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Lens-less photos and worms of clay
The ASUC Art Studio is a creative refuge from campus hubbub

| 02 February 2005

Looking for an artistic antidote to his daily diet of computer programming, Daisuke Nakabayashi discovered it in the dark.

An IT support person in the Letters & Science undergraduate-advising office, Nakabayashi found his thrill in the darkroom, where he created abstract black-and-white images from film, paper, chemicals, and light.

“I like the physical process of being in the darkroom and being connected to the medium,” he says. “It’s completely opposite from what I do at work.”

Nakabayashi (who goes by the first name Dai) learned his photo licks just minutes from his office — at the beehive of artistic activity known as the ASUC Art Studio. Tucked inconspicuously into the lower level of Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union just west of Sather Gate, the studio proved an “amazingly convenient” place for him to learn photography from the ground up — everything from basic darkroom skills to alternative techniques in which he now specializes — and to haunt the darkroom during his lunch hours.

A campus fixture since its launch by student artists in 1961, the ASUC Art Studio is best known to many at Berkeley for its December and spring sales of student ceramics, photography, and other handmade gift items (the latter this year is slated for April 12-16). The rest of the year, including summer, it offers a robust schedule of classes taught by professional artists — including photography, ceramics, drawing and painting, video production, and knitting — and (for a modest membership fee) a collegial setting, seven days a week, for making art.

“The Art Studio is a refuge from the pressures of academia,” says Erica Terman, the arts administrator hired in October as the center’s new manager. “It’s a safe place for beginners to become familiar with new processes and for more experienced artists to refine established skills.”

A few, says Terman, go on to careers as professional artists. Of the art studio’s photography alums, Richard Misrach is among the best-known. “We just had a visit from Leonard Sussman, who discovered photography at the ASUC Art Studio 40 years ago while a chemistry student at Cal,” she says. “He’s now a professor of fine arts at Baruch College in New York, and exhibits his photographs in New York, Mexico City, and Berlin. That’s the kind of story that we hear often.”

Some 5,000 individuals a year take classes at the studio, about 60 percent of them Berkeley students. The rest are members of the public, children enrolled in the new summer arts program offered in conjunction with Cal Rec Golden Adventures, and campus faculty and staff — many of whom, like Nakabayashi, value the studio as a sanctuary for right-brain activity.

On her lunch hour, Ann Moen leaves behind a “hectic” job in the basement of Moffitt Library — as operations supervisor in the Media Resources Center — to throw pots on the studio’s ceramics wheels or hand-build playful garden decorations from long “worms” of porcelain clay. Wheelwork has “a nice soothing feel, like playing with mud,” she says, while hand building offers its own version of relaxation: “You can smash, shape, roll, and poke to your heart’s content.”

The subtleties of clay and the storied uncertainties of kiln firings have also been, for Moen, a great practice in letting go. “You might have a vision, but anything can happen in the kiln.” Should a nearby piece drip or explode, “then your thing dies with it. You can’t set yourself up for heartbreak,” Moen opines.

Kiln misadventures notwithstanding, artistic explorations at the studio have proved a “phenomenal” experience for fellow ceramicist Lucia Briggs — who did arts and sports most of her life until injuring her arms and shoulders in a serious bike accident. The College of Chemistry employee, who manages the grading databases for 2,000 students, says it has been “life changing” to be able to use her arms again to make art. Her current passion is wheel-turned porcelain pieces decorated with finely detailed, repetitive patterns inspired by natural and geometric forms. “It’s what makes me tick,” she says.

Nakabayashi, too, has been launched on a new trajectory by his sojourn at the art studio. The staffer now spends many of his non-work waking hours on projects photographic — building pinhole cameras from tea containers, paint cans, and cannibalized vintage equipment; exploring the frontiers of lens-less (and even camera-less) photography; and exhibiting his work. (Visit www.justdai.com for a sampling of his unconventional interests.) Six Nakabayashi images, produced using photo chemicals as “paint” and bubble solution from Toys R Us as developer, were part of a recent show, juried by Yerba Buena Center curator René de Guzman, at Oakland’s Pro Arts Gallery. “I tend to switch projects,” he says.

Lately Nakabayashi has turned his attention to the kinds of campus architectural details most likely to be cited in a maintenance work order — such as electrical outlets, sprinkler heads, doorstops, and junction boxes. Taken in “extreme close-up” with a custom-made pinhole camera, he says, “they have a very monumental look in the final image.”

ASUC Art Studio courses begin on rolling dates throughout the semester. For a schedule of classes, staff bios, equipment (including one of the Bay Area’s only large-format [20”x24”] color photo processors available for public use), and details on membership fees, see the studio’s website, www.asucartstudio.org, or call 642-3065.