Richmond Art Center
Richmond Art Center

Richmond Confidential: Richmond Art Center recovering after losing major donor: ‘We are in the black now, not red.’

Richmond Confidential


Richmond Art Center recovering after losing major donor: ‘We are in the black now, not red.’

Sophia Sun on January 16, 2024

When the Richmond Art Center lost its biggest donor last year, Executive Director José Rivera said he was worried about the future.

“Over many years, that donor contributed $100,00 annually, making him the most significant benefactor in the center’s history when considering the cumulative sum of his contribution over time,” he said. “We lost him since last year he closed out his foundation.”

For a while, it wasn’t clear how the RAC would make up that shortfall

But things are looking brighter.

So far, the center has raised more than one-third of the $300,000 it needs to cover registration fees and tuition for 2024. In addition, it met its $30,000 scholarship goal. 

The scholarships, Rivera said, allow the center to offer art classes, which attract newcomers and grow the membership. They also make classes accessible to people who could not afford to pay $40 to $50 per session.

“We are in the black now, not red,” said Rivera, who attributes the turnaround to several factors that have increased revenue and donations. 

The RAC has been holding more exhibitions and partnering more with sister museums to raise visibility and draw crowds from outside of Richmond. In 2022, for example, it partnered with the SFMOMA on the exhibition “Emmy Lou Packard — Artist of Conscience.”

“We also have a good amount of returning students who want to continue taking art classes after their first quarter,” said Elaine Moreno, the center’s visitor services coordinator. “A lot of students feel comfortable and love the space, so they return, and some even take multiple classes at a time.” 

In addition to classes, the center holds events in community gathering spaces like the farmers market, flea markets, and schools. The community programs are free to the public. Some are funded through partnerships or grants, said Irene Conde, the center’s education director.

The center also recently hired Kimberly Ross as public programs coordinator Her goal is to help the center reach more people.

“My priority is to expand our reach and connect directly with the people of Richmond, making the Richmond Art Center and our offerings accessible to everyone,” she said. “As a Richmond native and artist, I can achieve this goal by tapping into my network to create opportunities for program collaboration with local organizations and businesses.”

Richmond Confidential: ‘This is like our Harlem Renaissance’: Exhibition showcasing Black artists set to open in Richmond

Richmond Confidential


‘This is like our Harlem Renaissance’: Exhibition showcasing Black artists set to open in Richmond

Panashe Matemba-Mutasa on January 2, 2024

In an arena where they’re often in the shadows, Black artists are creating spaces to recognize and celebrate their talent. 

For the 28th year, the Richmond Art Center will present the “Art of the African Diaspora” exhibition, later this month. AOTD gives local artists of African descent a way to share their work with the community and each other. 

The showcase, which will run from Jan. 24 to March 16, will feature 160 Bay Area artists working in a variety of mediums.

“You have artists who are at different stages of their career and success. This allows younger and mid-career artists to show their art,” said Stephen Bruce, a Richmond artist who chairs the steering committee. 

The idea of this Black art mecca was first nurtured by the late Jan Hart-Schuyers, a revered Bay Area artist, art educator, and community organizer, according to the AOTAD website. Lauded for her many sculptures, Schuyers established a partnership with Los Angeles-born painter Rae Louise Hayward, and the two would go on to produce the first AOTAD showcase in 1997 under the name “Art of Living Black,” which featured 35 artists. Though they didn’t live to see the event’s growth, their vision was fulfilled.

But when the showcase ends each year, many of the participating artists return to a harsh reality. Since the first museums opened in America, Black people have had their likeness on display but seldom have had the chance to be recognized for their own works: a pattern noted by scholar Bridget R. Cooks in her book “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind.” 

In 2022, Julia Halperin and Charlotte Burns, who created the Burns Halperin Report to analyze representation in the art market, surveyed 31 American museums and found that African American artists were underrepresented. Work by Black female artists comprised 0.5% of acquisitions of all the museums surveyed. And of the top 20 artists, only one — Julie Mehretu from Ethiopia — was of African descent. 

