West Berkeley has inspired Jeannie O’Connor for 40 years. In the 1980s, she was a single parent struggling to create an artistic practice, support herself with meaningful work, raise a small child, and establish a community life. She rode her motorbike down to West Berkeley from the Cal campus to buy stretcher bars and found herself charmed by a neighborhood full of Victorian houses. She eventually found a home and studio in the area and began teaching photography at the West Berkeley Senior Center. Years later, this community, its inhabitants, architecture, and environment continue to inform O’Connor’s art.

Staying Power, Shoh Gallery, on view through Sept. 23

Artist reception, Sept. 9; panel discussions, Sept. 14 and 23

Now, two of O’Connor’s images are on view at West Berkeley’s Shoh Gallery on Gilman Street, along with work by seven other women artists with ties to Berkeley. Curated by Jan Wurm (whose work is also exhibited), Staying Power – Women Artists Forging Through the Decades brings together eight artists who, like Wurm and O’Connor, have persevered in their practices despite numerous challenges throughout periods of social and political turmoil. Juggling studio and family life, success against critical, gender and institutional rejection, the strength of their commitment and vision has empowered their art.

Although some of the women know each other, and a few have shown together previously, they do not form a stylistic cohort. What connects them is an interest in figuration — a reference to the real world and the human figure instead of pure abstraction — and Wurm’s presentation. In the exhibition, each artist is represented in two distinct stages in their career. First with an art piece executed in the 1980s during their early development, then with a contemporary piece. So, while the exhibition provides insight into these artists’ individual paths, collectively, Staying Power is a journey through Berkeley’s rich aesthetic and cultural history.

Interior view of an art gallery with five works
Installation shot from right to left: Livia Stein, Camillo, 1986, oil on panel; Hilda Robinson, Fly So High, 2016, oil pastel on paper; Lia Cook, Framed & Draped Tapestry Quilt, 1989, abaca, rayon, painted, pressed; Jeannie O’Connor, Clothesline, Yellow House, 1982, painted black and white film collage. Courtesy of Shoh Gallery

In the case of O’Connor, her formative piece Clothesline, Yellow House (1982) is a photographic, painted and collaged surreal depiction of a woman pulling in clothes from her window. One supposes that O’Connor saw a version of herself in this unknown woman engaged in a domestic chore, and skewed the image to reflect the strangeness of recognition. In her recent work, O’Connor captures our present climate catastrophe. California Burning, 2021, depicts a photograph of a map of California hanging from a furniture store sign. The photo is collaged behind a distressed, orange-tinted mirror. “I couldn’t forget that orange sky,” O’Connor said when I reached out to her, referring to Sept. 9, 2020, when wildfires obscured the sun. “Or the dust falling through the air.” Slivers of all of us are caught and trapped in the reflective glass shards of California Burning. The domestic is burning to the ground.

Sepia photo of a storefront that reads "California Furniture"
Jeannie O’Connor, California Burning, 2021, painted film collage mirror. Courtesy of the artist

Many of the artists in the exhibition attended UC Berkeley in the 1970s at a time when few women were on the roster of the art department, few women were full professors, few were mentors. Still, these women found their way to the practice of art through experimentation and elimination. Livia Stein studied history, thinking she’d become an academic. But dissatisfaction with a Westernized view led her to travel to India, which led to photography and, eventually, to painting. “I work out of my head,” she said. “Somewhere along the way, a figure emerges. I’m very interested in the relationship between people and how they converse.” The results on display are vibrant synesthetic compositions full of color and personal mythology.

Hilda Robinson was nearly 50 by the time she had raised three kids and saved enough money to attend Cal. There she was lucky enough to study drawing with Joan Brown in the 1980s. Brown taught her students to use oil pastels, and Robinson has stuck with that material, employing pastels to document childhood memories and Black life from her observations riding trains and buses, and walking the streets of Berkeley and Oakland. “Strangers, especially church folk, invite themselves into my compositions,” Robinson writes in her artist statement. “They sit down, stand up or lean back and mold themselves into the background, knowing somehow exactly where they belong. This is the incredible movement of the human spirit that persists in my work.”

Likewise, the human spirit in all its complexities and the relinquishment to process and material informs the work of Lorraine Bonner, who was a physician before becoming an artist. However, Bonner found medicine insufficient to address the vastness of disease, illness, and healing. Suffering from repressed memories of her own childhood sexual abuse led Bonner to take a class in ceramics at Merritt College. The clay led her gently away from the idea of victimization — away from isolation — into the larger context of art. While Bonner’s early work explored personal trauma, her later work grapples with the broken and hopeful mending of the planet. In Wounded World Healer (2017), a female figure holds our planet in her right hand while her left is clasping a jigsaw piece about to fit it back into place. When I asked Bonner to summarize her feelings on the show’s title, she replied, “Part of staying power is just having stayed alive, part of it has been staying in a growing relationship with the clay, staying open to what it has wanted to teach me. Another part has been the ongoing support of other people in responding to my work, or I should say, our work since the clay has always been more of a partner than a medium.”

