In the Mix

Sculpt Local, Impact Global

Oakland Artists on a Monumental Roll

    To say 2005 was a big year for Jonah Hendrickson is an understatement. “It was insane,” says the 32-year-old Oakland sculptor. “Over a nine-month period, we went from zero commissions to three. We were suddenly refining contracts for three major sculptural commissions worth roughly $1 million. It was remarkable.”
    There is more than a little incredulity in Hendrickson’s tone when he talks about the DFH Sculpture Group success phenomenon. He is the “H” in the three-initial name that includes master sculptor Eugene Daub, 65, from Southern California, and Berkeley-based historian and entrepreneur-turned-sculptor Rob Firmin, 58. In 2005, the trio “tossed a hat in the ring” when it entered a University of Virginia public sculpture contest. The best proposal would win a contract to sculpt Thomas Jefferson. By the time the three learned they’d won, they had re-tossed the hat, twice—for a Utah state capitol monument and a “Salute the Military” commemorative sculpture for San Diego. They got these, too.
    Fast-forward to 2008 and several wins later. In their rented 2,000-square-foot production studio in Oakland, where they get the work ready to be cast in bronze, the three are putting the finishing touches to a commemorative sculpture to honor the late gay rights activist and San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, assassinated in 1978. Their proposal was chosen after a nationwide call for entries. The work will go on permanent exhibition in San Francisco City Hall. The target date for the public unveiling is May 22.
    DFH took shape after Hendrickson set up formal figure sculpting, painting and drawing classes in his Berkeley studio. Rob Firmin signed up for a class, and he and Hendrickson clicked. Later, while attending a class together in San Francisco, they learned that artists were often invited to submit proposals and compete for large and important national sculptural projects. At the time, the Thomas Jefferson commission was up for grabs. They invited Daub, who had run a workshop at Hendrickson’s studio, to join them, and DFH was born. Pooling their talents, they have found a niche that speaks to history and ideals. “The sum of what each of us could do was multiplied many times over when we started working together,” says Hendrickson. They’ve come a long way in three short years. Seems they need to sculpt a tribute to themselves.
    DFH Sculpture Group,
—By Wanda Hennig
—Photography by DFH Sculpture Group


Classical Wiz Mason Bates Doubles as a Techno DJ

    You won’t find Oakland composer Mason Bates’ music in your local record store. Yet, the 30-year-old musician’s résumé already eclipses those of older, more-seasoned veterans of contemporary classical and pop music. Bates received his first orchestra commission when he was a high school sophomore in Richmond, Va.; he has performed his concerto for synthesizer with the Atlanta and Phoenix symphonies; he has won both the Rome Prize and the American Academy in Berlin Prize; and he made his Carnegie Hall debut this past February, playing live electronics with the National Symphony, which performed his Liquid Interface, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
    The 2001 Juilliard grad, who lived in New York City for six years, says he could do his work anywhere but that he and wife “fell in love with Oakland and the Bay Area.” Currently enrolled in a doctoral program at UC Berkeley’s CNMAT (Center for New Music and Audio Technologies), he was recently named the California Symphony’s composer-in-residence. His first work for the orchestra, the earthquake-inspired Music for Underground Spaces, premieres May 4 and 6 in Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, under the baton of the orchestra’s director, Barry Jekowsky.
    Bates leads a double life: By day he’s the adventurous classical composer; by night he slips into San Francisco clubs as Masonic, DJ and techno artist. “Those worlds didn’t intersect until I started writing electronics into my orchestra compositions,” Bates said recently over tea in a Peet’s near the 61st Street home he shares with his wife, Jamie Geier Bates, a ballerina-turned-Stanford biologist. Working local clubs like the Mezzanine is the easier task for Bates, who can just set up his gear and play. “When I’m performing in an orchestra—live electronics with a laptop and drum pad—it’s not like I’m a soloist,” he explains. “I’m an extension of the percussion section. And with orchestras, anything that requires an extension cord is controversial.”
    Hear samples of Mason Bates’ music at

—By Larry Kelp
—Photography by Max Lautenschlaeger


New Releases from East Bay Authors and Musicians

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
(The Penguin Press, 2008, 244 pp., $21.95)
    UC Berkeley journalism professor and best-selling author Michael Pollan takes on nutritionism—arguing that food has come to be defined primarily by its nutrients—in his latest and fifth book, an outgrowth of a piece he originally wrote for The New York Times Magazine, which, long story short, instructed the masses to eat only what their grandmothers would have known and recognized as food. The rubber band neatly binding the simple cover image of a head of leaf lettuce says it all: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”

The Crazy School by Cornelia Read
(Grand Central Publishing, 2008, 326 pp., $23.99)
    In the second mystery novel from Berkeleyan Cornelia Read—a former contributor to Oakland Magazine on home and design topics—heroine and amateur sleuth Madeline Dare is back as a teacher at a rule-crazy boarding school in the Berkshires for misfit boys. She’s investigating a double murder in which she’s fingered as the main suspect. Read moves the whodunit along with fresh, frank language and memorable characters, creating a page-turner full of juicy secrets.

