Various drills, grinders, hammers, a hydraulic press and an acetylene- and oxygen-powered soldering torch compete for counter space in Edith Sommer's renovated garage, pushing her home's water heater forcibly into the corner. This is her studio, the place she has been making custom jewelry since 1963.
The studio was built into the garage of Sommer's Eichler home in Palo Alto by her late husband, Simon Sommer, then a NASA employee. But Simon's hand for carpentry was not the only contribution he made to his wife's art. As a NASA research scientist he also had access to what was, at the time, a cutting-edge alloy.
"Titanium," she said. "Not many people had heard about it. ... He gave me samples of it, and I began working in it. It was a very, very unusual thing at the time. Of course now everything is made from titanium. Jewelers are working in it and all your body parts, your eyeglasses, tennis rackets, golf clubs — everything is made from titanium."
Sommer enjoys making jewelry with unconventional and found materials. One of her current projects is a necklace she is fashioning out of old watch faces, which she will call "Watch Out."
If Sommer has finished the piece by press time, one might be able to see it this weekend at Gallery House, the Palo Alto art cooperative she founded in 1958 with the late Estelle Grunewald. This Saturday, the gallery, located at 320 California Ave., will inaugurate its 50th-anniversary exhibit of work by 60 Gallery House artists.
Sommer hopes the reception will bring current and former members of the cooperative together with other local art enthusiasts in recognition of the gallery — a place she described as "a showcase for people to show their work without being encumbered by working with professional galleries."
The idea for Gallery House was hatched by Sommer after she organized two successful holiday art sales at the Palo Alto Consumers' Co-op in 1956 and 1957.
"When we had the sale at the co-op, it was just once a year for two weeks," she said. "I realized that we needed something more permanent to showcase (the art). There was so much talent in this community."
The gallery's first location was in the home of Mary Field, who allowed art to be displayed on the porch and in the living room of her house on Staunton Court in Palo Alto. This is where the gallery got its name.
From Field's house, the gallery moved to an empty store at University Avenue and Cowper Street in Palo Alto, where it stayed for less than a year. The gallery moved to the Ladera Country Shopper center near Portola Valley for about seven years, then to 538 Ramona St. in Palo Alto, where it took up residence in a former men's clothing store. Gallery House came to its current California Avenue location in 2000.
"I realized that we needed something more permanent to showcase (the art). There was so much talent in this community."
— Edith Sommer, co-founder of Gallery House
Trevlyn Williams, the current chair of Gallery House, said she is very excited about Saturday's exhibit reception and hopes to see her excitement matched by those in attendance.
"We really want to have the anniversary marked by community participation," Williams said. "So we have really worked to invite a large cross-section of prominent people."
Since Gallery House opened, it has garnered major support from well-known patrons, such as the Hewlett family and writer Wallace Stegner. In addition, Gallery House has also helped foster some nationally acclaimed artists, such as quilt designer Jean Ray Laury.
Williams, a South African emigrant, has been a member of Gallery House since 2002. She said art plays an important role in society on the whole, but that it has an acute opportunity to flourish in Palo Alto — and the Bay Area in general — because there is more disposable income floating around.
She said the foremost obstacle any artist or gallery must address is a matter of funding, and that Gallery House has found success with its cooperative structure. Gallery costs are borne not only by income from donors and art buyers, but also by member artists who pay dues and share the duties of running the organization, volunteering their time in the gallery. An elected board of directors determines the direction of the gallery.
Member artists — who exhibit a range of work including sculpture, paintings, photography, ceramics, prints and mixed-media pieces — pay $90 each month for a gallery membership. This fee goes toward paying rent, utilities, taxes and the only employee, a bookkeeper.
The bookkeeper (Margaret Stein for 30 years until 2006, and now Margot Goldberg) keeps the gallery's books for a "very nominal sum," which is a great help to Gallery House, Williams said. She also credited longtime Palo Alto resident Jane Bavelas, a nonartist who has worked many hours managing and staffing the gallery, for playing a major role in keeping the organization going.
In addition to the membership fee, the gallery takes a 33 percent commission on all works sold. Sommer said a professional gallery can take 50 percent.
"It's hard for artists to survive because they don't make a lot of money," Williams said. "A cooperative gallery makes art accessible to the community, especially for artists who may have no other avenue for exhibiting their work."
According to Sommer, Gallery House is one of the oldest institutions of its kind in Northern California — the Berkeley Art Co-op was founded in 1957 — and has been able to survive for half a century "because we have such high-quality work and we've had very professional people working with us."
For Sommer, who also teaches at the Palo Alto Art Center, the gallery offers more than just a place to sell her jewelry. "Not only is it a showcase for my work, but it offers the chance to mingle with artists of other media, which is really an educational experience," she said.
This Saturday, visitors can mingle with a variety of Gallery House artists, including Barbara Brown, who has been with the gallery since 1979.
Brown, who calls herself a "clay artist," says she doesn't actually "sculpt" anything. She creates functional items such as vases and bowls — as opposed to figures — and sells her wares, which are often black, at Gallery House.
"I love the color black because it lets the flowers talk when you put them in the vase," she said.
Brown first took an interest in art in the mid '60s after taking a class in ceramics. She now teaches at the Palo Alto and Sunnyvale art centers, and taught at De Anza College for 25 years.
"When you start," she said of working with clay, "it's just something that you fall in love with."
What: Gallery House's 50th-anniversary exhibit, featuring works by a host of member artists, including collages, paintings, photographs, ceramics, prints, sculpture and mixed-media work.
Where: Gallery House, 320 California Ave., Palo Alto.
When: The exhibit runs through May 3. Gallery hours are Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The opening reception is this Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m.
Info: Go to http://www.galleryhouse2.com or call 650-326-1668.