Art Meets Auto Repair

First Fridays take a generous turn at Uptown Body & Fender.


Giovanna Tanzillo and Margo Rivera-Weiss

Chris Duffey

By day, Uptown Body & Fender is an auto body shop; by night—on First Friday nights when galleries open their doors for Oakland’s Art Murmur and on occasional other evenings—it’s an art gallery with a philanthropic twist.

Tropical Expressionist painter Margo Rivera-Weiss and the body shop’s co-owner Giovanna Tanzillo launched the arty fundraisers in September 2012, as a way to highlight local artists and support area nonprofits. During an event, the space is car-free; drawings, paintings, and photos adorn the body shop’s towering brick walls, and table displays feature handmade pottery and silver jewelry. As an entry fee, each artist donates $25 to the month’s chosen charity, which also hosts an informational booth.

“I know firsthand how many organizations struggle to keep the doors open,” says Rivera-Weiss, who manages community wellness programs for Oakland’s Women’s Cancer Resource Center. She found an eager partner in Tanzillo, who has invited schools and nonprofits to use her space any night it’s available for the past eight years. These events are typically fundraisers, and Tanzillo offers up the venue at no charge. Her business has been recognized by Oakland’s Chamber of Commerce and also received the Oakland Indie Award for Neighborhood Dynamo.

At 72, Tanzillo is a dynamo herself, striding briskly through the space while greeting guests and artists. “For a business owner, I’m very left of center,” she says, adding that she reserves the right to deny an event request if she doesn’t share the group’s politics. To date, the First Friday shows have raised a total of $11,000 for nonprofits including Phat Beets Produce, the Pacific Boychoir, and the People’s Community Medics.

Back in the ’70s, Tanzillo was a stay-at-home mom who needed a way to escape constant requests to chauffeur her many Italian relatives around town. She found a bookkeeping job in an auto body shop, and later took her boss’ advice and went to estimating school. She and her business partner Lisandro Allende purchased the body shop 21 years ago. “I don’t love cars,” says Tanzillo, “but I love people, and I want them to be happy while they’re here.” Her office features whimsical toys, colorful furniture, and a gleaming espresso machine. One of her posters quotes Emily Dickinson: “Why not have a big life?” it reads.

The arty parties take on lives of their own. On a recent Friday evening, for example, Kingdom of Not’s live tunes created a festive mood for the visitors who ambled through the spacious, brick-walled building to peruse paintings, jewelry, and crafts as evening light streamed through skylights. In August, Your Body Raks—which teaches belly dance to help people of all sizes develop a positive body image—was the charity beneficiary. The group is involved in a cross-cultural exchange with women and girls in Cairo and will use the $525 raised to pay for travel and video editing. “It’s amazing that the community comes together like this to support a growing nonprofit,” says Your Body Raks co-director Etang Inyang, impressed that 21 artists contributed to her organization and many of them also talked with her at the event.

Rivera-Weiss wants to increase the number of artists represented at Uptown and invites interested parties to contact her. “I want the artists and the works to represent the diversity of Oakland,” she says.

Tanzillo, too, is absolutely committed to the fundraisers. “A business can only do as well as the community it does business in,” she says. “I need to give back and support my community, and I’m having such a good time doing it.”

As a way to bring the event full circle, the duo is hatching a plan for a new kind of display—stay tuned for art cars!

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