AOTAD seeks to give more Black artists a platform to showcase their creative skills. 

“This is like our Harlem Renaissance,” artist Kelvin Curry said, referring to the Black cultural revival in the 1920s. 

This season’s showcase offers variety. Illustrator Virginia Jourdan, who’s been participating since the first showcase, is displaying acrylics. She’s produced works ranging from portraits to urban landscapes, and says her work is focused on “uplifting African American images.” Jourdan said she’s grateful for a space that allows her to celebrate her craft.

“Art is very relaxing for me and something that’s innate,” Jourdan said.

Curry’s work also is featured. A multimedia artist, Curry describes his work as “figurative, abstract, and symbolic.” He incorporates African-inspired shapes and color schemes into his work.

With the showcase, Curry said, “I hope to gain new collectors and more exposure.” 

Bruce, who’s participated in AOTD since the beginning like Jourdan and Curry, said that the showcase benefits Bay Area residents as much as it does the artists, giving people a chance to experience art they otherwise might not have seen. After months of planning, he is excited for opening day.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to see an array of artists in their community,” Bruce said. 

More information about the exhibit is on the AOTAD website

Richmond Standard: RAC celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day through artmaking

Richmond Standard


RAC celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day through artmaking

October 9, 2023

By Mike Kinney

Dozens of community members and their families celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day through artmaking at the Richmond Art Center on Saturday.

It was part of the art center’s annual “Fall Family Day,” a fun, free event that invited the local community to get a taste of the RAC’s offerings while celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The event enlisted families to work on a community mural facilitated by muralist Luis Garcia. In other activities, the Native American Health Center of San Francisco held a powwow reading corner. Printing, knitting and leaf activity sessions were offered, and families could also contribute to a photographic portrait series by Anne Wolf and Lisa Levine.

DJ Freddie J of Hotmixx Entertainment provided guests with the best RB and jazz fusion, and tamales were served at a popular food pop-up.

The spirit of Indigenous Peoples’ Day was definitely here today; I am glad people had a chance to come and celebrate it with us,” said visitor Dee Brown, a Native Lakota.

Added Ruby Johnson, another guest, “My family really enjoyed helping to paint the community mural, it gives me a real sense of how important art is to our community.”

Kathy Driskill said it was her first visit to the RAC.

“And I had such a wonderful time being with the community celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day with arts and culture! I can’t wait to come back here next year,” Driskill said.

Wee Poets Features WCCUSD Youth and Richmond Art Center

Wee Poets Features WCCUSD Youth and Richmond Art Center

For over thirty years Wee Poets on Channel 28 has supported literacy development through interviews with thousands of Bay Area children. This month three WCCUSD students and Roberto Martinez, RAC’s exhibitions director, were invited onto the show to talk about the WCCUSD Student Art Show.

Top Image: Wee Poet’s host Sally Baker speaks with RAC’s Roberto Martinez

The Richmond Standard: Richmond mayor’s office also an art gallery


The Richmond Standard

Richmond mayor’s office also an art gallery

June 23, 2023

After a four years, works from locally-based NIAD Art Center are being exhibited on rotation at the office located at Richmond Civic Center, according to Mayor Eduardo Martinez.

The mayor’s office also partnered with the Richmond Art Center to display art from the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) Student Art Show.

“Both shows are in the mayor’s office and you are invited to come and look at the artwork,” Martinez said at this past Tuesday’s Council meeting.

Artnet News: Chevron Took Down an Artwork, Which Called Out the Oil Giant for Polluting a California City, From a Fence Surrounding Its Refinery


Artnet News

Chevron Took Down an Artwork, Which Called Out the Oil Giant for Polluting a California City, From a Fence Surrounding Its Refinery

The project adorned a fence separating an oil refinery from residential neighborhoods.

Brian Boucher | June 8, 2023

Oil giant Chevron has acknowledged that it removed an art installation from a fence surrounding its refinery in Richmond, California, near San Francisco.

