Toy figures in artwork
Three figures enjoy a camping mini break in a piece by third grader Jaden J, part of the “Miniworlds” exhibition at Coffee Conscious. Photo: Jaden J
Three figures enjoy a camping mini break in a piece by third grader Jaden J, part of the “Miniworlds” exhibition at Coffee Conscious. Photo: Jaden J

Three little faces poked out from behind the living room curtain. “He’s here!” As I waved back, the faces swiftly withdrew, disappearing in a flurry of bashfulness — it would appear I had the right address.

Shy as they might be on first sight, these children were stars of a new show that recently opened in Northwest Berkeley – “Miniworlds,” a photography project produced (with a little bit of help) by a group of 10 third-grade girls.

This was certainly an interview with a difference. Hands shot up, but my work as notetaker was no small task as the excited ring of girls offered their opinions on the exhibition. “I feel proud about it — and happy!” “Not many people get to do that!” “We’re not loud!”

“We worked up to the day and got it done,” said Audrey, 9. Hers was a more judicious voice, and one reminiscent of the woman standing opposite — her mother, Jeannie Kim Chen.

As artistic conductor and creative wrangler, Chen is the adult who dots the ‘I’s, crosses the ‘T’s, and generally takes care of those tasks traditionally deemed too administrative for 9-year-olds.

By popular demand of her triplet daughters (of which Audrey is one), and some friends from Jefferson Elementary School, Chen set out to teach the girls professional-grade photography. Somewhat bravely lending out three $600 cameras in the process (“Nobody dropped it!”), she wrote a semester-long syllabus and, each Friday afternoon, imparted the nuances of aperture, ISO and shutter speed to her disciples.

Toy figure in artwork
A toy figure picks up the pieces in a “Miniworlds” artwork. Photo: Sienna C
A toy figure picks up the pieces in a “Miniworlds” artwork. Photo: Sienna C

“My after-triplet story is photography,” Chen said as we walked the several blocks from the family’s home to Coffee Conscious, the Albany café where the photographs are displayed. A former Hollywood visual effects specialist and film school graduate, Chen has impressive creative acumen.

“I want people to have the experience of walking into a kid’s imaginary place,” she said. “Whatever they create it’s from their heads, from their imagination — that is why I love this age.”

The exhibition certainly makes for an eclectic scene — particularly with the artists themselves swarming around identifying their favorites, all the while clinging to doughnut pieces, and evidently enjoying the resultant sugar intake.

The photos are largely compositions of toy figures, arranged to represent and bring a practical, physical face to (as Chen explains), imaginary worlds most of us adults don’t pause to create for ourselves.

A group of third grade photographers talk with Damion Hernstrom, manager of Coffee Conscious, where an exhibition of their work is on show. Photo: Max Brimelow

Watching on, and evidently delighted by the scene, is Damion Hernstrom, the café’s long-haired, free-and-easy and liberally inked-up manager. “Meet the artists — these are all the photographers!” he points out as he rings up a customer.

“People are like, ‘who’s the artist? Where does he live?’” Hernstrom jokes. “And I’m like, it’s a bunch of third graders.” For him, community input is paramount to running an independent business. “It’s cool, it’s intimate, it’s connections — it’s a no brainer,” he said.

The works are on sale at Coffee Conscious for $20-30 each. All proceeds go to Team World Vision, a charity that Chen discovered doing a sponsored walk with her triplets. So far, about $400 worth of artwork has flown off Hernstrom’s walls since the show opened June 1.

“I feel like there’s not enough opportunities to show work [in Berkeley],” he said. This isn’t the first time Hernstrom has used the café as an exhibition space, and it won’t be the last. He recently displayed a photo essay made by teenage siblings and has a mother-and-daughter led artwork project in the pipeline.

As for Chen, she wants a bit of a summer break. But she has future plans for a photo book, and one day a movie. This cadre of third graders may be set for artistic greatness, even if they don’t know it yet themselves.

Toy figures in artwork
Olive L takes things meta in one of her pieces on show as part of “Miniworlds.” Photo: Olive L

‘Miniworlds’ is on display until Aug. 31 at Coffee Conscious, 1312 Gilman St., Albany. Prints are priced $20-30. All profits go to Team World Vision.  

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Max is a British shortform video journalist, most interested in the environment, social issues and sports. He currently works for Berkeleyside, both in print and video, for the summer of 2019. He is a...