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‘Fight and Flight’ Captures Artistic Responses to the Pressures of Bay Area Life

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Two textile pieces with legs: one mounted to wall as if jumping up, another slumped in corner
Work by Alexander Hernandez in 'Fight and Flight: Crafting a Bay Area Life' at the Museum of Craft and Design. (Henrik Kam)

When I moved to the Bay Area two years ago, the first people I ever interviewed were a group of Oakland artists living and working together in an old fruit cannery. Music would often float out into the hallways of the weary building when a resident left their door open, inviting the other artists inside as they painted or cooked. This respite offered relief against a constant and pressing struggle: their landlords had been pressuring them to move out so they could fill the live-work studios with business. As affordable housing continued — and continues — to dwindle, the question of where to go loomed heavy over their heads.

While the Bay Area has been home to different creative communities for decades, more and more of its artists are wondering whether or not it is sustainable to remain here. This question is the focus of Fight and Flight: Crafting a Bay Area Life, one of the latest exhibitions at the Museum of Craft and Design. On view until Sept. 10, Fight and Flight features the work of 23 artists who have chosen to stay or leave the Bay Area in recent years.

Curators Jacqueline Francis and Ariel Zaccheo developed the idea for the exhibition after visiting several local artists’ studios throughout the pandemic. As the subject and theme for the show became clear, Francis and Zaccheo were intentional about not making the title ‘fight or flight,’ which suggests a clear and distinct separation between the two options.

Wide photo of gallery install with colorful works on walls, sculptures on pedestals and exhibition title.
Installation view of ‘Fight and Flight’ at the Museum of Craft and Design. (Henrik Kam)

“I think a lot of artists, even though they leave, still have this connection here,” Zaccheo tells me, describing the Bay Area as a “creative home base” for artists even after they decide to move away.

Aside from the overarching subject of the show, there is no unifying theme amongst the pieces themselves. Constructed with an array of different mediums and materials — including ceramics, embroidered textiles, beer bottles, beads and synthetic hair — each piece is a unique representation of an aspect of the artist’s identity. Walking through the gallery, I stared closely at each work, trying to interpret and tie together every message with the materials being used.


Not far from the exhibition’s entrance is multidisciplinary artist Richard-Jonathan Nelson’s Hearing hooves the fire winds lead to distraction, a massive handwoven piece that is richly saturated with color, texture and movement. Against a bucolic backdrop of giant flowers and fauna, a figure is caught mid-stride, their face slightly obscured from the viewer. They are juxtaposed by an intense orange and blue patterned fabric, and a set of floating hooves that mirror their movement.

Nelson’s work is imbued with maximalism, with each corner of the work covered in a way that makes every viewing a discovery — a chance to ponder a different realm within the piece. The artist blends digital processes with more traditional craft practices to create hybrid, fantastical pieces that explore Black autonomy, queerness and imagination.

Two wall-hanging textile works in composite image, one ornate and flowery, the other a figure leaning on a cart
L to R: Richard-Jonathan Nelson’s ‘Hearing hooves the fire winds lead to distraction’; Craig Calderwood’s ‘Emotional Support, Hornet’s Nest’ in ‘Fight and Flight.’ (Henrik Kam)

Another vibrant piece in the show is artist Craig Calderwood’s Emotional Support, Hornet’s Nest. Made with upholstery fabric, paint and glazed ceramic, the large-scale work focuses on a figure leaning over a utility cart. Their face is made up of dainty red, blue, yellow and orange flowers and their eyes are two blooming blue pansies. The piece invites you to step closer in order to observe the minute details and the delicate linework. Calderwood created the artwork in response to being an essential worker during the pandemic, an experience that made them contemplate and question the line between self-sacrifice and self-preservation.

There are also references to gender and sexuality within Calderwood’s work: a transgender symbol sits on one of the cart’s legs, partially hidden. And one of the focal points of the piece — the brilliant blue pansy eyes — is a reference to queer history and the use of “pansy” as a slur. Here, the pansies are not only objects of beauty but also the lens through which the figure views the world. They are corporeal features and the very receptacle that shapes their vision and perspective.

Rendered with inventive approaches to craft, each work included in Fight and Flight is an intimate reflection on identity, artmaking and the concept of home. For many, the decision to leave or remain in the Bay Area provides equally painful alternatives — to stay is to struggle with the mounting challenges of housing and resources. To leave is to part ways with the place where they’ve carved out a sense of belonging.

Like many of the artists she worked with in this exhibition, Zaccheo initially moved to San Francisco in search of an artistic community, independence and growth. “Once I was here, I was just struck by the openness and ability to make connections, friendships and community here,” says Zaccheo. “And then beyond that, I feel a responsibility to stay — to stick around and maintain this culture of creativity that might be waning in some aspects as gentrification continues. As long as I can stay, I will.”

‘Fight and Flight: Crafting a Bay Area Life’ is on view until Sept. 10, 2023 at the Museum of Craft and Design. More information and tickets here.

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