The piece, installed on Earth Day (April 22), consisted of brightly painted slats placed on the fence around the oil refinery. Neighborhood residents were invited to inscribe messages and stories on the slats as a way of documenting the local petroleum industry’s health and environmental impacts, and form “a collective monument to resistance.” The slats were painted with messages such as “clean energy now.”

“Our fences and other company facilities are functional equipment and we cannot allow tampering or unauthorized construction,” Chevron spokesman Ross Allen told Artnet News in an email.

Organizers of the art project argue that the portions of the fence they used are owned by the city and that they received permission from Richmond’s Public Arts and Culture Commission, the City of Richmond’s Love Your Block program and Public Works Department, and Contra Costa County’s North Richmond Municipal Advisory Committee to install the work. The removal, they said, was “an attempt to silence our voices and erase our stories.”

The work was the subject of an exhibition at Richmond Art Center that ran from April 5 to June 3. 

Chevron claims that the fence is the company’s private property. “Perhaps someone is mistaken about ownership of our fence and our property line, but we are quite clear about ownership of the area,” spokesman Ross Allen told Artnet News. “[N]o city permit allows construction on private property without landowner permission.”

Earth Justice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, wrote on its website that Chevron’s refinery has been “wreaking havoc on the local community for decades and was the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the state.” The residents of the surrounding neighborhood, the organization points out, are primarily people of color. 

“The population in closest proximity to the refinery has disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer,” the Guardian reported in 2019. The city’s children have rates of asthma twice the national average, the paper reported in a story on a 2018 lawsuit the city filed against Chevron, alleging public nuisance and negligence.

“We think it’s pretty weird that they disappeared the project without any kind of communication with us,” one of the installation’s organizers, Graham Laird Prentice, told the San Francisco Chronicle, noting that there had been extensive publicity surrounding the project. The removal “seems to have transpired during the night. It’s pretty shady stuff.”

ARTnews: ‘They’re Trying to Erase Us’: Chevron Takes Down Public Art Piece



‘They’re Trying to Erase Us’: Chevron Takes Down Public Art Piece

Michael Cabanatuan 


In the middle of the night on May 15, a public art project in Richmond, California, disappeared without a trace. The project, titled Fencelines – A Collective Monument to Resilience, was a collection of slats onto which community members wrote their hopes and wishes for the future of the city and its environment. The slats were installed on a fence that cordons off the Chevron refinery, which sits along the waterfront of the San Francisco Bay.

On Wednesday, Chevron admitted that it took down the public art piece in a statement made to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The installation on company property was removed, in keeping with our security, safety and facilities policies,” a Chevron representative wrote to ARTnews. “Our fences and other company facilities are functional equipment and we cannot allow tampering or unauthorized construction.”

The artists and organizers behind the project, meanwhile, argue that Fencelines was mostly on a city-owned portion of the fence, which runs alongside a running trail and is separated from Chevron property by a six-lane thoroughfare. Fencelines, which was brought to life by community organizer Princess Robinson and artist Graham LP, had been in the making over the past year and a half, during which they and Gita Khandagle, an artist and designer, reached out to Chevron and city officials to ascertain who owned the fence so they could get approval for the project.

According to the organizers, Chevron never responded but the city did, approving the project. Graham LP and other people involved claim that the majority of the project was installed on the city-owned portion of the fence but bled into a part of the fence that Chevron owns.

“But we don’t want this to just become about the fence and who owns it. This conversation is about who owns the air, who has permission or the right to [impact it],” LP told ARTnews. “Though we’ll definitely push the property aspect of this when it comes down to it, they massively overreached.”

Fencelines was designed to call attention to the environmental and health impact that the refinery has on the Richmond community, where asthma rates are double the state average, according to an ongoing study at University of California, San Francisco. Slats painted with wishes for clean air and water from the community were attached to the fence and topped with ribbons that were activated by the wind, showing that the residents of Richmond live perpetually downwind from the refinery. The piece was installed April 22, on Earth Day.

