Alameda permanently acquires Chochenyo Park art installation
By Lou Fancher
Taking a cue from the glorious artistry of nature and people and funded by the California Arts Council and contributors, Rhythmix Cultural Works and the city of Alameda invested in artwork created by six Bay Area African American artists.
“Creating Our Future,” the public art installation displayed this past November through April in the renamed Chochenyo Park (formerly Jackson Park), was curated by Richmond artist Stephen Bruce and included original art by Bruce, Abi Mustapha, Andrea McCoy Harvey, Ashlei Reign, Tiffany Conway and Zoë Boston.
Having captured in their imagery the spellbinding natural wonder of Alameda’s burnt umber sunsets, azure skies, teal seawater, soft tan beaches, brilliant orange wildflowers, multitone greenery and deep black soil, the artwork included human figures and graphic elements connected to community and indicative of a visionary future encompassing empowerment, strength, resilience, reconciliation and hope. A GoFundMe campaign launched by Alameda City Councilmember John Knox White raised $6,000 beyond the original commissions to permanently acquire the artwork for the city of Alameda.
“Where is the ideal, permanent home for the art? A place where people can ask questions,” says Bruce in an interview. “These pieces should live in a place chosen by people who claim the space as their own, the descendants of indigenous tribes. I think the public library would be a great choice.”
Bruce is a practitioner and firm believer in the potency of public art. His highly sought-after abstract artwork that most often features acid paintings created on copper is found in galleries, private and institutional collections, and can be seen in TV shows including “House,” “Law & Order” and “Big Bang Theory” and in films such as “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 3” and others. Deeply invested in public art and art education, Bruce is actively involved in Red Umbrellas, an organization whose mission and events aim to bring the public and artists together through fine art exhibits held in public spaces. He is the founder of the SkidMore Project, a hands-on interactive workshop Bruce expanded for virtual distribution during the pandemic that will introduce students across America to the nexus of art, science and creativity.
Bruce says for society to view art as relevant and as essential as pothole-free roads and robust electrical grids, artists must no longer accept “bits and pieces.” Until art education is back in schools as a regular discipline, art will be a sideline extracurricular in classrooms and society, Bruce says.
“We’ll have a whole generation taught that art is only important if we have enough money for it. Providing my art in schools is an honor and a way to pay it forward. My collectors support what I do in the schools and at first, I paid the expenses out of my pocket. I did four schools a year for free. As the demand grew, I did an IndieGoGo campaign to buy resources to bring the program to 1,000 local kids and build a virtual platform. For 2022, I’m planning to do programs countrywide.”
It would be simplistic to think of Bruce as a teaching artist with nothing to learn. Reaching age 60 and with decades in the field, the five Black women artists he selected for the Alameda project are among his greatest teachers.
“I selected dynamic women because I’m blown away every time I see what they create. I find in the art industry that men get more opportunities than women. I wanted their voices to be heard. They are articulate in their creativity.”
A show Bruce curated in 2019 had him tapping from known stock: “Good old boys, which is not just white men but was mostly fellows I knew until I thought, ‘What happens to young women of color?’ This show, I was intentional about including women.”
Similar to the magical alchemy found in the delineating line between the upper and lower portions of Bruce’s art — primarily sunsets, landscapes and horizons — the works created by the five invited artists captivate viewers in part through the juxtaposition of abstract symbolism and representational imagery.
“Still Boys” by artist Abi Mustapha draws inspiration for the young boys featured from a photograph taken in Sierra Leone. Her father is of the West African Mende tribe.
“These are my people. By painting and drawing them I bring them with me into my world across the ocean. When I look at it I see my ancestry,” she said.
The tenderness of young boys and their ancestral pride and greatness carried through generations express her future dreams for today’s youth.
A hummingbird in flight and swirling waves of grasslike tendrils reaching up from a young person’s uplifted chin to mingle among tree limbs in Zoë Boston’s “Breath of Life” combine for a powerful portrait of pride, joy, relentless spirit and voices that echo worldwide.
“I believe as we travel on this journey and face the ups and downs of life that we forget how much power we have to sculpt our own worlds with the words we speak and the energy that we give,” Boston says.
As a Black woman, Boston says establishing more equitable futures and speaking truth that elevates love will create a better world. Tiffany Conway says her artwork rises from a spiritual practice involving understanding personal power, joy and fragility.
“We forget some of the awful times of the past, but I think it’s imperative that we acknowledge the mistakes of the past to move into our futures with clarity and intention. I want Black folks to settle into their humanity by healing. We deserve to thrive. Reclaim your joy, and if you have extra then share it.”
Crown Park Sunset, the work Bruce created, is an amalgamation of life lessons and the learning from these young artists and other teachers. As a young Black boy, he recalls his father prior to trips to the Deep South saying, “Don’t take long looks at any white girls.” His parents collectively “loaded him” with being constantly vigilant — “When you see a police officer, where are your hands, your eyes? What are your words, your tone?” Bruce remembers his sister saying, “Never be a Black boy in Alameda after dark.” Sadly, Bruce says today that, “There are beautiful, dramatic pink-orange-brown October sunsets in Alameda I never saw because of that.”
It is this lost Crown Park sunset captured in Bruce’s work that with effort and commitment will with five other works someday find a home in Alameda; a congregate space where people and artists of all colors and ancestries will mingle and share their creation stories.