The skyrocketing cost of rent
has created an exodus — or expulsion — of artists from San Francisco
to the East Bay that hasn’t been stemmed for nearly two decades now.
However, painter Christopher Brown, whose reputation as an artist
blossomed in the Bay Area during the mid-1980s, was one of the lucky
ones who years ago chose Oakland (when he was a graduate student at UC
Davis) and later Berkeley, where he has lived and worked for three decades.
Brown presciently seized the opportunity to partner with fellow artist
Catherine Alden, a sculptor, to build his home and studio in an industrial
section of Berkeley called Ocean View.
Ceramicist Peter Voulkos worked on his sculptures in a loft close by,
but the area was otherwise desolate; today’s vibrant shops, galleries and
restaurants on nearby Fourth Street would have been inconceivable.
“Catherine had purchased an empty lot and we designed a pair of
condominiums together,” Brown says. “It was easy. I gave my drawings
to an architect who made it buildable.”
Brown had been teaching at UC Berkeley and had saved enough not
only to pay for his half of the 6,000-square-foot property but also the
construction costs, which all came to an affordable $350,000.
A Painter’s Place
The two-story 5,500-square-foot live/work wood-frame building they
created suited them perfectly. Their asymmetrical units were conjoined
and had two floors each, “but I had more of the top floor because I
needed light and she needed most of the stable ground floor for her
sculptures,” Brown says.
The industrial zoning allowed leeway in choice of materials, and
low-maintenance corrugated galvanized-steel cladding for the exterior
was a top pick — well ahead of the current vogue — because “steel was
cheap then, and it was beautiful,” Brown says. To complement it, the front
door was painted a cheerful red.
They also kept interior details basic until they could afford improvements. Plywood floors were eventually covered with spruce planks and,
to save money, Brown built himself much-needed kitchen cabinets and
shelving for books.
His roughly square-shaped main floor upstairs was divided equally for
living and working.
“Both sections were about 20 by 40 feet on each side of the stairs com-ing up from my street-level 500-square-foot storage space,” Brown says. A
kitchen and small living space with a loft bedroom took up one side, and,
FIGURATIVE ARTIST CHRISTOPHER
BROWN SKETCHED HIMSELF A
DREAM HOME AND THEN BUILT IT.
BY ZAHID SARDAR PHOTOGRAPHS BY CESAR RUBIO
In what was originally designed as his painting studio
with high clerestory windows and ribbon skylights,
Bay Area artist Christopher Brown now has a home
office that sometimes doubles as a party space. A
corner slit window was created to allow the artist
to slip stretched canvases, on their way to galleries,
exhibitions or clients, directly onto a waiting truck.
Two self-revelatory oil canvases he has kept are
“Me and Marie,” 2005, a pastoral self-portrait with a
former girlfriend, and “Cat Listening to the Radio,”
1996, derived from a USA Today advertisement, of a
cartoonish cat that he painted during an extended
stay in New York. The carpet in the painting resembles the Turkish carpet from Woven Legends on the
birch wood floor.