As of publication, the company has not confirmed whether the piece has been destroyed or is in storage somewhere. Up until Wednesday evening, the artists and organizers associated with Fencelines thought the piece had been stolen as Chevron never reached out to them following the deinstallation or warned them of their impending action. But there were suspicions.

“As soon as it happened I was like, ‘That was Chevron, they’re trying to erase us,’” Katt Ramos, the managing director of Richmond Our Power Coalition, told ARTnews. The coalition brings together local organizations fighting for housing and a just transition away from the oil based industries that surround the area.

“[I thought] that was Chevron because we were three or four days away from Anti-Chevron Day and four or five days away from their stakeholder meeting, they don’t want any bad press.”

The Coalition and Anti-Chevron Day began as a response to the 2012 Chevron Richmond Refinery Fire, the resulting chemical release incident, and the general health issues that residents of Richmond tie to their proximity to the refinery, which has been operating in the city for 120 years. Ramos pointed out that earlier this year unionized steelworkers at the Chevron refinery struck for safer working conditions, which led, the union alleged, to at least five workers being let go.

“But there’s some signs on the fence and now they’re worried about safety?” said Ramos.

Robinson, LP, and Khandagle partnered with numerous organizations and with the Richmond Arts Center to make the installation as well as an accompanying exhibition at RAC that was made possible with a grant from the California Arts Council.

“We invited people to come and make some of these wooden slats, to paint messages of hope, messages of vision for a future where we have clean air, a healthy environment,” Roberto Martinez, a curator at RAC, told ARTnews. “We wanted to bring in people for dialogue about the lived experience of of the Richmond community, which has a very rich and complex history with environmental justice.”

Though there were a few references to Chevron in the signs, for the most part Martinez recalled that messages were generally calls for clean air and water, for love, and for resilience, and that the project was not particularly confrontational. Over 200 wooden slats were painted for the project, which was slated to be de-installed on June 3.

Princess Robinson, who works with Urban Tilth, never saw the project as antagonistic. “I’m a cooperative education and facilitator, I really believe in the cooperative model, to work amongst each other and for everyone to be at the table,” Robinson told ARTnews. Since finding out Chevron took down the piece, Robinson has been trying to see the positive side to this unfortunate situation, but it hasn’t been easy.

“Being a human, at first I was mad, I felt discouraged. I felt disrespected. I felt like well, dang, I don’t matter, all that work that I did doesn’t matter, bringing my community out doesn’t matter,” said Robinson. “But my intentions are now a reality, right, I wanted to have a conversation.”

Now Chevron is reaching out to the organizers as they try to backtrack from what has become a much larger story than could have been anticipated. The next steps are to find out if the work was destroyed and how to respond to the events with another art piece.

Luckily, for Chevron, Robinson is magnanimous.

“Me personally, there’s no bad blood,” said Robinson. “I want Chevron to know, let’s cooperate together and be more compassionate, more respectful, because there’s a better way that we could have done this.”

San Francisco Chronicle: Chevron admits it took down public art project that criticized the oil giant


San Francisco Chronicle

Chevron admits it took down public art project that criticized the oil giant

Michael Cabanatuan | June 7, 2023

The mystery of who removed the colorful wooden slats of a Richmond public art project criticizing Chevron has been solved.

 It was Chevron, a spokesman for the oil company admitted on Wednesday.

Fencelines, a public art display consisting of colorful wooden slats inserted into the openings of a chain link fence between North Richmond neighborhoods and Chevron’s refinery, was a community project, conceived, created and installed over three years as an environmental justice message.

The slats, painted bright shades of red, blue, yellow and white contained messages including:  “My home is not your profit,” “We deserve clean air,” “No more oil — for our children’s future.” Others blamed Chevron for polluting the air and called for the refinery to shut down.

The slats were installed on a 1,000-foot stretch of fence along Richmond Parkway on Earth Day, April 22. A person who lives near the installation noticed the Fencelines stakes missing on May 16.

