Quirky Berkeley: Avram Gur Arye makes intricate landscapes with toy figurines

Avram Gur Arye makes his assemblages/dioramas/art in his studio apartment on Derby Street.

Avram Gur Arye at Redwood Gardens. Credit: John Storey

Avram Gur Arye lives at Redwood Gardens, a 169-unit senior-designated apartment building, which is located on Derby Street, in a structure originally built in 1922 for the California School for the Deaf and Blind. 

Credit: John Storey

He makes his assemblages/dioramas/art in his studio apartment. With the necessity of a small space as the mother of invention, Gur Arye photographs the assemblages that he makes; those photographs, along with the stories that he composes, form the end product of his art.

Credit: John Storey

When he is done with a story, he packs up the pieces and starts on a fresh project.

Arye grew up in the Bronx, living with his mother and his Yiddish-speaking, Lithuanian-born grandmother. His father, who worked for Bell Labs, disappeared in 1941, when Ayre was almost 2. From ages 2-5, Ayre lived in New Jersey with a Quaker family who ran a private boarding school. His mother and grandmother worked and couldn’t juggle their jobs with a young Avram.

When the war ended, Avram came home to the playground called the Bronx: movies on Jerome Avenue, the local bagel shop, two-sewer baseball, cards and coins and marbles — and salugi. New York word maven Barry Popik describes salugi: “An unorganized game among children in which an article is snatched away from a victim and tossed back and forth among the tormentors; also used as a call in the game.”

Avram Gur Arye.

Avram attended P.S. 26 at Andrews Avenue and West Burnside Avenue in the Bronx. Teachers lived in the neighborhood and knew the students and their families. Young Avram often found himself in the principal’s office explaining why he had done what he had done or why he had left undone that which he had left undone.

After PS 26 came the Bronx High School of Science. The curriculum was science-driven. For the first time in his life, Avram found a class – evolution – to be challenging and interesting.

His mother worked at Rockefeller Center and Avram worked there as a messenger boy, walking Manhattan delivering messages and inhaling the city. He loved the work of Mies van der Rohe, especially the Seagram Building. He loved Le Corbusier, especially the Lever House on Park Avenue, the design of which incorporates ideas proposed by Le Corbusier in the 1920s.

He graduated from high school in 1957 and matriculated at the Pratt Institute, a private university in Brooklyn. “Then my life began,” he said.

At Pratt, he embarked on a five-year program studying architecture, a passion that he discovered on a trip to Mexico with his mother when he was 16. The blend of colonial, Aztec and Mayan influences and bright colors made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He found the same inspiration in the Calle Ocho neighborhood in Little Havana, Miami.  He married during his final year at Pratt. He and his young wife moved to San Francisco after graduation. Like many easterners who move to California, he envisioned a surfer on every corner.

Anschen and Allen. Credit: UC Berkeley, College of Environmental Design

He took a job with Anshen and Allen. Shown in this photo is the model of the shipping line office the firm designed. Avram’s first job in the office was designing the ticket office.

It was an architectural firm that made its reputation in the 1950s building over 3,000 houses for the developer Joseph Eichler and his model of affordable, mid-century, modern-style housing tracts.

Avram left Anshen and Allen after three years, wanting more supervision in a smaller firm working on smaller projects. He divorced and moved from Noe Valley to downtown. He had a small firm that did small jobs. He learned by doing, a quintessential autodidact.

On the side, he made art with Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils. And then the onset of a bipolar disorder took him out of architecture for 10 years. He was determined to control the disorder without medication, especially without lithium, which he found destructive of his creativity. He lived off savings with stints in retail jobs. He systematically fought cycles of uncontrolled automatic negative thoughts.

During his 10 years in the figurative wilderness, he painted – highly detailed, larger-scale paintings. He worked with photography, first with slides and then digitally.

He went to work as an architect for an old boss, but it didn’t work out. Living in Albany, he heard about Redwood Gardens, applied for an apartment, and eventually got in. It is subsidized housing, which helped make up for the savings he’d spent while struggling with his bipolar disorder.  

He found colorful magnetic blocks which served as the structural basis for many of his scenes.  

Credit: Avram Gur Arye
Credit: Avram Gur Arye
Photo: Avram Gur Arye

For the assemblage figures (he calls them “toys”), he shops online and at toy stores – Sweet Dreams, Mr. Mopps, Five Little Monkeys and Games of Berkeley – as well as Tail of the Yak and the now-closed Boss Robot Hobby on College Avenue. 

Credit: Avram Gur Arye

He begins with a concept, such as a convocation at People’s Park. He experiments with placement of the toys and camera angles and lighting. He tinkers and tinkers more, moving the pieces, finding different angles. Eventually, he senses from the toys an over-arching story, which he writes. He self-publishes books of photographs and their guiding story.  

Credit: Avram Gur Arye
Credit: Avram Gur Arye
Credit: Avram Gur Arye
Credit: Avram Gur Arye

The Black Madonna shown in the above photo features prominently in Avram’s more recent work, much as the naked Eve stands out in many of the photos in this post. Sitting on the Madonna’s lap is Black Sarah, Sarah-la-Kali, an “Icon of Love and Welcome.”

The surge of creativity that passes through Avram is an inspiration. He walks to the Safeway on College every morning. He often makes his way north to Peet’s at Walnut and Vine. He knows people. He makes photographs all day, experimenting, getting better. He is drawn to crowds, to play, to conversation. He is a creative polymath.

And he works on his books, photographs that tell stories, stories about the photographs.

The path to here hasn’t been easy, and it isn’t always easy even now. He is driven by art, by inspiration, by creating. 

For many more of Avram’s photos, check out his Facebook page. For his self-published books, browse the website of his publisher, BLURB.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 35-plus-year resident muses on what it all means.  A somewhat longer, more idiosyncratic version of this post, with more photographs, can be found on the Quirky Berkeley website.