Big industrial art spaces are becoming hard to afford in the expensive Bay Area. But American Steel Studios in West Oakland has become a destination for all types of artists: sculptors, woodworkers and especially metal workers.
Inside the massive American Steel Studios warehouse is a large exhibit made by local artist Nick Dong. He calls it the Enlightenment Room. It’s a rectangular structure the size of a big walk-in closet. In the dark interior, tiny white tiles are barely visible, covering the walls. At one end is a single seat. When a visitor sits down, an ominous sound of chanting begins. A bright light shines down from above and the chanting gets louder and louder, until finally the viewer gets up and the installation stops.
“It started with a little joke,” Dong says. “My father is a really practiced Buddhist, and when we were little he always told us to meditate and envision the light coming from the gods.”
Then Dong had an idea.
“What if I can just allow that transformation to happen with a physical room?” he asks.
While viewers might not become fully enlightened after sitting in Dong’s Enlightenment Room, it’s definitely a unique experience. It just came back from Washington, D.C., where it was featured at the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Gallery. Dong is also a metal worker, and at his studio in the building he can be found heating up sheets of copper in a big kiln and hammering them into wall hangings.
Artist Rebecca Anders stands next to “the horse car,” an art car she helped build.
In another cavernous section of American Steel Studios, Rebecca Anders has a space near a series of massive welded sculptures. She’s been at American Steel since 2007.
“My training is in metal work,” Anders says. “Sometimes I work in recycled tire, or right now I’m doing some fabric work. I like to think everything’s a potential material.”
Anders stands next to a project she helped build called the “horse car.” It looks like a big covered wagon. Coming out the front is a surprisingly real life-size model of a horse’s head made out of tires.
“We built this art car for Burning Man a few years ago,” she explains. The horse’s bust on the front is made of steel tubes and it has flame effects that shoot out of the nose when it’s in action.
According to Anders, San Francisco isn’t really an option these days for artists like her who need industrial workspaces. This is one reason American Steel Studios founder, Karen Cusolito, created the studios in the first place.
“What inspired me to make this happen was the people that started showing up, needing a space like this,” says Cusolito.
Cusolito first rented part of the building in 2005 to build a 30-foot-tall sculpture. Over time, more and more people asked her about the space, and in 2009 she signed a lease on the whole building. Today, about 170 artists use it to produce commercial and public work that can be seen around California and beyond.
“These people have amazing skill sets,” Cusolito says. “They have amazing vision and creativity.”
Cusolito says having workspaces like this is what allows the Bay Area to foster the creativity for which it’s known.