Project sponsors told The Chronicle on Monday they had no suspects in what they labeled the theft of their art project. 

But Chevron officials, after a Chronicle story on Tuesday, sent a statement acknowledging the company removed the project because, it claimed, the fence was on the corporation’s property. 

“We have a tradition of supporting free expression,” Chevron spokesman Ross Allen said in a statement. “We were not contacted about this activity on our land or fence.

Project organizers insist that Richmond city officials said the fence was on their property and issued permission for its use.

“As standard practice, our crews remove foreign objects on fences due to safety and security concerns,” Allen said. “We place the highest priority on the health and safety of our workforce, and maintaining a safe and secure operating environment helps us protect our assets, our community and the environment.”

Graham Laird Prentice, lead artist on the project, and Roberto Martinez, exhibitions director at the Richmond Art Center, which assisted with the project and displayed a related exhibit in its museum, said they were surprised Chevron was to blame.

“We had an inclination it might be Chevron but we didn’t have the evidence,” Martinez said.

But they knew that the community comments calling for a Chevron-free future might rub the corporation the wrong way, he said.

Prentice agreed.

“We think it’s pretty weird that they disappeared the project without any kind of communication with us,” he said, noting that it was well publicized and promoted. “Also, (the removal) seems to have transpired during the night. It’s pretty shady stuff.”

Prentice said the coalition behind the public art project is working with the city and planning an official response to Chevron.  An art-oriented response is also a possibility, especially if the creators can get back the slats that were removed.

“We’re going to make sure everybody knows Chevron is taking responsibility for this act of erasure,” he said.

Written By Michael Cabanatuan

Michael Cabanatuan is a general assignment and breaking news reporter who’s covered everything from wildfires and sports fans to protests and COVID masking requirements. He’s also written extensively about transportation and covered Contra Costa County for The Chronicle. He’s ridden high-speed trains in Japan, walked in the Transbay Tube, been tear-gassed in Oakland and exposed to nude protesters in the Castro. Cabanatuan worked at the Paradise Post (long before anyone heard of the town), the former West County Times (in Richmond) and the Modesto Bee before joining The Chronicle. He is a two-time graduate of UC Berkeley.

Top image: The Fencelines art installation prior to its disappearance last month in Richmond, near the Chevron refinery. 

San Francisco Chronicle: A huge Bay Area art installation near the Chevron refinery vanished. The artists say it was stolen


San Francisco Chronicle

A huge Bay Area art installation near the Chevron refinery vanished. The artists say it was stolen

Michael Cabanatuan | June 6, 2023

A Richmond public art display championing social justice, criticizing Chevron and brightening a dreary industrial part of the city has vanished weeks before it was scheduled to end — and the artists are trying to figure out who’s responsible.

A colorful collection of wooden slats woven into a fence along the Richmond Parkway near the Chevron refinery, titled “Fencelines: A Collective Monument to Resilience,” “has been completely disappeared,” the sponsors announced in a statement.

“We are seeking the public’s help in locating hundreds of ‘slat’ painted wood art pieces,” the statement said. “It is believed the art pieces were stolen or deliberately removed between the evening of May 15 and May 16. We ask you to stand in solidarity with the Richmond community in demanding that our art pieces be found and returned.”

The exhibit was installed and unveiled on Earth Day, April 22, and stood undisturbed along the 1,000-foot stretch of Richmond Parkway, a busy connection between Interstates 80 and 580. A person associated with the installation who lives in North Richmond near the fence line noticed it was missing on the morning of May 16.

So far, none of the pieces of the art project have been located, said Graham Laird Prentice, lead artist on the project, and team members have no solid leads on who is responsible for their removal.

“We don’t have any direct evidence, so we’re not making any accusations,” Prentice said. “What we’re pointing out is that we’ve been working on this project for three years now in collaboration with the city and Richmond community organizations.”

