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Oakland’s Hidden Gem

The New Studio One   

    It’s a Tuesday evening at Studio One in Oakland’s Temescal District, and six students—whose ages span three generations—sit attentively at electric potter’s wheels. Instructor Blanka Soltys explains how to set the rotation: counter-clockwise for righties, clockwise for lefties. The students gingerly toe the pedals, and the wheels whisper to life. “These are like Priuses!” one exclaims.
    The new wheels and well-lit ceramics studio are part of a $12.7 million, four-year renovation of the historic community arts center on 45th Street. Built as an orphanage by the Ladies’ Home Relief Society in 1894, it was converted to an arts education center 55 years later after a philanthropic young neighborhood lawyer purchased the simple U-shaped building and donated it to the city.
    In the decades since, it’s been a haven for thousands of artistically curious Oaklanders, who have learned to slump glass, cast jewelry, throw pots, print photos, sculpt, paint and act, among other things. Many have stayed on for years; for more than a few students, a single class has ignited a lifelong passion or even a career change.
    “This is a sacred space, because of its history, and it has a special energy,” says glasswork instructor Harlan Simon, who abandoned his career as a trial lawyer a decade ago after taking a Studio One class and becoming enthralled by a batch of tiny glass beads. Now, rather than writing legal briefs, he makes and sells his jewel-like creations and shares his skills.
    The glass studio’s new spot ventilation system—a tangle of flared pipes resembling the brass section in a Dr. Suessian marching band—lets Simon safely teach lampworking, which employs small torches to make beads. Before, he relied on a jury-rigged series of fans.
    He wasn’t the only instructor just making do. By the late 1990s, Studio One was in need of some serious TLC. The masonry building was so seismically unsafe that a sign at the entry warned people to enter at their own risk. With the arts center facing closure, a community group called Friends of Studio One came together to save it. Its members raised money, worked to get the building on the historic register and asked Councilmember Jane Brunner to include funding for the makeover in Measure DD, a 2002 parks bond measure. The $12 million from the bond was the facility’s big break. Brunner’s office kicked in another $200,000 for furnishings; the state passed down $500,000; and an energy-efficient design plan brought in $50,000 more in grants.
    Then came the tough part: coming up with a design that could accommodate the myriad uses—plus new ones like a digital studio—on budget and within the original 25,000-square-foot structure. “The challenge was how to think outside the box while staying within the box,” says lead architect Harish Shah, who specializes in historic renovations and counts this among his toughest yet. “There was so much emotion around this building and what it stood for, and so much needed to be done.”
    In the end, the entire interior had to be gutted and reconfigured. A new elevator makes the second floor more accessible. State-of-the-art equipment includes a $27,000 front-loading kiln and new electric kilns for the glass, jewelry and ceramics programs. A new kitchen opens onto a spacious community room—available to rent for meetings and parties—while a yellow-and-tan paint job preserves the historic exterior.
    The courtyard entry was also transformed to create a space for events and performances. An undulating lawn, flanked by swaths of Mexican feather grass, leads toward a bright orange canopy. Entry columns paneled with iridescent art glass light the path to the door. “I was skeptical that the city could do it, but it’s really beautiful,” says longtime student Zipporah Collins.
    Inevitably, some charms were sacrificed in the transformation from funky to user-friendly. One student was nostalgic for the well-worn wood floors, where children scampered at the turn-of-the-century. Another missed large trees—victims of disease. The theater department gave up the most, moving from an entire upstairs wing with ample costume storage to a more modest space with lower ceilings.
    The sharpest criticism has come from those who say the city’s Office of Parks and Recreation—which runs the center—missed the boat on marketing the center. The building had been closed for four years, with some classes being held downtown at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts. Though Studio One opened in May 2008 for limited programs and began full operations in the fall, students have trickled in slowly, leading to many cancelled classes. Several students said they hadn’t realized the center had reopened. Prices have also increased substantially. “There was virtually no outreach to the public or schools, and the class schedule is so graphically challenged that it’s embarrassing,” says Karen Hester, a former Friends of Studio One board member, after the center’s rocky start last fall. “This facility is such a valuable resource for the people of Oakland, there should be classes happening all day, every day.”
    Studio One director Kola Thomas admits the bureaucracy has been slow to work out the kinks. He agrees the center needs its own dedicated Web site—accessing the schedule now requires navigating through a series of links on the city’s site—and a financial aid program. The winter class schedule has been greatly improved, and a full glossy catalog will be out in the spring. Still needed is a corporate partnership to get the new digital studio up and running: Apple loaned high-end Macs for the grand opening, but took them back until the center can fork over $144,000 for equipment.
    Thomas also notes that Studio One is changing its focus a bit, adding a vocational element. It has always offered youth classes, but the largest demographic has been women aged 50 to 70. “A citywide bond measure paid for this, and we want to make sure it is accessible to the entire community—especially to youth—and not just to the neighborhood,” Thomas says, adding that a citywide advisory panel has recently been created. “We are concerned about violence prevention, and we want to work to bring in kids turned out by the justice system. No student who comes in will come out the same.”
    It’s certainly true that once patrons—and instructors—stumble upon Studio One, they’re often hooked. The scene in Blanka Soltys’ ceramics class shows why. Students watch mesmerized as Soltys slaps her clay on the wheel and leans over it, cupping her hands. “Wheel work is about balance,” she says, as the supple material ripples like water in her practiced hands. As if by magic, she shapes a mound, then a cylinder, and, as she deftly flares the rim and pushes out the belly, the shape of a classic vase appears. There is an appreciative silence.
    “You won’t try this tonight,” she tells her students. “If you come here for a year, every week, you could do things like this. To start, just work on centering.”
    For a full schedule, visit www.oaklandnet.com/parks/facilities/rc_studioone.asp.

—By Laura Counts
—Photography by Lane Hartwell

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