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[whitespace] 'Arthur was tired of people asking him for the time'
Fighting the Creative Flight: Joe Saxe knows how tough it is to keep going in the valley; pictured is his 1997 oil on canvas 'Arthur was tired of people asking him for the time.'

Don't Bother to Knock

During Open Studios, artists welcome visitors to see art in the making

By Louise Brooks

It's appropriate that I do interviews for the Silicon Valley Open Studios event during Easter weekend, because searching out artists in this area is a little like an egg hunt. I'm careening on and off highways, prowling suburban streets, comparing house numbers to my scrawled addresses.

I can't tell an artist's home from the outside--houses look the same. But once I find the right one, I peel back the door and discover a treasure-trove of artistic creation, a small egg of inventiveness camouflaged amid the concrete strip malls and endless rivers of cars.

This is the point of Silicon Valley Open Studios: to discover art that is hidden throughout the rest of the year due to what one artist describes as San Jose's "anemic" art scene. Talk to enough artists in Silicon Valley and it becomes clear that survival here is something of a conundrum. Almost every artist I encountered bemoaned cultural apathy and housing prices as two factors contributing to "creative flight" from the area.

"There are a million people here, and there's one commercial gallery downtown," painter and illustrator Joe Saxe tells me. "It's hard to believe. It's something about the culture here. The new digital, high-tech culture, I think, is populated by a lot of people who are engineers and are really young, so they haven't learned the value of cultural stuff. ... Painting and drawing and sculpture are just not that interesting to them."

The housing problem is obvious: what struggling painter can afford a $1,800 studio? For this reason, Open Studios could rightly be called Open Homes. Most of the studio sites this year are artists' homes in which a living room or bedroom has been converted into a work space.

On the flipside of these problems, the culture of wealth in Silicon Valley has allowed many nonprofit arts groups to fare much better in the past few years than they have in other parts of the country (although those days may be declining with the stock market). Many artists find that they are able to "dedicate [themselves] completely to art" by finding employment teaching art in schools, prisons, or programs for at-risk teens.

"If I move to some town in Minnesota just because the property's cheaper," Saxe asks himself, "am I going to have a job teaching for a museum? There is opportunity in a place like this, even though it may not be quite what I had hoped for."

Fiber and mixed-media artist April Niino tells me, "It's a dream to support myself through my art, but that separates me from the community. More and more artists are thinking about how arts can serve and heal." Ironically, it's due to the high-tech-based wealth of Silicon Valley, and the culture that comes with it, that many artists find they can make a decent living taking art out into communities.

IN THE FACE of this conundrum comes the once-a-year Open Studios event. It is a welcome chance for artists to focus on their personal work and to show it to the public in the "intimate" setting of their own studio or home.

Niino loves Open Studios because people are able to get a "feel for the process" of her work by seeing it where it is made. Another mixed-media artist, Leah Jakusovsky, points out that during Open Studios artists can show all of their work, whether it is theme-based or not. Art lovers can see the entire range of an artist's ability, and artists can find comfort in seeing that "every artist is as crazy and unfocused as you are."

This year, more than 350 artists are participating over the course of several weekends in Open Studios, which is 50 more than last year and the most in the event's 15-year history. The sheer numbers allow for a huge diversity of media, everything from painting to digital imagery to ceramics to glass.

The event also offers up a cross-section of artists. As well as the artists who struggle to devote themselves fully to the arts, I meet a grandmother who works an 8-to-5 job at a pharmaceutical firm but finds herself up at one in the morning, on a rush of adrenaline, producing vividly colored monotype prints and award-winning drawings. I meet several such participants who spent years sidelining their obvious artistic talents, believing that art was not a "legitimate" or "practical" pursuit. Bringing viewers to their homes forces some artists to take their art seriously, to re-evaluate the energy they afford to art in their lives.

As always, a diversity of artists also offers an array of political and social views. Printmaker Frances Paragon-Arias shows me a series of prints she's made that seem to mimic traditional Christmas cards. They are brightly colored with little candy-cane and snowflake motifs bordering traditional, pre-Colombian figures. She points to the figure on a print titled "Ghost of Christmas Past" and says, "This is my ghost of Christmas past." She has another series of prints depicting a sundance ritual, and I ask her about her choice to live as an artist in the heart of Silicon Valley, a place so foreign to the land of such rituals. "I know I live with contradictions," she says.

Silicon Valley Open Studios 2001 features more than 350 artists throughout Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Benito counties during four weekends of self-guided studio tours. Admission is free; maps and catalogs are available for purchase. (650.941.5337 or www.svva.org)

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From the April 26-May 2, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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