In the Mix

They Are the Champions


    Mario Chiodo, when pressed, can come up with several defining events that led him to where he is now—creating Remember Them: Champions for Humanity, a grand contemporary work of art that will put a definitive “there” in Oakland, bring tourists, inspire and educate children and place the city on the international cultural and human rights map. The massive four-part sculpture will depict 25 culturally diverse global heroes—think Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, to name but two—who have made a difference during the past 150 years.
    Chiodo says he first realized he had some “peculiar talent” when he was “12 or 13” and was sent to a short-lived, experimental arts-focused school run by the city. “I hadn’t done well at regular school but took to this like a fish to water,” he says. Around the same time he saw an artist sculpting a head of President Lincoln on PBS. “I remember having an unbelievable desire to sculpt. The first time someone put a block of clay in front of me, I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do—something art- and sculpture-based.’”
He built a successful and lucrative career creating Halloween masks—a business he has since sold—and designing and executing exotic projects for casinos and other entertainment venues. Not surprisingly, but in striking contrast to his Champions project, the rooms and passageways in his Peralta Street warehouse studio are rich with attention-grabbing artifacts, such as a larger-than-life Egyptian mummy in the front office that is, in fact, a bar.
    Chiodo leads me to a room where I am awestruck by a perfectly proportioned, finely detailed model of the project. It depicts the seven continents and shows the 25 people he is including in the 50-foot-long, 21-foot-tall, four-part work that he is creating in another room. When completed, this monumental sculpture, with its Mount Rushmore–esque presence—the actualization of Chiodo’s longtime desire to bring people together and make a difference—will be cast in bronze and given a permanent home in a city park near the Fox Theater.
    Chiodo sees each of his 25 champions as a role model who changed the world for the better through a combination of strength, courage, integrity and compassion. Some, like Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller and Mother Teresa, are well-known; others like Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize–winner Shirin Ebadi and Oskar Schindler, the namesake of Steven Spielberg’s holocaust film Schindler’s List, are not exactly household names.
    One event that triggered the project, Chiodo says, took place at the Oakland Airport more than 20 years ago. He was standing in the gift store, paging through a book of Maya Angelou quotes. One, in particular, struck him: “Only equals can be friends.”
    “I remember walking out the door,” he recalls, “and at that moment two men, one black and one white, collided with each other.” In a flash, racial slurs were flying. “I remember thinking, I have to do something to bring people together.”
    Each person in his sculpture—for which he is donating his time to the city—made exactly that kind of difference. With this work, Chiodo joins their ranks.
    See more about Mario Chiodo’s project at www.remember-them.org.

—By Wanda Hennig


OAKLAND MADE

The Craftsman Is In


    Custom guitar maker Ervin Somogyi likens his job to that of a doctor treating a patient. For Somogyi, the first step is diagnosing his customer, which means asking a lot of questions.
    It is important to know if someone plays with a flatpick or with his fingertips, and if he plays standing up or sitting down, Somogyi says. The type of music the musician plays—bluegrass, folk, contemporary fingerstyle—is also a consideration. Other critical questions involve the choice of woods, types of ornamentation and the width and shape of the guitar’s neck.
    Like clothing, a custom guitar also needs to fit a person’s hands, lap and body. “Every one of these things addresses something that you do or don’t do in the actual construction of the sound box,” Somogyi says. “So it becomes very interestingly complicated.”
    Somogyi, 62, has been making custom guitars for almost 40 years. “I’m one of the first cohorts of American individual, independent guitar makers,” he says. At his Temescal workshop, he employs two apprentices and a half-time employee who help him produce an average of two guitars a month.
    Building primarily high-end steel-string guitars that sell for between $20,000 and $25,000 each, Somogyi cultivates a clientele of serious musicians—such as the late John Denver and Michael Hedges, and fingerstyle master Alex de Grassi—as well as collectors who buy his instruments as investments.
    Born in Budapest, Somogyi fled Europe with his family during World War II. After living in Austria, England, Cuba and Mexico, he eventually moved to the United States at age 15. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in English, he joined the Peace Corps, worked in a mental hospital, attended graduate school and supported himself as a flamenco guitarist, but he eventually gravitated back to the East Bay, which has been his home base since about 1972, he says.
    Building guitars started out as a hobby. At first, Somogyi had little hope of making a living at it, he says. With few how-to books available or schools where he could take classes, he learned primarily by getting his hands on some well-made instruments and studying them. “It was a very oddball activity,” he says. Now, as one of the “grand old men” of American lutherie, Somogyi is often invited to lecture at guitar shows and exhibitions.
    In his free time, Somogyi enjoys artistic woodcarving. He displays his ornate boxes and framed carvings at various galleries across California and the world. But his primary job remains building guitars—and treating his patients to make sure they end up with the perfect instrument. Samples of his guitars and artwork can be seen www.esomogyi.com.             

