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House Talk

No. 42 - December 12, 2011

Berkeley's Best Kept Secret: The Ames Gallery
A talk with Bonnie and Sy Gossman

Judith Glass and Sheila Sabine, in their many years in real estate, sometimes stumble upon very exciting people doing very exciting things in their home residences. One such couple is Bonnie and Sy Gossman who own and run The Ames Gallery in their personal residence at 2661 Cedar Street in Berkeley, Calif. This section of Berkeley has always been a Mecca for many talented people and places such as Chez Panisse and the ever-popular shops and restaurants of the Gourmet Ghetto. So how did the Ames Gallery, one of Berkeley's best-kept secrets, come about?

Bonnie and Sy's relationship began in 1952 when they decided to get married eleven days after they met. Sy was getting a degree at M.I.T. but changed paths and decided to go to medical school. He is now retired but was a practicing physician for over 40 years most recently at Kaiser Medical Center in Oakland. Bonnie has a diverse background and a multitude of talents. She has been co-producer/director of nine television programs and has served as a consultant for a TV series on antiques and collectibles.

In 1965, they moved to Berkeley. They bought their current residence on Cedar Street in 1969. As a hobby and for their own pleasure, they started collecting medicine bottles, food choppers and lemon squeezers. The Ames Gallery was established in 1970; in 1971 Bonnie became the KQED coordinator of the art section for their annual fundraising auction. There, she met a self-taught artist and former boxer, Alex Maldonado; this encounter led to changing their home gallery to a folk art gallery. Maldonado rose from being unknown to becoming a well-known international artist with his works appearing in many books and publications. Initially they represented more mainstream academic artists who were striving to make a mark. This put a lot of pressure on Bonnie to make the artists successful. Gradually, the Ames Gallery transitioned into representing naive emerging artists who were very humble and thrilled that someone wanted to show their art. The names of these artists, samples of their work, and their bios are detailed on the Ames website. Each artist has a very colorful background and each truly merits individual attention.

Fast forward to the early 80's. The Grossman household was indeed a busy one. They were raising their two children, working full time, and having shows and receptions. They liked to travel and often took the road less traveled to find their treasures in small antique stores and in small towns off the beaten track. Their gallery became known for Folk Art and actually is the only gallery in the Bay area that also represents "outsider" art.

Their definition of folk art is the art of a community. So, for example, in a crop community, baskets are born, and a lot of pottery came out of the American South. Bonnie and Sy are drawn to anything handmade - quilts, paintings, rugs, etc. These anonymous artists were very thrifty using simple items such as seashells, buttons, old nylons, and bottle caps. Bonnie specially collects "Mended Art" defined by its creative repairs such as stapling fine china or ingeniously patching wooden bowls. Other samples are called "Make-Do Art" which re-uses a portion of an object such as the base from a broken vase or goblet padded and made into a pincushion.

Included in this collection are wonderful examples of "Tramp Art." Tramp Art blossomed between 1870 and 1930. Much of the art was made from cast-off cedar and mahogany cigar boxes. Out of these materials beautiful jewelry boxes, frames and furniture were lovingly created by mostly German and Scandinavian immigrants. Another cast-off material was bailing wire formed into intricate baskets by the Tohono O'odham Indians (formerly the Papago Indians) of Arizona and the Mayo Indians of northern Mexico as well as others.

For Bonnie and Sy, every room of their house has become a part of the gallery - one might say plastered with art!! They are surrounded by all the objects that they love so much. In their kitchen is a surgical chair and the kitchen stools are from an ice cream parlor from the old Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Their kitchen walls are lined with every kind of cutter and chopper one could imagine. Their living room coffee table is a "Must Hatch Incubator" from a Petaluma - made from lovely wood with brass fixtures and a glass window.

Currently, the living room has an exhibition from artists representing "Outsider Art". These artists might have some form of developmental issues and are attempting to express their often-complicated secret worlds. Some of these artists have been in and out of institutions for many years. To have their work displayed publicly means a great deal to them.

Sy and Bonnie are - in a nutshell - awesome! Sy went back to school at Cal State Hayward and got a degree in classical composition and jazz. His band, Pacific Chamber Jazz, play gigs all over the West. He also plays for many of Bonnie's shows. They love collecting because it is a fun way to meet people and they feel that they are a part of a community of folk art collectors from around the country.

The Ames Gallery is truly a special place - the art in this gallery is being so honored and respected. Many of the works are by artists who are not used to receiving this kind of respect and attention. Special event:Bonnie's daughter Deborah's Ames Design Group will have its annual holiday sale on Saturday December 3rd and Sunday December 4th with live music by Pacific Chamber Jazz. For more information on the gallery, exhibitions and hours, go to www.AmesGallery.com

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please contact Glass/Sabine by email:  Sheila@GlassSabine.com
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