This weekend is the finale of the annual Open Studios city-wide art-exhibit. Each October participating artists open their studios to visitors to get an up-close and personal view of their art and the surroundings they work in. Now sponsored and coordinated by the non-profit organization ArtSpan, the idea for Open Studios occurred almost 40 years ago. Back in the early 1970's, a group of artists decided to put together an art show of their own and skip the gallery scene. Formal galleries can be very difficult for artists to connect with.
This reporter over the years has heard accounts from various artists about all the troubles, frustration an artist encounters when displaying works through an established gallery. That of course is another story.
Yet what started in the 1970's, simply as an informal way for a little group of artists to show their works has evolved into a major event. Each year the Open Studios line up of artist studio showings keeps growing and includes more districts and areas of the City.
This year over 900 artists are participating in the month-long event. Among them is Cynthia Tom. I first met Cynthia in 1993 when on one of my very fist assignments for the Sunset Beacon newspaper. Her parents who lived in the Sunset District then, let her use a portion of their basement to display her work. Always conscious of art and the deeper aspects of humanity, Cynthia has kept in contact with me, urging me to not only attend her exhibits but to explore other venues of music, literature and culture that break down the barriers and build bridges for more sincere and accurate dialog between people.
Since our first meeting almost 20 years ago, I have reported on Open Studios a few times and each time, the event keeps growing.
"Open Studios has continued to be the longest running and most extensive art event in the nation," said Wendy Norris, an art consultant and media coordinator. She spoke to me about Open Studios when I wrote an article about it for The Richmond Review newspaper four years ago. Back then when I talked with Norris she said San Francisco's Open Studios has "served as a model for cities around the world, such as New York, Boston, Tokyo, etc ... all seeking to create similar annual events."
According to Norris, at the time in 2007 "Open Studios resulted in nearly 60,000 visitors citywide and nearly $1.7 million in art works sold."
This fact is something that most artists who participate take into account when considering the time and effort it takes to register, pay the fee, etc. Open Studios really helps artists to connect directly to the art-seeking public.
Cynthia has consistently kept her art endeavors going. Not only does she participate in the annual Open Studios, but Cynthia does not shy away from the journey artistically into area's unfamiliar and new to most audiences. When I first met Cynthia back in 1993, I and a few members of my family bought some of her work. I was fascinated by a lapel pin she made honoring "the spirit of Marlon Brando." Whimsical and yet original, I thought.
Apart from her whimsical expressions in art, I also know of Cynthia's work with the Angel Island exhibit. In her more serious and thought-provoking exhibits and collaborations, she has worked tirelessly to ensure that past generations are not forgotten. And, she seeks to alert people, especially contemporary Westerners to the history and significant contribution Asians have made to the United States.
A third-generation Chinese American, Cynthia draws inspiration from divergent cultures. She sees the resulting contradictions are expressed in a variety of ways. Eastern and Western symbols often share space on the same canvas. Fanciful dresses portray a prophetic wish for people to raise their consciousness and her strong female images evoke a longing for freedom of expression and a life of choice.
Symbols, cues and clues fill her art, which is described by Cynthia as “Cultural Surrealism.”.Cynthia’s paintings and installations persuade us to look beyond the aesthetic--to challenge stereotypes and traditional roles, questioning paradigms and encourages our internal dialogue.
Cynthia was persistent in her efforts to get media interested in the retrospective exhibit at the de Young called "Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents,1900 to 1970." The exhibit was rare, unique and one-of-a-kind. Had she not urged me to go, I would have missed out on it.
Mostly as I understand her work, Cynthia enters into a realm that ordinary people don't go. She not only studies concepts and social mores, she looks at feelings. And, not always the easy feelings but the more complex often subconscious feelings that are held within the individual. She also takes brave glimpses into collective feelings often misunderstood by society.
A visual multi-media artist, passionate about social justice, Cynthia ponders women’s issues and playing with the accepted norm. Surrealism is the platform for her ideas to ruminate, take form, solutions discovered and color to inspire.
A seeker and philosopher about issues in her life, her ancestors and the community of women, Cynthia is inspired by dialog with friends and family. Cynthia likes forming new themes and stories for her work. Collaboration and brainstorming are her playgrounds. A few years ago, Cynthia helped artists prepare their altar works in the "Day of the Dead" celebration in the Mission District, which is where her current studio at 1850 Bryant Street is located.
When I talked with her then she described how the Mission District and the entire City was changing. The Dot Com boom had left its mark after it went bust and then a new generation of people converged onto the City. The Mission District and surrounding South of Market area have changed dramatically from earlier decades when it was a working class neighborhood with a diverse mixture of cultures. It still retains much of that, only now the high tech industry is changing the mood and overall social demographics of the Mission which had been blue collar in mood and economics.
Cynthia's work has been exhibited at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the De Young Museum, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and various other galleries from New York to Washington to San Francisco. She lectures on her work, issues related to women, feminism in the arts and Asian American women in the arts; most recently for the College Art Association’s Annual Conference.
She described this current display of works for Open Studios as "a quirky show, but touching." To learn more about artist Cynthia Tom visit her web site.