                                                                                                                                        — By Ellen Keohane


IN THE SCENE

Go Industrielle


    Industrielle. The name brings to mind punk-rock girls and black vinyl, but it comes from boutique owner Dana Taylor’s love of all things French, and is a perfect descriptor for her modern, loft-like space in Oakland’s exploding Uptown condo district.
    The chic shop, also an art gallery, opened in 2006 in time for the holidays and has become a mainstay on the Oakland Art Murmur circuit on the first Friday evening of every month. Taylor had initially planned to hang art only by locals, such as painter Mary Younkin, whose stylized portraits were unveiled in May and remain up through June. But Chinese artist Zhan Yian’s sensuous watercolors caught Taylor’s eye, as did the price. Taylor, a mixed-media artist herself, is able to sell Yian’s original pieces for just $69 each, a bargain for one-of-a-kind work.
    The front of Industrielle (33 Grand Ave., 510-271-0633) is dedicated to the hippest of housewares and wearables, and some of the best sellers are items made by Oaklanders—apparel from Adeline Street clothing (designed by Adrienne Armstrong, wife of Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong); screen-printed Ts and undies by Evonoche.com; and Lynn Ganser’s ceramic vases and darling cupcake pedestals. Handbags and wallets made from recycled billboard vinyl—Taylor likes promoting green designers—are part of the Industrielle mix.
    Mixing in affordable gifts with high-end goods is part of Taylor’s effort to better the world through her retail space, where, incidentally, she intends to establish a community art space for Oakland school kids. And there does seem to be something for everyone at Industrielle.
    Taylor jokes about recently adding Jonathan Adler vases to the stock: “Vases and handbags seem to be the things I love, so I carry many of both.”

—By Jessica Hilberman


ABOUT A TEACHER

Honor for Hambone

    “I always wanted to be a pro musician, but my heart was more into teaching music,” says Charles Hamilton, director of Berkeley High School’s award-winning jazz ensemble. In January, Hamilton’s dedication to teaching kids jazz was recognized by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts with a distinguished teaching award. “I feel quite honored to be chosen,” he says. “It’s a lifetime achievement award.”
    Hamilton took over Berkeley’s prestigious jazz program in 1981, after its creator, Phil Hardymon, stepped down. He had quite a reputation to uphold. In the six years after its inception in 1975, Hardymon built the program into a nationally recognized powerhouse; several former jazz ensemble members, including saxo-
phonists David Murray, Peter Apfelbaum, Craig Handy and Joshua Redman, went on to successful professional careers. Under Hamilton, the band has continued to win local and national awards. Just lastyear,  BHS took home first and third place in the high school combo competition at the Monterey Jazz Festival. And last year’s lead trumpet player, Billy Buss, was a 2005–06 NFAA Gold Award winner and a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. He now attends the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass.
    Hamilton, who was born in San Francisco but grew up in Baton Rouge, La., began his jazz career at age 12. He took up the cornet because it was the instrument of his childhood idol, Louis Armstrong. By the time he was 16, Hamilton was playing in bars and jazz clubs throughout the Big Easy. It was a high school music director that inspired him to consider teaching. “He would put a group together and bring them to our school’s social functions, like the prom and the Carnation Ball. I was encouraged and impressed by that,” says Hamilton, who returned to the Bay Area to get his bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State and a master’s in performance from Holy Names College. He taught music in the Berkeley Unified School District for 10 years before taking over the Berkeley High jazz program.
    Motivation is not a problem for the players in the jazz ensembles, Hamilton says. “I don’t have to tell them to practice. They just do it automatically. They are in the most accomplished and award-winning band in the nation, so you don’t have to force them to practice.” But Hamilton is aware of being a role model. “Whether in my approach to teaching or performing on my instrument, I try to set the right example for them to follow,” he says.
    Hambone, as his fellow musicians call him, still performs often. He’s a member of Karlton Hester’s Fillmore Jazz Preservation Big Band and David Hardiman’s Big Band, and he plays gigs with his own band from time to time. The 59-year-old married father of five says he has two or three years of teaching left in him. “Then my life begins,” he says. “I’ll get to play more.”              