A bald woman, sculpted out of dark black clay, holds the world
Lorraine Bonner, Wounded World Healer, 2017, clay. Courtesy of the artist

Several artists in Staying Power favor non-traditional art materials, not just pastels and clay, but wood and textiles, as a means of exploring historically devalued gender associations. Early on, Diana Krevsky sculpted canvas into ironic, life-sized dolls, as seen in Save the Last Dance for Me (1987). Now, she assembles wood scraps into whimsically figurative dolls with zippers for crotches, like What Time Is It (2017). The simple pleasure of what she terms “handiwork” continues to link her body of work.

Gallery shot with scultped canvas painting of man and woman dancing
Installation shot from right to left: Diana Krevsky, Save the Last Dance for Me, 1987, sculptural canvas painting; Kim Anno, For Sartre, 1980, lithograph; Lia Cook, Spring Upstart, 2023, Cotton, rayon woven, triptych. Courtesy of Shoh Gallery

When Lia Cook first fell in love with textiles, it was precisely for the fact that the medium was devalued as a women’s craft in the U.S. It was the 1970s, and women’s groups discussing women’s issues were popping up nationwide, particularly in Berkeley. Cook intentionally focused on textiles as content. Framed & Draped Tapestry Quilt (1989), Cook’s early representation in the show demonstrates her intention to foreground drapery. Having attended Berkeley as a political science major (with all male professors), she got a job showing slides in the art history department. When she began creating textiles, she wanted her work to focus on all the Renaissance drapery she’d noticed in the background. “I wanted the drapery to be the whole thing,” she said.

A tapestry with a design made of multi-colored triangles
Lia Cook, Framed & Draped Tapestry Quilt, 1989, abaca, rayon, painted, pressed. Courtesy of the artist

In the 1980s, just as Cook began her career, Berkeley was the perfect community to foster an avant-garde textile artist. At Cal, the fiber artist Ed Rossbach was weaving sculptures out of foil and plastic bags. And while most commercial galleries shunned such work, Fiberworks Center for Textile Arts on Bonita Avenue in Berkeley showcased textile art such as Cook’s and held community programs and conferences.

Since then, Cook’s art has evolved alongside (sometimes ahead) of technology. She was an earlier adapter of digital Jacquard — computer-controlled, manually operated weaving looms. In her triptych, Spring Upstart, 2023, she fuses images from plant fibers with those taken from her neural network brain fibers. “I ended up weaving my brain,” she said. “But it’s always an organic development, of patterns and connections.”

Jan Wurm, the curator of Staying Power, is also a painter whose abiding interest reflects narratives that explore the human condition. Settling in Berkeley at the end of the 1970s, her early paintings probed family life. Wyatt Earp & Annie Oakley (1980) is a vibrant canvas that captures a moment when an itinerant photographer with a pony and a bag of costumes is, in turn, capturing two children and their mother sneaking a cigarette off to the side, as they playact a romanticized version of cowboys and Western Expansion. In Anthropology (2022), Wurm’s bright colors have been replaced by a monochromatic brown palette that portrays an anthropologist surrounded by skulls. Like exploration and paralysis, childhood and age, and life and death, these two pieces bookend one another.

Gallery shot with a painting in the foreground at right of a man at a table holding a skull
Installation shot from right to left: Jan Wurm, Anthropology, 2022, oil on canvas; Lorraine Bonner, Wounded World Healer, 2017, clay; Kim Anno, Utopia West, 2019, oil on metal; Jeannie O’Connor, Clothesline, Yellow House, 1982, painted black and white film collage. Courtesy of Shoh Gallery

More than a decade younger than the other seven artists in the exhibition, Kim Anno grew up in the feminist movement these women helped ignite. From the start, the personal was already political for Anno, and her work has sought to connect and expand art’s social context. Her themes include ecology, climate change, and the re-examination of European-American consciousness. For Sartre, a lithograph from 1980 is a tribute to the French philosopher in the year of his death. “Existentialism is [a] Humanism was very influential to me,” Anno said. “Along with his wife, Simone de Beauvoir, these were heroes to a young feminist and social thinker such as myself.” Indeed, Sartre was the philosopher who argued for moral improvement through responsibility. In its way, Anno’s art demands the same level of engagement.

Kim Anno, Utopia West, 2019, oil on metal. Courtesy of the artist

Utopia West (2019), is an oil-on-metal Dionysian scene that interrogates art history. Riffing on Peter Paul Rubens’ famous painting The Birth of the Milky Way, Anno collaged and painted different engravings with the central Rubens figure of a mother squirting milk from her breast into the open mouth of her child. Her final result disrupts the traditional male view of womanhood as depicted in Western art history. Breasts aren’t merely objects to stare at but functioning body parts. Anno calls this a commodification of the sublime.

While Berkeley’s ad-hoc institutions — like Fiberworks, which first fostered many of these artists’ careers — have closed, major institutions are finally acquiring their art. Anno, Cook, O’Connor, Stein and Wurm’s artworks are included in major museum collections in the U.S.

Anno’s solo exhibition, Animals’ Reading Room, will be on view at Anglim/Trimble gallery in San Francisco from Sept. 7 to Oct. 9. In her 90s, Robinson just exhibited at the Berkeley Art Center. Last year, Bonner presented an installation of her extinction series at the SOMArts Dia de Los Muertos celebration. And Cal’s political science department, where Cook once studied as an undergraduate, finally realized they only had portraits of male alumni. They’ve just purchased several of Cook’s self-portrait textile pieces.