For Joseph Mele, making art is the core focus of his life.  In the sanctuary of his 1,500 square foot live/work space in the Benicia Arsenal District’s former army barracks, overlooking the Carquinez Strait, he pours himself with full emotion into his multimedia work, sometimes creating 20 objects simultaneously. Each May for the past 15 years, he opens up his private space and offers visitors an intimate glimpse into his beautiful and tumultuous inner world.

"Strings Attached," by Joseph Mele“I love my studio,” says Mele, who constantly experiments with diverse materials and textures and is excited by the human form. “It is my safest place, and from here I can be articulate with people who are really interested in my work.”

Mele is among many talented artists who will participate in Arts Benicia’s 19th Annual Benicia Artists Open Studios May 5 and 6. Like previous years, thousands of visitors from throughout the Bay Area will flock to our artful city for this weekend-long cultural event. Art lovers and collectors can visit some 80 artists’ studios scattered through five historic buildings—many converted into artists’ live/work spaces—and a number of venues downtown and throughout the city. Studio-goers will encounter beauty in paintings, sculptures, jewelry, photography, metal work, ceramics, textiles and more. Best of all, they can engage with the artists and purchase directly from them, often at special prices. The majority of studios are within walking distance of each other, making it easy for visitors to park their cars nearby and explore on foot.

“During Open Studios, you’re not just seeing the finished product like in a gallery,” says Cherry Moore, Arts Benicia Board Member and event Chair. “You are seeing the artists’ technique, their medium, and how they got there. There are many ways to make art,” she says. “Some artists even set their work on fire!”

Respectfully referred to as the “mayor” in the arsenal community, Mike Kendall has lived and worked there for more than two decades. A skilled sculptor and painter, he’s also the creator of Bang! (Benicia Artist Networking Group). For the past 19 years he’s put his best into Open Studios. “I am part entertainer, so there will be video sculptures,” he says about his studio. “I like interactive work so I’ll put cameras out there so visitors can become a part of it, and not just look at it.”

Kendall is among a growing number of artists who use recycled and repurposed materials to make their three dimensional work. In response to the economy, he’s also been making smaller works that are more affordable to make and to purchase. His jewelry, or “little sculptures,” has collectors coming back for more.

The much loved plein air artist, Nikki Basch Davis, also plans to create a few smaller works for Open Studios. And like many artists, she has acquired a surplus of paintings in her practice over the years, and will pull these treasures out, many unframed, for visitors to enjoy at affordable prices. “I like connecting with people,” she says. “I like my art being a means to do that.”

Davis, an Arts Benicia board member, is the coordinator of the Mosaic Project, which connects people in a creative way. Now in its second year at Arts Benicia, everyone is invited to participate: seasoned artists, children and those who have never dabbled with a paintbrush.  Each participant is given a 6 x 6 inch tile and asked to create an original artwork. The goal this year is to have 200 finished tiles in the final “mosaic” installation that will be on view between April 19 and May 6 as part of the Open Studios exhibition. The public is invited to purchase anonymous tiles for $25 each. Drawn by lottery, collectors will not know which tile, or multiple tiles, they will go home with. “In my mind, everyone is an artist, and there will be very famous artists too,” says Davis. “But everyone puts their little hearts out on those panels.”

The Mosaic Project serves two purposes: to inspire community awareness and to raise funds to support Arts Benicia’s ongoing artistic and educational programs. The public response to the finished product last year was overwhelming. “Once it’s synchronized and up on the gallery wall, there is a beautiful picture of our community,” says Laura Buchan, Arts Benicia's Program Coordinator. “You get to really know the community through everyone’s work.”

Leading up to the Open Studios weekend, children and their grown-ups are encouraged to participate in Family Art Day on Sunday, April 22 from 1-3pm. On May 5 and 6, there will be demonstrations in the gallery’s adult education studio that reflect the classes offered year-round, and may include Chinese brush painting, figure drawing, printmaking and more. Food and wine will be served outside the gallery, and among other local amusements, Benicia Ballet School and Theatre will offer an open rehearsal of Swan Lake for families to enjoy. Maps of all open studios will be distributed from the gallery, and event organizers are working on ways to transport people from the arsenal district to participating downtown restaurants, studios and galleries, including the 621 Gallery, Benicia Plein Air Gallery, Lindsay Art Glass and others.

“Open Studios is an established event that pays dividends over time,” says Mario Guiliani, Economic Development Manager for the City of Benicia. “It exposes people from other areas to the beauty of Benicia and is a catalyst for them to keep coming back.”

Art credits, top to bottom:

  1. Benicia Fall, Oil on Canvas, 9” x 12” – Nikki Basch Davis
  2. Strings Attached, acrylic on engraved tin, 22” x 11” – Joseph Melee
  3.                                                                    – Mike Kendall
  4. Portal 2, Acrylic on recycled plywood, 22” – Mike Kendall