Spokespersons for Chevron did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Richmond police and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office have been contacted, and the team behind the installation were seeking footage from traffic cameras in the area. They’ve also checked with the city’s Public Works Department to make sure the slats weren’t removed as part of a cleanup or maintenance effort, Prentice said.

The public art project, three years in the making, consists of the wooden slats painted red, yellow, blue or white with each bearing a message from an individual or family promoting environmental justice or community solidarity: “My home is not your profit,” “We deserve clean air,” “No more oil — for our children’s future.”

Some, not surprisingly, criticized Chevron, calling for the oil company to stop polluting the air or to shut down altogether.

For decades, Richmond has had a  strained relationship with Chevron, whose refinery and related offices are its largest employer. But while the oil company provides jobs, it’s also brought concerns over pollution and the effects on residents’ health. The refinery, its impacts on Richmond and its future have long animated the city’s often bitterly divided political scene.

The artists are convinced that whoever tore down the public art display — done with approval of the city and its art center, which had a more traditional indoor exhibit in conjunction — did so deliberately.

“Our view is that this was a deliberate act of erasure,” Prentice said, “and an attempt to silence what people have to say.”

If that was, in fact, the goal of the thieves, Prentice said, it didn’t work. During the exhibit at the Richmond Art Center, visitors were given the chance to paint their own slats and deliver their own messages. And “Fencelines” organizers are deciding where and how they should be displayed.

“We have hundreds more slats,” Prentice said.

    Written By Michael Cabanatuan

    Michael Cabanatuan is a general assignment and breaking news reporter who’s covered everything from wildfires and sports fans to protests and COVID masking requirements. He’s also written extensively about transportation and covered Contra Costa County for The Chronicle. He’s ridden high-speed trains in Japan, walked in the Transbay Tube, been tear-gassed in Oakland and exposed to nude protesters in the Castro. Cabanatuan worked at the Paradise Post (long before anyone heard of the town), the former West County Times (in Richmond) and the Modesto Bee before joining The Chronicle. He is a two-time graduate of UC Berkeley.

    Top image: The “Fencelines” art installation prior to its mysterious disappearance last month in Richmond, near the Chevron refinery. The installation, made up of hundreds of painted slats, is missing after what the organizations behind the project say was a deliberate act to silence its message of environmental activism. Provided by Graham Laird Prentice

    East Bay Express: From the Ashes

    East Bay Express

    From the Ashes: Richmond Art enter Captures the Devastation of California’s Wildfires

    Article weblink:

    Digital copy of the East Bay Express:

    Through the Fire

    By Lou Fancher | May 17, 2023

    Ruth Morgan’s stark and provocative works at Richmond Art Center highlight climate change’s role in CA wildfires

    If artist Ruth Morgan’s 10 large-scale photographs currently on display at Richmond Art Center don’t send one’s ticker beating double time or one’s blood boiling, they must go immediately to the ER. They might be in cardiac arrest or have a circulatory system out of whack.

    “Requiem: The Remains of the Day, August 4, 2021,” is part of RAC’s Spring Season themed environmental justice exhibits. Along with the community-based participatory art project “Fencelines” that addresses environmental issues specific to Richmond, Morgan’s “Requiem” introduces the impact of climate change and the uptick of massive, monumental wildfires in greater California.

    The full color photographs—nine 40 x 60 inch images and one entry image 56 x 84 inches—document the aftermath of what happened during the summer of 2021 in Greenville. In a mere 45 minutes, the town was completely destroyed by the Dixie Wildfire. The photographs, taken months later and presented in Morgan’s signature large scale format, are not only sizable, but they are in their details compelling, devastating and profoundly moving without being in any way strident.

    In the stark perspectives and landscapes rendered in full color rather than her signature black-and-white style, Morgan avoids melodrama but manages to create an intensely dramatic vibe that is dignified, respectful, egalitarian, even elegant. Unexpectedly, there is a haunting, eery and quiet beauty to the portrayals. The charred buildings, streets, homesteads and public spaces are entirely devoid of people but resonate with the full tragedy of human lives that have been cast into disarray and a community devastated by wildfire.

