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Feature story: Open house

Visitors can glimpse the creative process at Cubberley and other open studios this month

From small home studios to bustling art centers, Peninsula and South Bay artists' spaces are opening their doors wide this month.

As part of the 22nd annual Silicon Valley Open Studios event, the public can drop in on artists where they work and exhibit. A curious visitor might learn the story behind a favorite painting, buy a new sculpture or get tips on printmaking.

In Palo Alto, some artists open up private studios, while others show in groups; multi-artist spots include The Great American Framing Company, Palo Alto Studios and the Pacific Art League.

In one corner of the city, some visitors might also feel like they're going back to school. Nineteen artists are opening their Cubberley Studios doors at Cubberley Community Center, which was a high school until declining enrollment closed it in 1979.

Behind the cheerful array of paintbrushes, drawing pads, piles of shimmery fabrics and collage papers, these studios still hold evidence of their former lives as classrooms. There are still the high windows that open with hooks, and the institutional ceilings speckled with patterns of holes. The artists often chatter in the halls or meet for lunch breaks like the bygone students.

Many say that camaraderie is one of the major appeals. "It is the community of other artists, being able to discuss our work and get other opinions," Palo Alto collage artist Inge Infante said. "People pop in when I have the door open."

Textile artist Linda Gass agreed. "It's like an artists' residence."

That's the idea behind Cubberley, which was established more than 20 years ago as a collaborative space for visual artists in many media: The current group includes people working in ink, textiles, oil paint, bronze and mixed media. Artists go through a jury process to be accepted for a six-year period (they may reapply when their terms are up).

Cubberley Community Center has been in the news lately because of a plan floated by the Foothill-De Anza Community College District to tear down part of its Cubberley campus to build a new district educational center. Palo Alto city officials have been in talks with the district about the plan, which could include displacing the artists' studios. (The city owns part of Cubberley and leases part of it from the Palo Alto Unified School District.)

Cubberley artists have some concern about the future of their studios, but know that the Foothill plan is preliminary, Gass said. At the moment, the artists are focusing on Open Studios, particularly sculptor Francie Allen, a new Cubberley artist. She moved to the Bay Area in 2003 and says she has found a much more tight-knit community here than in her warehouse studio in Seattle, and a rare degree of city support for the arts.

On a recent afternoon, Allen shows a visitor around her tidy studio, eager to talk about the methods she uses in her figurative sculptures. Some are made from cast concrete; some are bronze; some start with a wire armature and have Celluclay (which Allen calls "instant papier-mache") over the wire. Chicken wire, surprisingly graceful, can also provide a fuller shape.

Allen pours some of the gray powdery Celluclay into a bowl and mixes it with water, creating a paste that can be applied directly onto the wire skeleton. "It's kind of like sculpting with pudding," she says.

Allen's sense of humor comes out in playful touches. In "Love Me, Love My Kitty," a paper sculpture wears a fake-fur boa of the purest white. Another sculpture stands on a faux-bear rug.

Many pieces deal with transformation, and there are figures of movement artists, too. "My work is about metamorphosis. Dancers and acrobats are part of that, their fluidity. They seem to change from one state to another," Allen says.

Some Cubberley artists have whole classrooms to themselves. Others share. Allen splits her room with Mountain View painter Ann McMillan (whose work "Cottonwoods" was on the April 11 Weekly cover).

Down the hall, Moose Wesler's ink drawings and prints keep company with Inge Infante's collages. A partition divides most of the room, but the feeling is still friendly and almost cozy, like a dorm.

To Wesler (her first name is a 7th-grade nickname that stuck), the space is a luxury. She spreads her arms and glows when she talks about stringing up huge sheets of paper on which to create. It's definitely better than having her papers dominate a one-bedroom apartment, which is what happened before she got the Cubberley space about 4-and-a-half years ago.

"This has been a chance for me to go bigger. I've always liked playing with scale," Wesler says. She picks up tiny prints and sketchbooks filled with brush-and-ink drawings, then points to the papers on the walls, showing how her drawings have expanded. "I want to play with larger brushes," she adds with a smile.

But Wesler hasn't forgotten her smaller spaces — or, seemingly, anywhere she's ever lived. She has inviting drawings of the places she lived in as a grad student, detailed down to the clothing draped over a chair. The studio also holds her childhood drawings, blocks of lino that she's carved for printmaking, and drawings of her fanciful "Doodlecity." The city's buildings burst with patterns, swirls and gingerbread-like trim. Wesler, of course, has appointed herself Doodlecity's mayor (wouldn't you?).

Wesler and Infante came to Cubberley around the same time, and both praise its feeling of community. Wesler recalls Infante and other Cubberley artists helping her set up an exhibit at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View. Wesler often sells her work on cards and T-shirts but was grateful for the exhibiting help. "It just felt like I had all this wisdom," she says.

Meanwhile, Infante is in her studio working on pieces for her CSMA exhibit in June. The large collages cover one wall, a sea of fabric and paper pieces reminiscent of quilts. Some of the paper pieces come from old books or sheet music, and are coated with beeswax to make them transparent, looking even more vintage.

Infante says the works were inspired by driving through fields here and in her native Germany. One in shades of bright and dirty white is like a snowy field; another with strong yellows is a mustard field. But she doesn't think people should have to dig too deeply for meaning in her art.

"My work is to look at; you look at it like an ant crawling over," Infante says, smiling.

During Open Studios, Wesler and Infante are likely to have a few students drop by. Like many other Cubberley artists, they are teachers in the area. Wesler helped Infante get a teaching job at CSMA, and Infante also teaches at the Pacific Art League. Wesler is also an educator at JLS Middle School in Palo Alto and at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center.

The artists see their teaching as a strong link to the community, something required of all Cubberley artists. All take part in area activities, such as serving on museum boards and as docents. Many Cubberley artists also expressed gratitude for the city's support for the arts; the artists pay below-market-rate studio rents and take part in city programs, including exhibiting in civic buildings.

In her studio, where her quilts and an aqua-painted floor enliven the old classroom, Linda Gass mentions other community efforts that the Cubberley artists want to start. For instance, they'd like to give monthly art lectures at the Palo Alto Art Center, and hold more frequent open-studio events.

After all, open-studio events can be valuable for the artists as well as the public.

Cubberley artist Michael Pauker focused exclusively on collage art for 15 years until shifting last fall to oil paintings, and his studio is still packed with papers. One table spills over with maps, book pages and old letters with remnants of wax seals, and Pauker carefully brings out a Greek woman's passport from the 1930s, replete with mysterious stamps and notations. He won't cut this one up.

"She traveled from Alexandria through Africa in 1930. You could write a novel about this," he says.

Pauker has taken part in several open studios in his five years at Cubberley, and remembers many a "lovely" conversation. Although he's a veteran artist, he seems to enjoy hearing other people's insight as much as answering questions.

"Collages have a kind of mystery to them," he says. "I'm part of the crowd. I'm trying to figure out what they're about, too."

What: 22nd Silicon Valley Open Studios, with about 145 locations to visit artists where they work and exhibit

Where: The Peninsula and Santa Clara County. Palo Alto locations include Cubberley Studios at the Cubberley Community Center, wings E, F, and U; 4000 Middlefield Road.

When: The first three weekends in May, typically Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. San Mateo County locations are generally open May 3-4; northern Santa Clara County sites on May 10-11, and southern Santa Clara County spots on May 17-18, although some studios are open more than one weekend.

Cost: Free admission, with artwork for sale

Info: An artist listing and more details are at http://www.svos.org .

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