There are three sidewalk benches on the 1300 block of Walnut Street in North Berkeley. This is the oldest of the three.
Penny Brogden lives here.
She built the bench, featuring tiles she made.
Tiles leaning against the house line the driveway leading to the gate to the back.
Brogden made these tiles as well. They are inspired by Coptic textile design.
Brogden sent me this explanation from and old notebook of hers: “The original inspiration was found in Coptic textiles from 4th century AD or so. I saw a book on textiles from the Metropolitan Museum and a few postcards of Coptic design. In reading around about the Copts, who were subjugated by Romans when Rome conquered Egypt, I found it moving that a small minority of artisans from the indigenous mass could manage to make their way artistically under most unfavorable conditions. In fact, any other example of an enslaved people which succeeded in forging an art of its own would be hard to find. But it was really the images themselves, so distinctive, with the big eyes and oversized heads surrounded by animal and floral motifs in exquisite detail, that captured me.”
Through the gate is a courtyard.
A brightly painted courtyard, filled with art.
The main events of the courtyard, for me that is, is a series of three tiles:
And a bright convex niche.
Who is the mermaid? “Just some mermaid” says Brogden.
The small building is Brogden’s studio. Two dogs that she made guard the door.
Brogden works in this studio.
This is the niche in the inside, the corresponding concave niche to the “just some mermaid” protruding niche outside.
These two photos – the same tiles, today and 12 years ago.
Brogden started as a photographer.
Here she sits in front of a cyanotype photograph that she made. Cyanotype is, as every schoolboy knows, a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. Here is that photograph today, hanging in the main house:
These cut-out women are another example of Brogden’s cyanotype photography.
Brogden made these as part of a window installation for a friend’s costume shop on Mission Street in San Francisco in 1986.
In the 1990s Brogden started working with ceramics and tiles. Her tile work is stunning. Brogden studied under Mary Murchio, a ceramicist and life guide.
Murchio learned to throw clay in Mexico and knew what a lot of what there is to know about pueblo pottery in the southwest – and the rest of the world. She taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts, was a member of the Chimney Potters collective, and was around Cal when Peter Voulkos disrupted it all, shoving aside production potters and making art of clay.
Brogden met Murchio in the 1960s. In the early 1990s Brogden started spending Thursday afternoons with Murchio, learning about clay and tiles and pottery, and life. When Brogden speaks of Murchio, you know that it was a very special relationship with a very special teacher.
Before leaving tiles –
While I was writing this post, random conversation led me to know that Brogden had made some friends a tile table. The tiles depict a hyena, hawk eggs, and a rattlesnake,all of which my friends saw on or about the day that their youngest daughter was born. My friends say: “We’re still working out the cosmic riddle.”
Brogden sent me three production photos of the table.
Water colors of possible designs.
The final design.
This shows the installation by Phylece Snyder and Doty Riley.
Amazing, at least to me.
On top of that, said friends told me about a Brogden project in progress:
Women artists. How cool is this? Where should it go? Somewhere special.
Meanwhile, back at 1309 Walnut:
From the studio we step into the house. I meet her sister Dorothy Klein. Klein moved down from McKinleyville a year or so ago.
So here they are, two sisters, living together. More than that, Brogden and Klein grew up in the house. Their parents were June and Robert Brogden.
Brogden celebrated them with this tile.
Klein holds a mounted photograph of her parents made by her father. He made one of their mother alone:
That cut-out was made from a 1938 photograph taken in front of Robert and June’s first house, in Kensington.
The parents moved to Napa in 1989. Brogden moved in, and then Klein. As I said, two sisters in their childhood house.
They sit here in their childhood bedroom.
You can see a childhood wall drawing inside the red rectangle that was never painted over.
What is it like living in their childhood home? “Lots of ghosts” says Klein.
There are a number of Brogden’s tile projects in the house.
And masks, only some of which she made:
The walls and trim are unexpected.
The kitchen is largely unchanged from the days of the parents except the chile pepper lights and the combed painting.
And splattered paint spread with a palm frond.
The colors throughout are bright. Their mother found it all a little garish. I don’t.
There is a fair share of Klein’s art in the house as well.
Klein made these intricate drawings of wildflowers. She sold them as posters and gift cards until the Park Service decided that it was a great idea and went into the business.
And she made these paintings of animals, birds, and various species of monkeys who surrounded her when she lived for two years in the Colombian rain forest. They are made with sumi ink on rice paper. The style is known as ink wash painting, an East Asian type of brush painting that uses black ink of various concentrations. Klein has taken it up as an encore art form.
Klein’s studio is on the second floor.
The room was their father’s retreat. Here he tinkered, drew, and planned.
He made this drawing of a vacuum hose.
In what used to be his retreat – more of Klein’s ink wash paintings. Klein and her late husband Lewis were in La Macarena, studying the behavioral ecology of spider monkeys. La Macarena is about 170 miles south of Bogata. The five-colored river Cano Cristales runs through. It is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.
Here Klein holds a photo of Margaret, whom she calls her first child.
Klein here holds a painting of her husband Lewis in a boat on the Guayabero River, which is part of the Orinoco River basin in Colombia.
Klein holds this self-portrait with a king vulture. King vultures were popular figures in Mayan codices (folding books) as well as in local folklore and medicine.
Out to the front yard, now fenced in.
When the Brogden parents lived in the house, it was painted white with ivy planted in front.
Brogden soon painted bright primary colored trim.
Until recently, there was a tall deodar cedar in the front yard.
In 2014, two huge branches fell in the driveway to the north, the house of Evy Kavaler and John Lau, tearing down the power and telephone services with them. Close call! The arborists who looked at the tree were concerned about the double trunk. Reluctantly, Brogden had the tree taken out. Upside: more light.
The bright colors that Brogden chose when she moved into the house in 1989 are more easily appreciated than was possible with the cedar. But what to do with the tree lumber?
The Green Waste Recycle Yard milled the tree lumber. The fence around the yard is from the tree. The table is from the tree, made by Jim Thornton.
The front yard – lots of art.
And, the same tiles today and 12 years ago.
The glaze for this whale mask was made with kelp ash.
My oh my. Two sisters. Two artistic sisters. Two artistic sisters living together. Two artistic sisters living together in their childhood home. In Berkeley, With art that they made around them.
I showed the photos to my friend. “Gotta go meet Klein. I donkeyed in to La Macarena and Cano Cristales in ’68. Bet you I knew her.” He paused. “I can’t remember the name of the beer. Great beer. A beer and a river with all those freaking colors and no fish. Heavy.”
I promised to take him to meet Klein so they could compare La Macarena notes. What does he think of the photos and the sisters two story?