    As a model of visual storytelling and proof of the impact of climate change on real people with real lives, the images themselves hold ironic magnetism. Striking a viewer as a kind of propellant, something visceral, with power equivalent to a wildfire, the accumulative effect instead might spur a person into action that goes far beyond passive observational or unexpressed empathy.

    Importantly, the facts are these: In less than an hour, the Dixie Fire reduced 100 family homes, a gas station, church, hotel, museum, bar, schools, restaurants and other commercial business to rubble. Over 1,000 residents were displaced; many of them low income, marginalized people whose small homes were likely valued at $30,000 or less. 

    DISPLACED Entirely Devoid Of People, Morgan’s Images Resonate With The Full Tragedy Of Human Lives That Have Been Cast Into Disarray. (Photo Courtesy Of Richmond Art Center)

    These were not the CEOs of Silicon Valley with multimillion dollar homes and fire insurance to cover any damages and rebuilding costs. Most Greenville residents lost everything they owned, including generations of family photographs and heirlooms. Fortunately, everyone was able to evacuate and no lives were sacrificed.

    Morgan is widely known in the Bay Area as the founder/director in 1997 of Community Works West, an organization that works directly with people impacted by incarceration and uses art to address issues related to social justice to bring healing and restoration to marginalized communities. She recently retired from her leadership role at Community Works West, but her interest in the stories of underserved people who exist on the margins of mainstream society is lifelong and continues to be expressed through her body of work as a photographer. 

    Her acclaimed, award-winning photo series, publications and exhibits include “San Francisco County Jail #3,” “San Quentin: Maximum Security, 1981-83,” “Ohlone Elders and Youth Speak,” ”Piqua Shawnee: Cultural Survival in Their Homeland” and others. 

    Morgan’s photographs are in private collections and exhibited in museums including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Houston and San Diego museums, the Matrix Gallery and the University Art Museum Berkeley. Most recently, her “S.F. Jail” archive was purchased by the San Francisco Public Library, and her “Ohlone Elders and Youth” archive was purchased by the Bancroft Library.

    Exhibit notes for “Requiem” explain the Dixie Fire was later determined to have been caused by Pacific Gas and Electric Company equipment failure. Even so, human actions and inactions exacerbated and fed the fire’s intensity. Overgrown forests resulting from short-sighted, man-made fire suppression policies and housing development located near forests created an incendiary situation. 

    With climate change causing years of drought and more virulent storms during California’s increasingly extended wildfire season, there was high propensity for the volatile terrain to ignite. It was only a matter of time—and remains so—before a town like Greenville would suffer a blow.

    Morgan said in an interview she had originally gone to the area intending to gather interviews from people who had been displaced. Upon her arrival, she found Greenville was like a ghost town. “Originally, the idea was to photograph the people impacted by climate change and the fire. To photograph the people most invisible. But there was no one there, other than a few people living in RVs outside of the area. The first two trips, I saw no one. The third time, I saw occasional people bulldozing, trying to clear the land. Eventually, it was totally razed and the rubble taken away. Now, it’s being reborn with people trying to rebuild,” she noted.

    Although there are no physical people in the photographs, signs of human life are everywhere. In charred, residential areas, burned-out vehicles in driveways and crumbled chimneys in yards stand like ominous sentinels or gravestones where once an entire house stood. Personal items are visible—a typewriter, a bicycle, pots and pans, broken dishes, gardening pots and tools, children’s toys, a child’s desk. In one image, “#107” on a sign is the only thing that marks a family plot. In another, a street lamp having lost its verticality to the intense heat folds upon itself and curves downward, as if bowing like a supple, graceful ballet dancer. 

    Compellingly, black-and-white murals painted by Mendocino-based artist Shane Grammer on several burned and fragmented walls after the fire bring humanity back into the picture. One, painted on an exterior wall of a former movie theater, is of a glamorous film star-like woman, against which leans a detached, upside-down neon sign that reads, “Pioneer.” In another photograph, the image of Jesus adorns a chimney.

