By Mario Hernandez
Gray Loft Gallery’s current exhibition, Jingletown Originals, celebrates four decades of making art at its Ford Street location in the Jingletown neighborhood from Sept 24th to Oct. 29th. As the first live-work space for artists in the neighborhood, the exhibition brings together the work of 20 artists ranging from current residents such as Dorie Meister and Sue Matthews, to the works of those dating back to the original four artists that established the space, such as Stacey Mackey and Michael Stewart. The exhibition offers a broad array of emerging, mid-career and established artists ranging in mediums from paintings to photography, glass art, sculptures and jewelry art. The collection captures the diverse array of artists that have occupied and made art in the space. The exhibit is a must see for art lovers and local historians as it captures the distinctive and flourishing art scene in Jingletown, an area with a rich history of Oakland and the creative art scene.
Located at 2889 Ford Street, the history of Gray Loft is woven into the history of Oakland. Part of the Fruitvale neighborhood once known for fruit orchards before the 1906 earthquake that brought waves of new residents, Jingletown would see rapid development with the establishment of a transcontinental railroad and later with the war effort. Though Jingletown is known as an artists community today, for much of the 20th century this area was at the center of Oakland’s manufacturing sector, with industries ranging from tanneries, boot and shoe factories, saw and flour mills, canning companies, machine shops and foundries. As with Gray Loft’s converted warehouse, the industrial spaces that predominate the area once served as a vital source of employment for large national producers such as the canning companies of Del Monte and is just blocks away from California Cotton Mill, once the largest cotton mills west of Chicago for a time.
De-industrialization and policies of Urban Renewal would dramatically change urban landscapes around the country in the mid to late 20th century. This history is etched into Jingletown and would eventually set the stage for Gray Loft and other artists nestling in the area. As waves of industries began closing during the era of post war recession, freeway construction would often be planned directly through neighborhoods deemed ‘blighted’. The Nimitz Freeway, which today cuts Jingletown off from the rest of Fruitvale and presses the neighborhood against the Oakland estuary, began as just such a construction project and would run directly through the California Mill. By the late 60s, as Jingletown became predominantly Chicano and Latino due to policies of urban renewal displacing residents from neighborhoring West Oakland. Though crippled by gang violence and the crack epidemic in the late 1970s and early 80s, the neighborhood’s predominantly Portuguese, Black and Latino residents fought hard to preserve the community through residential rezoning in the face of corporations that were vying to convert the area for commercial use. It was through these efforts that set the stage for Jingletown’s massive award-winning redevelopment project that would create affordable housing and help revitalize the community.
During this time, Jingletown emerged as the center of the Chicano Movement and creative hub of the movement. By the late 60s and early 70s, The Mexican American Liberation Art Front (MALAF) founded by such artists as Malaquis Montoya, created the visual representations of movements ranging from the UFW grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez, to Third World Liberation Front’s strike at U.C. Berkeley.
In 1982, Michael, Stacey, Jerry and Peggy (JMSP) wanted to create a building to live and work in and a landlord in Jingletown liked the idea of renting to artists. Though no such space had existed in the neighborhood before, many of the abandoned warehouses in the area nearby were being converted into art spaces. Some would become renowned art spaces such as Dutch Boy, Macaroni Factory and the Oakland Cannery. On a “shoestring budget”, the four went to work renovating the space. As experienced contractors, they did much of the tireless work clearing out the space, creating subdivisions, installing plumbing and electricity and finishing the floors. Josh Greenberg, an artist in the Jingletown Originals show, remembers being hired by Jerry Sisco to renovate the space which was full of foundry materials as the first artists were moving in. He would also move in, 5 years later. As Gray Loft puts it today, “in addition to carving physical spaces in which to work, artist communities forge relationships that encourage the commitment needed to make art.” One can’t help but to think of these artists carving out a space to make art out of an otherwise abandoned and dilapidated warehouse. In this way, the space itself is as much a part of the exhibition as the art.
One of the early artists in the space and part of the Jingletown Originals exhibit, Lynn McGreever, remembers “walking her dog at night through the streets was an eerie but beautiful sight, with dark, deserted streets and huge warehouses pouring liquid metal into enormous vats late into the night”. As well as having her resume and portfolio reviewed by a jury of artists and later moving into the Ford Street Loft building. She recounted her unforgettable welcome for Alameda Magazine:
“Our loft was on the fourth floor and there was no elevator. To move our heavy things in, we rigged up a pulley system to haul up our furniture. Our artist neighbors leaned out windows and cheered us on, helped us move, and invited us to a party in another loft space that evening,” she said. The loft she had leased was raw space with a rudimentary bathroom and kitchen. “Everything was old, rough, and filthy — but it was big,” McGeever said. With 16-foot ceilings and 2,000 open square feet of space, McGeever would roller skate while working on her paintings.
