You may be a longtime Berkeley resident and a regular patron of the arts but not know that Berkeley has an art ambassador who honors a Berkeley artist every month, feting that person with a ceremony at City Council meetings.
The art ambassador’s name is Susan Felix. She is a highly energetic 80-year-old who sometimes pins up her long hair with butterfly barrettes and seems to know almost everyone in Berkeley. Starting April 4, more people will probably hear her name as Felix will start to host a half-hour TV program called “ArtBeat” on Berkeley’s public-access channel. Felix will cover Berkeley’s arts scene and interview whomever she has honored that month
Felix is the only person ever to have served as Berkeley’s art ambassador, an unpaid position Mayor Tom Bates created in 2004. He decided that Berkeley needed an art ambassador and he looked to his longtime friend for help. Bates and his wife, former Berkeley Mayor and State Senator Loni Hancock, and Felix and her late husband, Morton, used to go camping together at Echo Lake Camp in Desolation Wilderness. Felix, an accomplished ceramicist, had previously been president of the Civic Arts Commission, though by the time Bates made this decision she had left the organization, having grown tired of the meetings
Felix accepted Bates’s appointment, but only after insisting on a certain amount of freedom, such as not having to write reports and having no one tell her what to do.
She held the position until Bates retired and assumed her time was over when Jesse Arreguín came into office. Arreguín, elected in November 2016, was 32 and Felix figured he would want someone fresh for the role. Instead, he asked her to stay on.
Felix has found Arreguín open to almost all of her ideas. For instance, she proposed having music and poetry at his inauguration, which had not been a part of previous mayoral swearing-in ceremonies, as far as she knows. She found a Native American flutist to play as people entered and arranged for the Berkeley poet, Rafael Jesus Gonzalez, to read a poem. Felix thought Gonzalez was a perfect choice because both he and Arreguín are the descendants of Mexican farmworkers.
Felix later suggested that Berkeley have its first-ever poet laureate, and Arreguin agreed. Gonzalez landed the two-year position.
Putting artists in the spotlight
One of Felix’s proudest accomplishments as ambassador is having brought recognition to artists. In the early days, she selected individuals and appeared at their promotional events to announce that the day had been named after them. For example, while introducing author Susan Griffin at a book reading at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Felix declared it Susan Griffin Day and issued Griffin a sheet of paper with the official proclamation.
Eventually, a day grew to a month.
“I was told people would prefer a month to a day,” said Felix. “Who wouldn’t?” So now she names an artist of the month and has upgraded the celebration. “It’s such a simple way to make people happy.”
The ceremony is held monthly at a City Council meeting at Old City Hall. Honoring an artist is the first order of business for the evening. The mayor reads a proclamation about the artist’s contributions and achievements. Honorees then have three minutes at the podium to do whatever they want. Gamelan Sekar Jaya, a 60-member company specializing in Balinese music and dance, came in strewing rose petals, then played music and danced in a beautiful performance, said Felix. (She also remembers sinking to her hands and knees to clean up the petals afterward.)
“The council usually smiles through the whole thing,” said Felix. “Almost everybody on the council has told me it’s one of their favorite things,” as it gets the evening off to a happy start.
“I think it is a beautiful beginning to a meeting when we’re all in harmony and hearing poetry and music and various art forms,” said City Councilman Kriss Worthington. “It’s a unifying, healing part of the meeting. And then sometimes the rest of the night is not quite so much fun.”
Over the years, Felix has worked hard at honoring artists of different backgrounds, races, and mediums.
Honorees have included Kent Nagano (a conductor), Hung Liu (a painter), Al Young (a poet laureate of California), Mildred Howard (an artist), Lewis Suzuki (a painter), Salma Arastu (an artist), Adam David Miller (an author and poet), Eduardo Pineda (a muralist) and Lester Chambers (a musician).
Berkeley has also honored Robert Hass (a poet laureate of the United States), Deborah Kaufman (a filmmaker), Barbara Oliver (the Aurora Theatre founder), Joyce Jenkins (editor of “Poetry Flash”) and Tony Taccone (the artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre).
Felix defines “artist” quite broadly. She has had the city of Berkeley honor Wavy Gravy (a clown and peace activist), Walter J. Hood (a landscape architect and teacher), Sally Baker (producer of the television show “Wee Poets”), Lisa Bullwinkel (the producer and director of events such as Solano Stroll) and Kris Welch (a radio host).
The artist in the spotlight in February was Rabbi Michael Lerner, an author and the editor of the magazine “Tikkun.” In March, it is musician Faye Carol. Photographer Gerry Traucht will take the honors in April.
Some of the honorees have done some interesting things with their nominations.
Five-time author Leonard Pitt, who became known internationally in the theater world for his physical expressiveness, particularly as a mime, hammed it up when he received his honor at City Hall in 2006. He wore a beautiful French cape and what he calls his “pope’s ring” (a cheap piece of costume jewelry) that he had people kiss.
As one of the early nominees, he also received a proclamation from Felix at a book signing at Black Oak Books. But that wasn’t all. He held court for a full day at the French Hotel Cafe, where he was a regular, again wearing the cape, as well as a distinguished hat and a beautiful silk scarf. There he signed photocopies of his proclamation for fans. “I made sure everybody knew about it,” he recalls. At one point he paraded up and down Shattuck Avenue in his getup, brandishing the proclamation.
“I had to have fun with it!” said Pitt. “It was my day!”