Under the Dragon, California’s New Culture by Lonny Shavelson and Fred Setterberg with photography by Lonny Shavelson
(Oakland Museum of California and Heyday Books, 2007, 159 pp., $24.95)
    Berkeley writer, photojournalist, radio journalist and ER doc Lonny Shalveson and Bay Area author and writer Fred Setterberg produce a visually surprising snapshot of Bay Area culture, capturing what Andrew Lam in the foreword terms “California moments.” Dancing rabbis at Oakland City Hall, men praying at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, shrines at Mountain View Cemetery—it’s all here. The book was published in conjunction with Trading Traditions: California’s New Culture, an exhibit of the photos—with the added feature of sound—that’s on display at the Oakland Museum of California through April 6.

Terrence Brewer, QuintEssential: The Calling: Volume Three
(Strong Brew Music,
    Alameda jazz treasure Brewer follows up his 2006 debut CDs, The Calling: Volume One and Two, with nine original tracks in the solid bop and ballad pioneered by Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell and other giants of Brewer’s chosen ax: jazz guitar. Saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, pianist Ben Stolorow, bassist Ravi Abcarian and drummer Micah McClain augment the warmth and harmonic intrigue of this swinging session.

Howlin Rain, Magnificent Fiend
(Birdman/American Recordings,
    Raspy-throated Oakland guitarist Ethan Miller, who doubles in the acid-prog-rock band Comets on Fire, masterminds a second Howlin Rain collection of keyboard-supported, guitar-centric psychedelic rock—sometimes ferocious, sometimes dreamy—steeped in such ’70s precedents as Spirit, Steppenwolf and Blue Oyster Cult.
—By Judith M. Gallman and Derk Richardson

Soul Singers

Choirs Croon to Those Crossing the Great Divide

    The woman settling into the canvas recliner looks like she’s had a joyless day. She stares blankly at the ceiling as she is covered with a light quilt. The quilt-bearer, who has introduced herself as Kate Munger, then takes her place among the group seated in a circle facing the recliner. There’s a little chatting and some laughter. When Munger calls a song, the women rustle through pages of their music books. Then she gestures conductor-like and the singing starts.
    It’s about love and the spirit and life. They sing in unison; then harmonize in highs and lows. The voices rise and fall in gentle waves. Sitting among them, my tension drops away. Finally, Munger gestures for the song to end. The woman who has been sung to gets up. She’s smiling widely. “I feel like a peach pit in a jiggly bowl of cherry Jell-O,” she says, laughing as she returns to her place in the circle.
    Kate Munger is the founder of the Threshold Choir movement. Currently there are 51 choirs across the United States. The largest, with 100 members, is in Oakland, and 24 from this group are rehearsing in a hall near Lake Merritt this night.
    The choirs sing to people on the threshold between life and death. Usually they sing in groups of two or three in hospices, private homes, nursing homes and hospitals—to men, women and children who are dying. They sing where they are invited. They don’t charge a fee. “We’re distinctly spiritual but nondenominational and nonreligious,” says Munger.
    When they rehearse, members take turns being sung to, hence the recliner. On this night, a woman has written a song to her dog that just died. She takes a turn in the recliner and we all sing, in memory of the dog, to the tune of “A Bicycle Built for Two.” Munger’s choirs have sung to save whales from sonar testing. She will lead a group to Bali this year to sing at an elephant sanctuary.
    In 1990 Munger, now 58, sang for a friend who was dying. It was a spontaneous gesture. It felt so right and the friend responded so positively, Munger knew she was meant to do this in the world. During the next 10 years she became computer literate and learned how to write music. In 2000 she and 14 women who had learned, word of mouth, about her idea, met in El Cerrito. This grew to become the first—now Oakland-based—Threshold Choir. All but one woman still participates. Growth has been organic. People learn about the concept and they come. Any woman who can carry a tune and “feels a shiver down her back when she hears about the work” can join. At the start, Munger charged members a modest sliding-scale fee. Then two years ago, she says, “my inner guide told me to ask for donations,” which she requests be “generous and affordable.”
    Before the evening ends, Munger offers me the recliner. I smile as I hear the voices. I feel held and at peace. I hope they’re around when I’m at the threshold.
    To contact Kate Munger, call (415) 669-1413 or visit
—By Wanda Hennig
—Photography by Jan Stürmann


