization that can help weave together the group,” says Kurihara, also an Oakland Makers co-founder. When someone needs a CNC router or is looking for a partner to help share the cost of bulk fabrics, they have a one-stop way to do that. “It’s the No. 1 thing that people want: connections with other makers,” says Kurihara. 

The collaborative spirit driving Oakland’s art and craft scene feels urgent because of rising rents, but it also feels exciting – there’s a sense that there’s room to keep growing, instead of fears over competition or limited audience. 

“I feel like there’s a lot of respect for all the different sorts of art and artists that belong in the community, and I feel like that deep respect really helps cultivate this idea of collaboration,” says Alfieri. “What’s good for one is good for all of us.” 

Danielle Maestretti, a frequent contributor to American Craft, lives in Oakland.