—By Sarah Thurmond



Environmental Activism: It's Elementary

               
     “Children hear a lot about global warming. When they see they can do something about it, they feel empowered,” says Karen Colaric, who spearheaded efforts that resulted in Oakland’s independent Park Day School on 43rd Street becoming the city’s first certified green school.
    The environment plays a big part in the curriculum at Park Day, says Colaric. Teachers are encouraged to “green” all subjects for the 230 students, ages 5 through 12. So, when third-graders study electricity in science class, they learn why batteries should not be disposed of in the garbage and how solar power works. In biology they discover the beneficial attributes of insects and worms. In a letter-writing campaign, students contacted large companies to suggest they adopt eco-friendly packaging.
    The entire school is involved in recycling—composting and recycling bins are placed next to garbage cans—and students are encouraged to bring a “waste-free” lunch on Fridays, says Colaric, who introduced paper plates made from sugar cane and compostable “plastic” forks and cups made from cornstarch. Find out more about how they “green” at www.parkdayschool.org.                            

—By Wanda Hennig


Cartoon King


    When the National Book Foundation called Oakland teacher Gene Luen Yang last year to tell him his graphic novel, American Born Chinese (First Second Books, www.firstsecondbooks.com), was nominated for a National Book Award in the young adult category, Yang missed the call because he was having a “crazy day.” It was the end of a school quarter at Bishop O’Dowd High School, where Yang teaches computer science and also manages the school’s database, and the conscientious educator was busy generating student progress reports until late into the night.
    “I had no idea why he was calling,” says Yang, a San Jose native who now lives in Fremont. But the next day, his editor broke the news to him: His book—which chronicles a Chinese-American boy’s search for identity in a mostly white school, interspersed with Monkey King stories from Chinese folklore—was the first graphic-novel finalist for the prestigious literary prize. Yang, whose mother and father hail from China and Taiwan respectively, describes his book as “fiction with autobiography sprinkled in. A lot of cartooning is about simplifying,” he says. “You take a reality and try to simplify it as much as possible without losing the essence of it. And that’s what I wanted to do with the topic of ethnic identity. The reality is much more complicated.”
    After receiving the good news from his editor, “from then on it’s been a little crazy,” Yang says. Having written two previous graphic novels, Yang was accustomed to comic-book industry events where people show up in Superman T-shirts. Suddenly, reporters were popping out of the woodwork, his students were bringing in their copies of the book for him to sign, and Yang and his wife were off to New York City for the big awards ceremony in November 2006, where attendees sported evening wear rather than Comic-Con regalia. Although Yang didn’t win that award, he has subsequently garnered the 2007 Printz Award from the American Library Association, and is jetting off to that awards ceremony in late June. He probably won’t be packing his superhero gear.
  
