BERKELEYSIDE — This year’s holiday show at Fourth Street Fine Art is aptly named: “Home Is Where the Art Is.” The collection features works as eclectic as the artists who make up the cooperatively owned studio. Celena Peet’s mixed-media fiber art hangs beside new oil paintings by Prabin Badhia and Valerie Sobel’s abstract acrylic paintings.
This holiday season, people are making their spaces more inviting and functional. Fourth Street Fine Art in Berkeley’s “SoU” District is one of many Berkeley businesses providing art and gifts for people acting on their “nesting instinct” and creating that cozy feeling at home.
And this year, there’s a lot of new art in the mix. The pandemic has sparked a new level of creativity for many artists.
“I have gotten really creative during COVID-19. All the usual distractions aren’t there,” said Sherrod Blankner, one of 18 artists at the studio. Blankner works with oils and watercolors and creates photographs. “I have devoted more time and attention to making art,” added Peet, who works with found objects. COVID-inspired cleaning sprees have delivered a wealth of new material to Berkeley curbs, from doll parts to apothecary bottles to fur coats, which Peet painstakingly transforms into works of art.
The store is a labyrinth of small studios filled with paintings, photographs, fiber art, wood cuts, jewelry, and more. Each artist has their own studio and helps run the business, working the store once a month in addition to other contributions like sales, marketing, accounting, and improving the studio space. The artists love the creative community, and each artist brings their own strengths to the business.
“They say a lot of baseball players can do one thing well — they can throw, catch, or run. There’s very few that can do everything well. It’s the same for artists. Each person is good at one aspect of the work. Only a few are good at all the aspects of the work,” Blankner quipped.
While Fourth Street Fine Art remains open for limited in-person browsing Friday through Sunday, the artists have updated their website store to enable online shopping as well.
“COVID has been hard, but it forced us to implement things we had talked about for years. We’re marketing our art more and have developed our online store,” Blankner said. Prior to the pandemic, West Berkeley’s independent galleries like Fourth Street Fine Art, Shoh Gallery, Trax Gallery, and Berkeley Potters Guild relied on foot traffic and in-person customers. Now, art businesses have had to adapt, offering their products for sale online.
A Priori in Berkeley’s North Shattuck area is one of these. Curating the works of local and international makers in their stores and online collections, the shop’s name comes from the Latin phrase, “from the former,” a reference to the idea of creative reuse that undergirds the store’s founding.
Run by Lisa Tana and manager Amy Rosenfeld, the shop offers a wide selection in the way of gifts at all price points, from fair trade woven baskets and knits to locally-made prints, pillows, chocolates, jewelry, accessories, and home goods that you won’t see elsewhere.
“I always wanted to support artists. I know how hard it is for people to do things with their hands and to actually get the appreciation for the work that goes into it,” said Tana. “I felt like there was increasingly more mass-produced stuff that looked the same. We focused on handmade items and on trying to support artists and traditional techniques.”
Though the pandemic has been difficult for Tana’s business, there’s nowhere she would rather be than Berkeley. “The thing that’s special about Berkeley is that our customers want to know the stories behind the artworks. They appreciate knowing how they’re made and who they’re made by. They appreciate the design and craftsmanship,” Tana said. “We’re lucky to have that in Berkeley.”
Diva Robin echoes Tana’s enthusiasm for Berkeley. Her shop, Riveter, situated just off the Ohlone Greenway in a repurposed shipping container, opened just over a year ago and is thoughtfully arranged with locally and regionally handmade goodies and gifts.
“Berkeley businesses are very supportive of each other. We are a very tight community,” Robin said. An amateur ceramicist herself, Robin sells her own ceramic bowls alongside packs of CiCi’s Italian Cookies and handmade wooden jewelry boxes. Outside on the patio, Robin displays colorful yard art including solar spinners by local inventor David Jost and handcrafted industrial chimes by Berkeley artist Eric Bishop. Riveter, named after the iconic image of strong, independent women who kept American factories and the economy running during WWII, has quickly become a feature of the neighborhood. Robin frequently welcomes bikers from the greenway and locals strolling the neighborhood. “One of the positive outcomes of COVID is that people are exploring their own neighborhoods. It is great to watch parents playing outdoors with their kids and stopping by as neighbors and customers,” Robin said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to find more diverse ways to spend their time inside the home. This has included a revitalized interest in sewing across the country, with Stonemountain & Daughter, a fabric store in Downtown Berkeley, playing a heightened role as a “creative sanctuary” nationwide.
“Stonemountain & Daughter holds a special place in the hearts of many families. I hear that a lot lately. Especially now that our store is closed to the public, people tell me how much they miss it,” said Suzan Steinberg, the fourth-generation in her family to work in the fabric industry. Suzan Steinberg’s father Bob, now 87 years old, started his third fabric store, then called Stonemountain Fabrics, in Pacific Grove in 1976. When he moved to Berkeley and Suzan joined his business, they tacked “& Daughter” onto the name, beginning a partnership that has lasted decades. The store turns 40 this February.
Over the years, the Steinbergs have had to adapt with the changing times. In the last decade, they let go of corporate patterns and focused on independent patterns, made mostly by women. They had to weather the storms of fast fashion and people abandoning the art of sewing. “At one point, I noticed that no one was really making the clothes they were wearing around me. It was pretty alarming. I was wondering how long the industry could hold on,” Steinberg said.
“All our customers are at home and sewing is one of the highlights and calming influences in their lives. With people at home wanting to create, they reach out to stores like mine and are able to find things that ensure they can be successful in their projects.”
Steinberg responded to the pandemic by temporarily closing her brick and mortar store, switching completely to e-commerce, and showcasing her fabrics and clothes made from them on Instagram. She has kept the store closed for the safety of her staff, but that hasn’t stopped Steinberg from fostering a sense of community online with fellow sewing enthusiasts, especially during the holidays.
Home to a vibrant and diverse arts scene including over 150 arts and culture nonprofits, Berkeley’s community of artists and art enthusiasts is strong despite the fact that its iconic arts venues like the Berkeley Repertory Theater, Freight & Salvage, and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) have been closed since March due to COVID-19 health orders. For performing artists, live-streamed events and online arts classes still offer an avenue for community connection and engagement — and Civic Arts grants offered by the City of Berkeley help support these organizations to weather the financial impacts of the pandemic. As the quieter-than-usual holiday season offers a time for reflection, small business owners and artists alike emphasize the importance of shopping local and supporting the arts. “We’re nervous about the future,” said Tana of A Priori. “I really want people to understand how important it is to shop locally for the community aspect, for the local economy, for the personal relationships.”
This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED helps entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley and thrive.