I find this week that I don’t know what to write. The news in the world has caught up with me at last. Syrian Civil War, violence here at home, Yosemite in flames, the Fukushima power plant leaking 400 tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean every day over the last two years. In the cycle of the world and its ways, some of the news is just as it has always been, some of it is devastatingly and profoundly new, with implications too enormous for one already-shaken human mind to grasp. I find myself staring, searching mentally for straws.
What I keep coming back to, over and over in my mind, is a hammock.
Specifically, a white rope hammock in the backyard of a place at 63rd and Adeline, in the borderlands between South Berkeley and North Oakland. It’s a hammock situated in the northeast corner of a sprawling backyard garden, next to a two-story chicken coop filled with egg-layers named things like Noodle and Pot Pie. When you lie back in the hammock and face the sky, you gaze into the branches of a huge old tree whose leaves whisper up against each other.
The hammock belongs to a joint household full of artists. Forest Stearns, a freelance illustrator, and Torie Beedle, a manager at Community Grains, live upstairs with their housemate Elizabeth, an engineer. Next door are graphic designer and sound engineer Mark Scetta, painter and hacker mom Holly Wach, and their rambunctious two-year-old daughter plus artists Daniel and Katie Herlihy and their 14-month-old daughter, a small blond pixie baby named Adeline.
I had the opportunity to lie in their hammock a few months ago when, as part of a Pro Arts studio tour, Stearns and Daniel Herlihy hosted a joint art exhibit in the storefront that occupies the bottom floor of their building. Between the two of them — plus Katie Herlihy, who contributed handmade jewelry and a swarm of paper butterflies as a window display — the 63rd Street Gallery featured both individual and collaborative pieces that wove themselves together into a compelling, urban artistic duet.
Stearns’ and Herlihy’s collaborative pieces comprised a series of five paintings of tattooed animals on bikes — a sloth on a low-rider, an iguana on a penny-farthing. Stearns provided the illustrations of the animals and bikes, Herlihy the creatures’ ink (Herlihy is a tattoo artist at Berkeley’s True Love Tattoo). They were selling these original works, frames included, for a remarkably affordable $368 apiece.
I spent part of that afternoon lying in the hammock and staring up into the big old tree, attempting to talk myself down from buying a piece. (I haven’t talked myself down yet.)
Last week, at Stearns’ invitation, I joined the 63rd Street Gallery households for a big group dinner. It was a beautiful, uncommonly warm Monday night. When I arrived, Adeline was playing baby-soccer with a couple of hot pink plastic juggling balls in the kitchen, her dad was seated at the kitchen table fetching the balls whenever they rolled somewhere inaccessible, Beedle was chopping ingredients at the counter and Stearns was busily cooking up five pounds of fresh mussels on the stove.
“This is the starving artist’s life, right?” Stearns said in greeting, a saucepan of homemade garlic butter in hand. He sports a neat waxed mustache that turns up at the ends, making him look like he would feel right at home as a circus ringmaster, a 1940s pilot or an Oakland illustrator with a flair for the stylish.
By the time we sat down to dinner at a long outdoor table in the backyard, the spread looked like something out of a lifestyle magazine: mussels, salmon, bread, cheese, wine and salad greens from the garden. Adeline occupied herself with bits of salmon. Scetta and Wach regaled us with the story of how they met. Herlihy, Scetta and Beedle launched into impressions of their respective families’ broad East Coast accents. As we ate and talked and drank wine, the sun set and the string lights came on in the fig tree and the chickens began to do whatever chickens do to settle in for the night.
I asked if all of them — professional and/or self-identified artists, every one of them — actively support each other in their artistic endeavors, if they operate like an official art collective.
“The thing is, none of this was planned,” Wach said, explaining that the owner of the building is an artist who is adamant about renting to tenants who themselves are artists; the three households came together by happenstance.
What came out of that happenstance is a thriving backyard garden wonderland; a hand-built chicken coop, bench and vegetable beds; two young kids who are surrounded by a loving, informal community of creatives; monthly group dinners; a mutually supportive artistic culture and the occasional collaborative art show.
“We always ask each other what we’re up to [artistically], how we can help each other,” Stearns said. “I know that when I bring my sketchbook out here to draw in the mornings, Daniel will be here and we’ll have conversations about art and what we’re working on.”
There is nothing particularly remarkable here about what these artists are doing, per se, except in their having created it — their beautiful space and collaborative households, their casual and easy friendships with one another, their happy babies. In a world that sometimes feels like an increasingly hostile place for a thriving creative life, here are artists who, together, insist on making art an everyday practice in good times and bad.
In the bad times, especially, there is perhaps nothing more humbling than the continued insistence on art and beauty. Nothing more humbling than continuing to create, even when mentally grasping for straws.
In 2002, when he was 24 and depressed, Phil Elverum of the band Mount Eerie took a train to a Norwegian town called Bodø, where he enlisted help to rent a cabin even further up north beyond the Arctic Circle. There, in the shadow of a mountain during the most sunless part of the year, Elverum spent several months in a perpetual dark, gathering firewood, going crazy, and writing songs and journal entries that would eventually be released as the album Dawn.
It can take all manner of things to jump the creative battery when it dies, I guess.
When I think of that hammock underneath the big old tree, I think of lying in it next to a garden and a chicken coop and a house where an illustrator, tattoo artist, builder or painter is sure to be at work or playing with a baby on any given day. I think of it as a relief, a small significant corner of beauty; the best of what it means to be an artist, and the best of what it means to live in this place.
Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.