—By Elise Proulx


You're an Oaklander If...

… You can name three local literary giants.


    To find some of the most talented literary minds the United States has to offer, Oaklanders need look no further than their own backyard; some of today’s most critically acclaimed authors live in the neighborhood. Maxine Hong Kingston, winner of the 1976 National Book Critics award (Nonfiction) for her novel The Woman Warrior and recipient of the National Humanities Medal in 1997, calls Rockridge home. In 1991, her house was destroyed in the Oakland fire, along with the only copy of a work-in-progress, The Fourth Book of Peace. Michael Pollan, the bestselling author of The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, also lives in Rockridge, after relocating there from Connecticut in 2003 to accept a position as Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. And Mary Roach, who wrote Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, left Bernal Heights in San Francisco to settle in Oakland’s Glenview district.      

—By Margaret Murray


Big Rick  Stuart

Drive-time DJ


    Big Rick Stuart is hard to pin down. When he’s not hosting the 4 p.m.–10 p.m. slot on KFOG, the popular radio rocker at 104.5 FM, he’s mountain biking, motorcycle racing or taking friends out on his boat at the Oakland Yacht Club. He’s also a rabid Raider’s fan; so I was able to catch up with him at Ricky’s Sports Bar in San Leandro.

Who gave you the name “Big Rick Stuart”?
   
My first radio job ever, I went on the air using my first name, Richard—which I shortened to Rich—and my last name. It was up in Clear Lake, and the guy who came in after me said, “What’s your middle name?” I said, “Stuart.” He said, “From now on you’re Rick Stuart, because every time you said your name it sounded like you were sneezing.”

And where did the “Big” come from? Does it just describe your linebacker physique?
    Actually, I went from Clear Lake to my college station at USF. So, I was a freshman in college, and I’d been doing radio for like a month, and everyone made fun of me and said, “Who are you? Big Rick? Are you Big Rick now that you have a paying job?” It was kind of a joke at first. It’s lasted 35 years.
When you were doing afternoons at Live 105 in the ’90s, you had a traffic guy named Sal Castaneda. You guys really clicked.

Working with Sal Castaneda was great. He’s really talented. I love watching him on [KTVU] Channel 2.
      But to me he’s still this little voice on the cue speaker saying, “OK, I’m ready in 10 seconds.” And in 11 seconds the cell phone would cut out. We’re still friends to this day.

It seemed like you could really cut loose at Live 105. Does KFOG let you be as creative as you’d like?
    Wolfman Jack—and he’s one of my heroes—had a great saying. He said, “It isn’t about Wolfman. My job is to make it fun to listen to the music you like.” So, as opposed to a talk show, where you’re filling up the hour with your incredible brilliance, which I would be a complete failure at, if I run out of something to say, I just press the button and there’s a cool song.

You’ve had some pretty sweet voice-over gigs—even a video game.
    I had one pretty good game for Electronic Arts—a motorcycle riding game. I was the track announcer. I was [yelling out stuff] like, “Oh, my, God, I can’t believe it!” I was kind of like the John Madden of the game. Talk about a really different world. Radio is this live thing. This was more like perfecting something over and over.

What’s this penchant you have for motorcycle racing? Live radio isn’t enough of an adrenaline rush?
    I don’t know. I just try to do things. I think it makes you more of an interesting person.  And I think that leads to a bigger understanding of who listens to my show. But the motorcycle racing—I’m really slow; I’m really bad at it.

Any embarrassing bloopers you want to share?
    A band called Rage Against the Machine had an album called Guerilla Radio, as in freedom-fighter guerillas. We were doing this big promotion, and you were supposed to hear the secret sound and call in, starting on my show on Friday afternoon. Off the air, I played the sound, and it was a monkey gorilla. I told someone, “Do you realize how stupid this is going to sound? We should have someone re-record this.” And they said, “We can’t. Everyone’s gone.” It was a total WKRP moment.

—By Ginny Prior