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3 Out There Artists

Meet East Bay creatives embracing the fun, joyful side of fine art.


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The Bay Area has great sports teams, amazing restaurants, exciting nightlife, and unsurpassed natural beauty. But don’t let all that—and admittedly there’s a lot more—keep you from experiencing the area’s world-class art scene. It’s a rich vein of culture that tends toward the edgy, irreverent, sexy, and fun. It’s mind awakening, without the psychedelics. Need proof? Here are three East Bay artists you shouldn’t miss.


 

Jeff Meadows

1. Kristin Farr

Richmond / Mixed Media
Ask the Pennsylvania Dutch why they decorate their barns with hex signs—typically stars in circles—and they’ll often say, “Just for nice,” which in their dialect becomes, “Chust for nice.”

It’s a phrase that resonates with Richmond-based artist Kristin Farr, who started using hex signs in her work two years ago. “I like the idea of making people happy,” she explains.

“Just for nice” is also a good way to describe Farr’s art. Rather than being political, serious, or moody, it’s colorful, upbeat, and fun.

Since graduating from San Francisco State University seven years ago, Farr has sewed together dresses from the “skins” of stuffed toy animals, made “hug chairs” with long upholstered arms that wrap around the occupant, painted colorful mountains of interlocking diamonds, and most recently, created scores of neon-colored hex signs on hexagonal canvases, which she likes to hang together on walls to form large mosaics.

Kristin FarrFarr, who works as a KQED video producer, has always had a strong presence on social media, posting her work on Flickr and Instagram. But last year, she pushed her art even further into the digital world with the release of her Farr Out app for iPhone and iPad.

The app allows users to add her colorful designs—along with clip art animals—to their own photos or, alternatively, to create their own Farr Out collages. Since its release last June, the app has been downloaded more than 20,000 times, and thousands of people have posted their Farr Out creations on Instagram and Twitter.

The app is free, so Farr doesn’t make a cent from it. But that doesn’t bother her. She likes interacting online with Farr Out users and is delighted to have found a new way to share her work.

“When you have a gallery show, there are just a handful of people from the area who are going to see it,” she says. “But with an app, it’s like you have a gallery on every corner.”

Where to view: Bedford Gallery, New Neon: Light, Paint & Photography, through February 23. Online at kristinfarr.com.
 


 

Laurie Lazer

2. Walter Kitundu

Oakland / Sound Art
Most of the hip-hop DJs of the 1990s were content to play their turntables like electronic washboards—one hand on the stylus, the other on the record, skipping and scratching along with the beat.

But Walter Kitundu wanted more. A young DJ and fledgling artist in Minneapolis, he was envious of guitarists and other musicians who could “pluck a string and produce a note.”

On a whim, Kitundu pressed an empty peanut can against a turntable stylus and tapped it with a chopstick. Out came a bell-like tone that, Kitundu says, “opened up a new world of musical options.”

Kitundu—who was born in Minnesota, spent his early years in Tanzania, and now lives in North Oakland—has been exploring those options ever since. After his peanut can experiment in the late 1990s, he invented a new category of musical instrument, the “phonoharp,” which is basically a stringed instrument that uses a turntable as a sounding board. This led to performing at Carnegie Hall, designing instruments for the renowned Kronos Quartet, and winning a much-coveted MacArthur “genius” grant.

“Out came a bell-like tone that, Kitundu says, ‘opened up a new world of musical options.’”

After the phonoharp, Kitundu started designing instruments powered by natural forces: wind, fire, and water. On commission for the Headlands Center for the Arts, he built a wave-powered instrument the size of a VW bug. Pushed into the surf, it played briefly, before a big wave tore out its waterwheel.

Donald SwearingenLater, he created a musical pigeon coop in a gallery in San Francisco. The pigeons only showed up for one hour a day, so the coop was usually silent. That might have bothered other artists, but not Kitundu. He liked the idea that you had to be patient, that things happen in their own time.

Along those lines, he designed an earthquake-powered instrument that won’t play a note until the arrival of the next Big One.

If you’re a frequent flier, you’ve probably seen Kitundu’s mural at San Francisco International Airport. It’s in Terminal 2, past the security checkpoint. It’s a bunch of birds flying and perching in front of a backdrop of the San Francisco Bay.

You may not have noticed if you were rushing, but a pair of mallets hangs from the canvas. You can use the mallets to play the wings of the oversized golden-crowned sparrow in the center of the mural. The bird’s wings are xylophone tines tuned to the song of the sparrow.

And all this from a peanut can pushed against a stylus.

Where to view: Kitundu show at the Bolinas Museum. Online at kitundu.com.
 


 

Betty Bailey

3. Clayton Bailey

Port Costa / Sculpture
“My best ideas,”says acclaimed artist Clayton Bailey, “are the ones that made me laugh when I thought of them.”

In that case, Bailey must have done a lot of laughing over the last 55 years. Consider some of his creations ...

Marilyn Monrobot is an aluminum robot with an office-lamp brassiere and lightbulb nipples, which was once exiled as too provocative from a show at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Bailey calls her “the world’s most beautiful lady robot.”

Burping Bust With Jumping Hair is a ceramic sculpture of a goofy guy with a gastric condition that causes him to burp convulsively, each time tossing his green hair into the air.

Dr. George Gladstone (Bailey’s ceramic alter ego) is the not-so-famous discoverer of “Kaolithic fossil” remains in and around the town of Port Costa, where Bailey lives. Amazingly, Gladstone found a fully intact Big Foot skeleton right in Bailey’s back yard. The huge fossil included a three-jointed penile bone, which could make a complete U-turn during mating. Dr. Gladstone described this as “nature’s own birth control method,” and said it accounted for the species’ unfortunate scarcity.

“My best ideas are the ones that made me laugh when I thought about them.”

Betty BaileyAnd that’s just scratching the surface. Since Bailey started throwing pots in 1958, he has produced a vast body of celebrated work that has made him a leading figure in contemporary American ceramics and the West Coast’s Funk Art movement.

It used to be you had to wait for one of Bailey’s infrequent shows—his last big one was at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum in 2011—to get the full flavor of his technical brilliance, wicked humor, and social satire. But now, you only have to drive over to Crockett on any Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and visit the new Bailey Art Museum. There, you will find a wide selection of Bailey’s work, including Dr. Gladstone’s Weird Science Laboratory, many of his famous ceramic pots and sculptures, and a roomful of personable robots, including Marilyn Monrobot.

While you are there, you are likely to see a gray-haired man with a long mustache curling down to mid-chest. Ask him who he is, and he’s likely to tell you he’s the janitor. But, of course, he’s Clayton Bailey.

Where to view: Bailey Art Museum, 325 Rolph Ave., Crockett, Saturdays and Sundays 1–5 p.m. Online at claytonbailey.com.

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