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Local Intelligence: American Steel Studios, West Oakland

 
Giant open warehouse is used by creative types from trapeze artists to soap makers

West Oakland’s post-industrial hinterland is home to many active and abandoned warehouses. A thriving arts community has taken root at one such space, American Steel Studios, a giant open warehouse and a smaller adjoining building used by creative types ranging from trapeze artists to soap makers.

Squatter to Savior

Karen Cusolito, an artist, began squatting in the then-neglected American Steel building in 2005 to work on her large-scale installations. Four years later, she was leasing the entire six-acre space from its owner and renting parcels to other artists. Today more than 100 artists, artisans and tinkerers are involved.

Sentinels Stand Guard

Giant humanoid figures made of salvaged steel keep watch outside American Steel, which is just off Mandela Parkway near where a section of Interstate 880 collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Reaching to the heavens or kneeling on the dusty ground, each figure weighs several tons; some are more than 20 feet tall.

Proletarian Past

Beginning in the 19th century, scores of warehouses were built to serve West Oakland because the area was near water and railroads. By the 1960’s, though, the Port of Oakland, on bay landfill, together with the emergence of the trucking industry, began to render the warehouses obsolete.

Art Factories

American Steel, which once housed a repair shop for cargo ships, is one of a handful of artist-run warehouses. The Crucible, a nonprofit organization in a former paper-tube factory, and the 10,000-square-foot LoBot Gallery have also been reborn as community arts spaces.

Artists Helping Artists

“If you’re struggling with a detail or some sort of technology around a sculpture or project,” Cusolito said, “chances are some neighbor here has some bit of wisdom for you. It could be LEDs, solar power, anything.”

A Second Life

Many tenants use the space to pursue passions once suppressed during past careers. A former electrical engineer, Kim Emanuel, makes organic soaps and lotions. Stephen Bruce, who used to work in supermarket management, now uses pickle juice and other acids to create abstract paintings that sell for thousands of dollars. “I should have switched years ago,” Bruce said. “I couldn’t imagine I’d ever be this content.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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