Alameda is home to many talented artists, some of whom are as young as first graders in our local public schools. There’s no way to know if any of these students will grow up to be famous painters with pieces on display at the de Young Museum or SFMOMA, but you can see their work right now at our public libraries and some of our local businesses, thanks to the Alameda Education Foundation (AEF) Art Across the Island program.
Go for the books, stay for the artwork
Stop by the West End Library and you’ll see some amazing abstract watercolors that you’ll never believe were painted by Maya Lin School first graders. The use of color is exceptional. It’s easy to imagine enlarged versions on your living room wall. Or check out the children’s section in the Main Library, where the shelf-top display presents more than a dozen intriguing cats, inspired by Paul Klee and painted by Love Elementary School fifth graders. Who knew our elementary school kids were such wonderful artists?
More than 4,500 pieces of student work have been displayed since the Art Across the Island program started in 2016, according to Program Director Pam Riley Chang, who was an AEF Board member back then. “We were no longer having music assemblies at Kofman (Alameda High School’s auditorium) so I thought, ‘Well, we can’t have our art program do nothing, so let’s start showcasing visual art and some poetry and short fiction,’” she recalled. When Chang asked the AEF teacher rep if she would approve the program, the rep said she would, “on one condition—that you don’t ask the teachers to matte the art or label the art you have, and you do nothing that creates more work for them.” That was fine with Chang.
Art Across the Island became a reality—and Chang made good on her promise. She prints, mattes, and labels the artwork herself. Chang doesn’t display the original art because she doesn’t want it to be damaged or lost. She takes the matted prints to libraries and local businesses, sets up and takes down displays, and basically does whatever else is needed. The effort is worth it to her because she loves showcasing art from the schools.
“California has not had the funds for art teachers for most of the grade schools for two generations, so there’s an assumption that children aren’t being creative in the classroom,” Chang said. “I love exploding that myth and proving that there is a lot going on, whether it is art just for art’s sake or art with literature. That’s probably what pleases me most.”
Art prevails during lockdown
Art Across the Island has inspired people from other places as well. In early 2020, one of the directors of the East Bay Community Foundation came to see a display with a donor’s sister, who does a lot of volunteer work in Africa. “The woman walked into the Main Library where there were chalk drawings of fruit on black construction paper, ‘Fruit in Space,’” Chang remembered. “She was enchanted to see very easily made art in a library because she works with a nonprofit that helps libraries in Africa. She said, ‘We could duplicate this. It’s a very simple and inexpensive program.’ I was so thrilled to think that this could be very special somewhere else.”
Shortly after that visit, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Students and teachers were no longer in classrooms. Libraries closed their doors. Businesses were shuttered. Art Across the Island had to stop for the moment, so AEF teamed up with Rhythmix Cultural Works to develop the video-based Art Changes program.
Initially, the program was based on Rhythmix’s Performance, Art, and Learning (PAL) program, which brings music and dance performances from around the world for Alameda students to experience. Since live performances were not allowed under pandemic restrictions, Rhythmix videotaped performers, and Art Changes provided the videos to teachers for use in virtual classes. Students were shown the videos and then created art pieces inspired by what they saw.
The first of those videos, taped in September 2020, featured Cunamacué, Afro-Peruvian dancers and musicians. To develop a synergy that would help students create their own visual art, Chang arranged for a video to be recorded in which Peruvian muralist Claudio Talavera-Ballon talked about his work. The artist had recently painted an 800-foot-mural in Redwood City honoring the city’s history of Japanese chrysanthemum growers, which served as inspiration for the students to paint a landscape. The last virtual performance, in May 2022, featured taiko drummer Anna Lin.
“At the end of 2022, Rhythmix tracked how many kids were watching the videos and I believe it was over 60,000 students across Alameda County,” Chang said. After that, Rhythmix could again offer live performances, so the Art Changes program pivoted to using videos of visual artists who talk about their work and share inspiring stories. Teachers use the videos as guides for discussions and art centered lessons.
Thankfully, students and teachers are now back in the classroom, and both Art Changes and Art Across the Island are alive and well in Alameda.
Where to see Art Across the Island
Main Library, 1550 Oak St.: Stop by the children’s section and see the intriguing cats painted by Love Elementary School fifth graders. Their teacher, Gillian Gibb Gonzales, provided the inspiration: Paul Klee’s famous 1928 painting, “Cat and Bird.” Open Monday and Tuesday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday noon to 8 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
West End Library, 788 Santa Clara Ave.: For Maya Lin first graders, inspiration and skill came in two parts. First, art teacher Constance Moore gave them a lesson in color mixing. Then, classroom teacher Emily Roberts and student teacher Jaqueline Ramirez had them read Peter H. Reynolds’ book, The Dot, about a young girl who learned that a drawing can begin with something as simple as a dot. Open Monday and Tuesday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday noon to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Friday and Sunday.
Bay Farm Island Library, 3221 Mecartney Rd.: Building on pandemic-fueled curiosity about viruses, Edison Elementary fourth graders viewed the microscopic world shown in scientific photos and art—and then created their own microbe-inspired embroidery. The project was led by art teacher Margarethe Olsson and classroom teacher Kristin Carpenter. Open Monday and Tuesday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday noon to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Friday and Sunday.
Books Inc., 1344 Park St. and Lilac Dress Boutique, 1918 Encinal Ave.: Colorful mandalas created by Wood Middle School students are on display at both stores. The collection at Books Inc. features new work with bright red backgrounds for the Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day. Wood’s art teacher is Lindsey Shepard. Books Inc. is open daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Lilac Dress Boutique is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Art Across the Island and Art Changes are funded by a generous grant from the Schuler-Heimburger Family Fund of the East Bay Community Foundation, as well as your contributions to the Alameda Education Foundation.
Liz Barrett is the Copy Editor of the Alameda Post and writes about our community. Contact her via [email protected]. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Liz-Barrett.