Comedian Langstyn Avery and muralist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith talk before Holy Ground Comedy at Wolfe Pack Studios in Oakland on March 23, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
On a recent Thursday evening, at a standup show called Holy Ground Comedy, Wolfe Pack Studios felt more like a house party. Squads of mostly 20- and 30-somethings filed into the cozy, downtown Oakland art space. Old friends hugged, and new acquaintances mingled on velvet couches. Upstairs, while a few guests played chess, a smiling Chef Njeri served big plates of Caribbean food — chicken legs, salad, rice and peas.
When the evening’s MC, Langstyn Avery, asked how many in the audience were born and raised in Oakland, a healthy number of cheers erupted from the crowd. And when he asked who was born outside the U.S., audience members enthusiastically shouted out Colombia, Lebanon and Vietnam. In this inclusive atmosphere, compliments and laughs flowed freely, and everyone — not just the comedians on stage — seemed comfortable sharing themselves.
That’s the kind of feel-good vibe artists are cultivating at Wolfe Pack Studios, the new art gallery and event space founded by muralist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith. Since opening in October 2022, the small storefront has become a clubhouse where writing workshops, comedy shows and album release parties bring together the Town’s many creative scenes.
“I think culture is made of experiences, right?” Wolfe-Goldsmith says of her omnivorous programming. “You’re curating these moments in time with specific people to create a certain energy, to inspire people in a certain type of way.”
Wolfe-Goldsmith serves as the creative director at the public art nonprofit Bay Area Mural Program (BAMP), and she’s responsible for some of Oakland’s best-known walls, including a tribute to the women of the Black Panther Party in West Oakland. Though most people encounter her art in its static form, she says her practice has always been alive and participatory. She got her start painting at electronic music festivals a decade ago, and years of living in big, communal artist houses left her comfortable in spaces where new ideas and activities are always flowing.
“Art doesn’t have an R.O.I. [return on investment] or a definite measurement of what it does for you, but you see it when people come experience a space full of music, storytelling, community or the actual art on the walls,” she says. “It’s impactful to the spirit.”
Avery, who’s performed comedy for years as Kinglangbang, shares that philosophy. Outside of co-curating events at Wolfe Pack Studios, he runs a group called Negus in Nature, which organizes outdoor excursions for a Black audience. He and Wolfe-Goldsmith met through BAMP and became close on a trip to Oregon, where she painted a mural of him holding a cluster of foraged mushrooms.
“I have a tattoo that says ‘Stress less, travel more,’ and that’s a motto I live by,” he says. “Going out into nature definitely releases stress, being in a community around people that you love, going to see new places. Creating art, experiencing art, facilitating art and having comedy shows are kind of like those intersections where you find me.”
In Wolfe-Goldsmith, Avery found a collaborator who was willing to take a chance. After finding the 13th Street storefront on Craigslist, Wolfe-Goldsmith crowdfunded $10,000, put in $5,000 of her own savings and got to work on giving the space a facelift. With the help of a grant, she’s been able to compensate artists and keep programming at Wolfe Pack Studios free or affordable, with most ticketed shows charging $22 or less at the door.
“I have this thing called shitter-getter-doners, and those are people who get shit done,” Avery says. “Rachel is definitely a shitter-getter-doner. … How do you push the envelope of what is deemed acceptable as artwork and then create a space for those rebels? Every rebel needs a clubhouse.”
That intimate, casual atmosphere was apparent when I visited Wolfe Pack Studios a week prior to Holy Ground Comedy. An artist named Creative Shields hunched over his tablet, locks spilling out of his beanie as he sketched. Darin, a painter, sat down below one of his aerosol art pieces and unwrapped a burrito. Warren, a tech professional not quite ready to label himself an artist, shyly introduced himself. The 10 or so people in the room, all at different places on their artistic paths, gathered to listen to creative technologist Damien McDuffie demystify his augmented reality app, Black Terminus, which brings murals, photos and pieces of Oakland Black history to life with videos and animation.
“You don’t have to have a desktop, you don’t have to know coding,” he reassured the circle. By the time the session finished, the artists had learned McDuffie’s step-by-step process, and augmented reality no longer felt like sorcery.
Tech can be a fraught topic in artist circles, considering the industry’s role in the Bay Area’s sky-high cost of living. But Wolfe-Goldsmith has long embraced the idea of democratizing emerging technologies. McDuffie is gearing up for a solo show at Wolfe Pack Studios in May, when the gallery will host more events centered on augmented reality.
“[I’m] really trying to make stuff accessible, futuristic and relevant and fun,” Wolfe-Goldsmith says.
The turnout at most events speaks for itself: After three years of pandemic living, it’s clear that artists are eager to be a part of something, and to connect face-to-face. At Wolfe Pack Studios, Deej Letemps’ creative writing group, Writer’s Block, is already attracting regulars; DJ Ignacia and DJ Jambalaya are hosting frequent dance parties; and a soon-to-announced Tiny Desk-inspired live music series is in the works.
“There’s a lot of feedback that the space feels like home, and it feels cozy,” Wolfe-Goldsmith says. “It feels like somewhere you want to stay.”