Hangin' Around

    Those hangers in your closet and on the racks at local retailers are part of a growing environmental nightmare.
    More and more are produced and sold annually, and more and more wind up in dumps because wire- or plastic-based hangers can’t be recycled easily, if at all. Once they hit the dump, they’re there for 100 and 1,000 years, respectively, says Gary Barker, a local industrial product designer who wants to turn traditional hanger manufacturing on its head.
    Barker is the president of GreenHeart Global Inc., a fledgling Oakland-based industrial product design firm dabbling in the green economy with a “reverse-engineering perspective” that has produced a 100 percent recyclable, environmentally friendly hanger alternative, Ditto Hangers. GreenHeart set up shop on East 18th Street (and in Hong Kong) in June 2007 and launched its hangers in November, targeting retail-clothing companies, nontoxic dry cleaners and the green hospitality industry as primary clients, though general consumers are in the sights.
    GreenHeart makes two basic hangers: one from 80 percent to 100 percent post-consumer waste paper with vegetable inks and enviro-friendly adhesives; the other from 100 percent polyethylene terephthalate plastic, or PET plastic. GreenHeart follows a business-to-business bulk sales model, striving to keep hangers in use, not in landfills.
    “Wire hangers are pretty much the symbol of hanger waste. We’re interested in changing the culture of these wire hangers,” Barker says, noting 8 billion to 10 billion un-recyclable plastic/wire hangers and 3.5 million wire hangers end up in dumps where the culprits long linger and can leach dangerous chemicals into the ground water.
    So far, so good, Barker says of interest in the hangers. “We got a call from a staffer for the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, for hangers for the House dry cleaning,” Barker says. “We’re waiting to hear back, but we’d be thrilled to death about that.”
    To find out more about Ditto Hangers, visit or call (510) 261-7383.
—By Judith M. Gallman


Vin Jackets: The Latest from Platinum Dirt

    Dustin Page is one of those guys with a lot of cool ideas—and a unique sense of style.
    So the two-watch-wearing, Adams Point–based digital artist and proprietor of the Platinum Dirt design label has combined both traits to come up with one of the coolest fashion products on the scene: VIN Jackets.
    That’s VIN, as in vehicle identification number: Each jacket is crafted from leather seats recycled from junked cars, mostly Cadillacs and Lincolns from the ’60s through the ’90s. The actual VIN is sewn prominently into each jacket; the hood ornament of the car that yielded the leather serves as the zipper pull.
    “What gets people is the zipper pull. It’s kind of blingy,” says the 39-year-old Page. “They fall out over it! All of a sudden you’re wearing a piece of history. It is history. Who knows what went down on these seats.”
    Page, who works a day job at a San Francisco advertising agency, admits it was a “stoner” moment that led to his invention, which has turned into a boxy, loose ’70s-inspired creation more akin to the stiff, protective garments worn by motorcyclists than the buttery, supple stuff of high fashion. Page was tooling around in his old, “beat up”  Volvo when its distressed, character-filled leather interior produced the eureka moment.
    He was soon humping it to local salvage yards in search of prime cowhide. The first harvest took a nightmarish five hours, but the onetime mechanical engineering student now has it down to about an hour per car. Then it was home to his basement studio, deconstructing a favorite jacket, customizing a pattern and piecing some parts together with his newly purchased industrial sewing machine (which augments the screen-printing equipment for his Platinum Dirt T-shirts). Page hires a seamstress to stitch the final VIN jackets, which are lined with stylish brocade. He’s courting retailers, but for now, he sells them via his Web site and directly: “Just call me. That’s the quickest way to make this happen,” he says. Even at $1,200 direct, they’re pricey; they’ll retail for $2,000.
    “It’s a no-brainer. No one can believe nobody’s ever done it.” Page says, adding that even his mother, a frequent skeptic of his out-there, too-cool ideas thinks maybe this time he’s onto something.
    For more on Platinum Dirt VIN Jackets, visit, e-mail or call their creator, Dustin Page, (510) 717-1675.
—By Judith M. Gallman
—Photography by Craig Merrill

You're an Oaklander If ...

You bought 50-cent well drinks at Bertola's

    You also know the difference between Bertolli, as in Paul, the former Chez Panisse and Oliveto chef who pioneered the California-influenced fresh and upscale approach to regional Italian food, and Bertola, as in Louie, whose name is still on an old-school spaghetti-and-steak joint in Martinez. The Oakland original, a longtime fixture in the Telegraph Avenue–meets–Shattuck Avenue triangle, was the place for Oaklanders and Cal students on a budget to scarf up inexpensive ravioli, drenched in basic red sauce, and splash down cheap cocktails and house wine by the carafe. Just reading the name should conjure images of red-checked tablecloths, menus printed on paper placemats, polo-shirt-clad waitresses as crusty as the garlic bread and, perhaps, bouts of indigestion that always seemed worth the bargain prices.
—By Derk Richardson

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