“For months”, the article states, “she and her husband worked to improve the space by sanding and painting floors, ceilings, and beams and installing a more functional kitchen. The first two winters were very cold and there was no heat, so the two dressed in down jackets, long underwear, and hats inside. When McGeever became pregnant, the couple was forced to figure out how to pay for and install a wall heater in the loft themselves.” Other artists in exhibition, such as Leslie Frierman Grunditz remembers the camaraderie of making art, impromptu gatherings and dance parties with Aretha Franklin booming in the air. Suzy Barnard, another Jingletown Original, remembers similar stories, as all part of “being young and living the dream”, in those early days.
As other art spaces began to move into the area, including the Institute for Mosaic Art (later Jingletown Art Studios), Ford Street Studios, 4/20 gallery (now closed), Factory 44 West, Apples and Oranges (now closed) and others, Jingletown began to take on an identity as artists community district. Artists began cleaning up the neighborhood and hosting winter art walks and open studio events to build community among residents and all of the artists working in the area. In order to draw more attention to the area, they used the name Jingletown to promote the area. The term has historical reference to Fruitvale’s pastoral roots when cows were herded through the jingling of bells and to early Portuguese immigrants whose change used to jingle in their pockets as a sign of prosperity. Victims of their own success, Gentrification has made it so that many artists have had to leave the area. Still, spaces like Ford Street Studios and Gray Loft endure.
Though 2889 Ford had historically only been a space for live-work studios to that point, In 2011, Jan Watten, former partner of Michael Stewart who had helped renovate the space since its inception, thought of turning the space into a gallery to show art. Inspired by her close friend, Karyn Yandow (whose work is also on display in the current exhibit), who Jan recounts as inciting her by saying “SO DO IT, JAN! DO IT!!”, she would go on to just that, beginning with her first show in February of the following year called the Love Show. Watten, who grew up in Oakland but spent 13 years of her life in Taiwan when she was growing up, remembers her mom’s gallery in Taipei (The Art Guild) which showed modern Chinese Art as inspiration. Jan, an accomplished photographer in her own right, has also been the curator of Gray Loft for over a decade. Apart from the color of the building’s facade, Watten has also described the more symbolic significance of the name. “Gray is also symbolic and neutral. It’s a neutral environment for lots of different kinds of art”. Indeed, she curates 4 to 5 shows a year and the themes range as much as the artistic mediums from sculpture, photography to paintings and abstract work (as can be seen in Jingletown Originals). The self-described mission of the gallery is to promote artists in a non-traditional gallery model and one can see that she is doing exactly that. From past exhibitions such as Art of the African Diaspora and Night Vision, by guest curator Issac Jasper Amala, you can see the diverse range of voices and artistic styles that are represented at the space. It is for good reason that Gray Loft Gallery was chosen as readers’ choice best gallery in 2016, 2017 and 2021 by Oakland Magazine.
After 10 years as a gallery, Jingletown Originals celebrates the work of 20 artists who have lived in or currently reside at 2889 Ford Street. Though some have since passed away, such as Russ Osterweil, Amy Sollins, Karyn Yandow, Susan Parish and Michael Stewart, their art casts a lasting imprint of who they were and what they cherished most. The exhibit captures the wide array of artistic voices that have inhabited and found inspiration in the space. Gray Loft is also a testament to what Rene de Guzman of the Oakland Museum of California must have had in mind when he remarked that Oakland serves as the creative engine of the Bay Area. After four decades since its inception as a sanctuary for artists, Gray Loft Gallery celebrates the art, community and bonds that have been forged at 2889 Ford Street. Participating artists include Suzy Barnard, Daniel Baum, Ruth Boerefyn, Betty Jo Costanzo, Barbara Cushman, Josh Greenberg, Ake Grunditz, Leslie Frierman Grunditz, Kyung Lee, Stacey Mackey, Sue Matthews, Lynn McGeever, Dorie Meister, Susan Parish, Russ Osterweil, Amy Sollins, Michael Stewart, Styrous, Andrea Voinot, Emilie Watten, Jan Watten, Tom White, Karyn Yandow.
Mario Hernandez is an assistant professor and Fletcher Jones program chair of Sociology in the Department of Social and Historical Studies at Mills College at Northeastern University. Hernandez is an urban sociologist who specializes in the study of gentrification. His book, Bushwick’s Bohemia: Art and Revitalization in Gentrifying Brooklyn, examines the proliferation of the creative art scene in the neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn, New York within the context of neoliberal strategies of urban growth, including city branding. Dr. Hernandez’s research examines the increasing importance of creative industries to urban economies and the vital role of artists and art scenes in this process. Hernandez is born and raised in the Bay Area, and currently resides in Oakland.
- 2889 Ford Street; Photo by Jan Watten
- JMSP 2889 Ford Street, 1982; Photo by Jan Watten
- MALAF Anti Vietnam War Poster; Information and Image from LocalWiki
- Jan Watten, 1984; Courtesy of Gray Loft Gallery
- Artwork by Julia Nelson-Gal
- Artwork by Emilie Watten