In 2017, the city council passed a resolution honoring Felix’s program and accomplishments. The city has also started to fund an annual juried exhibition in City Hall. Each participating artist gets a $150 honorarium. The next show, which started March 2 and lasts a year, is free and open to the public, but the art will be behind locked doors, so visitors will need to take a tour in order to see the works.
Worthington says that by bestowing awards in this way, Felix is “doing a phenomenal job of bringing people to light.” He recalls one time when Felix honored a musician at City Hall. Although two City Council members had heard of the man and his work, they had no idea he lived in Berkeley or even the Bay Area.
“I think a lot of people like the arts, but they don’t know what’s right here in our own backyard,” he said.
If the awards do a lot for Council members, the emotional impact is even greater on the artists.
“I think it’s very meaningful for people,” said Felix. “I think people are proud of it.”
Society doesn’t do enough to honor and celebrate people, said Felix. “We praise people after they die and not very much sometimes when they’re alive.” She recalls one poet hearing the free-flowing praise at his award ceremony and saying, “This is so exciting. I’m like at my own memorial service.”
Ruth Gendler, an author, poet and painter who was honored in January, said artists and writers tend to work in solitude. Seeing that their work has mattered to people, and still matters, encourages them to do more work. “It’s nice to be honored,” said Gendler. “You feel like you belong to a tribe of artists.”
Receiving this type of award prompts you to look back over the work you’ve done and think about what else you want to do, said Gendler.
The awards matter economically
Recognizing artists isn’t just about boosting their self-esteem. The recognition can lead to more work or other awards, even conferring eventual economic benefits. As Felix points out, when an artist has the support of a city government, that paves the way for receiving grants from sources farther afield.
Just about all artists could use help in the financial arena.
“We have many brilliant, extraordinary writers doing wonderful work right here in Berkeley, and we’re all struggling financially,” said Griffin. “It’s really scandalous how America treats its writers.”
Griffin has published more than 20 books, but that doesn’t guarantee financial security or a steady income, she said, observing that accomplishing that much in any other profession would certainly lead to financial health and independence.
Worthington notes that the artistic and cultural richness of Berkeley is somewhat “at risk because of the increasingly high rents.” Because both living space and work space have become unaffordable for many, artists are leaving Berkeley. That not only impacts individual artists but the economics of Berkeley, which draws people because of its rich cultural life, said Worthington.
“To me, the arts are significant and meaningful in their own right,” he said. “But they also are a major economic force in attracting people to the city to participate in different arts events and arts festivals. I think promoting the arts and the vitality of the arts is great for the image of Berkeley, and it’s good for the economy of Berkeley.”
Poetry is Felix’s first love
Even though Felix is known as a ceramicist, that’s not what she talks about when she discusses the arts. Rather, poetry is the topic to which she returns time and again: “Poetry has always been my first love. Not to write but to read and just to integrate into my life.”
Felix grew up in New York City (as her strong Queens accent indicates), and at 16 she attended poetry readings by T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and e.e. cummings. “I was totally enchanted with poetry and the way in just a short time it can convey so much. The whole story can be told so briefly.”
Before meeting her husband, Morton, in person, she fell in love with him by reading his work in the Queens College poetry magazine. She didn’t even want to be introduced to him because she was afraid it might ruin her image of this “mythical creature.” “I had already fallen in love with his soul,” she said. Nevertheless, they went on a blind date when she was 18 and she immediately knew she wanted to marry him. Her mother objected.
Her parents also forbade her to be an artist because her aunt had had a hard life while trying to make a living as an artist and ended up dying in her 30s, partly because of lack of health insurance.
Felix married at 19, moved with her husband to Connecticut, finished her education and promptly started studying ceramics. In part, she took up pottery because she lusted after some beautiful dishes that she couldn’t afford and decided to make them herself. (The Graduate Theological Union recently had a retrospective of her ceramic art.)
In 1967, when she was 29, she and her husband permanently relocated to Berkeley after a stint in Mexico, where they taught crafts.
Her husband of 55 years died in February 2012, and she missed the way he always showered her with poems that he’d written just for her. She asked 30 poet friends (including Griffin and Gendler) to write her poems. That collective effort turned into the small book Stay Amazed.
The friends met at multiple gatherings, reading their poems aloud to Felix in an atmosphere that felt warm and communal, according to Gendler. Since then, Felix has thrown yearly parties, having her guests perform music, dance and poetry, turning the events into quasi–arts festivals. She wants the arts to be the “meal” at such get-togethers, not a mere hors-d’oeuvre.
“I love bringing all the arts together,” said Felix. “I like connections, in any way possible. But to bring the arts together has always been something that I love.”
Griffin, who calls Felix fun, witty, playful and very down to earth, enjoys how she “gathers people together in the literary community like gathering family or a network of friends.” Griffin notes that Felix brings a “wonderful spirit to that whole scene.”
Pitt has also been a part of Felix’s musical gatherings, having joined her and others for klezmer night at Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen.
“Everything she does is great,” said Pitt. “She’s such a special person! We need more like her. Her enthusiasm knows no bounds. She’s very loving. She includes everyone. She’s just a great spirit. She’s the kind of person you want to be around. The world she emanates is the world you want to live in.”
Felix hasn’t yet tired of serving as Berkeley’s arts ambassador. She said that she’ll leave the position “when I feel like I can’t do it or when somebody asks me to stop doing it—whatever comes first.” Right now, “I think I’m doing fine.”