    “Grammer came before I was there and on his own came and I assume wanted to make something of beauty in the space,” said Morgan. “Those murals were mesmerizing, and seen in the midst of the devastation, it was breathtaking. It was incongruous. It added to the mystery of everything that happened in Greenville.”

    Aside from her reaction to the murals, Morgan said her initial and overall response to what she saw in Greenville was devastating, overwhelming. “Because of that, I became interested in photographing landscapes instead of people, which had not been my experience before,” she explained. “Initially, it was the enormity of the tragedy that struck me. To get there, you cross over mountains and drive into this valley. There, you come upon eight-square miles of total rubble. These were the homes of people who, many of them, had probably lived there for generations. I found solace only in connecting to the people through the remnants left. 

    “It was three to four months after the fire, so people had already come back and retrieved anything that meant something to them, anything that was still intact. But what remained still told a story. Remember, these lives weren’t shattered by an Act of God. It was human impact on climate change. Yes, a fire might have happened naturally, but that was not what happened here,” she continued.

    Morgan said what happened in Greenville was such a monumental event that the exhibit needed large-scale imagery to capture the impact of the fire on the town. “If I could have, I would have had them all seven-feet wide, or larger. The large scale gives you a way to enter the work, and it’s powerful to be as close to the scene as you can. You have to see the details and those, you can only see in a larger format,” explained Morgan.

    Working with RAC exhibitions director Roberto Martinez to curate the show, the two made the decision not to include in the exhibit the black-and-white photographs versions of the images Morgan has also printed and plans to exhibit in smaller venues. Morgan said those photographs are much smaller and have a different aura. “It felt like the 10 four-color photographs were enough to tell the story. I tend to think less is more,” she said.

    Martinez has a masters in museum studies from JFK University and has worked with community-centered institutions like the Museum of Social Justice, the East Side Arts Alliance and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. He first met Morgan through Robbin Légère Henderson, a Berkeley-based artist, curator and writer who will be in conversation with Morgan at the gallery on May 27. 

    “I knew that during the spring I wanted to focus on the impact of the climate crisis. I felt Ruth’s work resonated with that. She has a wonderful eye and in the past has captured so much of humanity with her photographs from San Quentin or with the Ohlone community here in the Bay Area. This series was a striking contrast because there were no people in these photographs,” he noted.

    Martinez said the human impact that fuels the climate crisis is huge and wants the images to wrap the viewer in a haunting embrace, but in a space that also feels safe. The exhibit design is intentionally quiet: The photographs have little additional interpretive content or labeling. “People can be there contemplating the images and not being told what to think,” he said. “They confront the images that are themselves quiet, despite the destruction you can see. There’s a somber tone to any place after a devastating force passes through it.”

    One image that struck him deeply upon first seeing it shows a broad landscape of mountains and trees in the background. “You see that, and then in the foreground, you see a massive tangle of destruction. Then you see one of Shane’s murals, painted after the fire. In the mural, you see hope in humanity and how it might re-flourish,” he said. 

    The photograph with the collapsed streetlight, according to Martinez, also immediately grabbed him. He called it a powerful symbol suggestive of the connections that human actions have on the environments in which people live. Streetlights illuminate and increase community safety; wildfires also illuminate, but human carelessness can unleash flames strong enough to bend metal, destroy man-made inventions and diminish safety.

    Martinez has definite ideas of the dialogue and action he hopes the exhibits will initiate. “Art opens doors and windows into difficult conversations. The mirror on harsh realities shown through art allows for transformations in our minds towards actions,” he said. “In Ruth’s exhibit, we see the devastating impact of climate change and a world devoid of humans in which we’ve destroyed ourselves. She’s helping us see the future in a foreboding sense, but it forces us to reckon with the possibilities.” 

    But seen in their totality, Martinez suggested the exhibits this season invite a participatory response that might result in hopeful solutions to alleviate the crisis. “I want to paint a picture that can be dark because it is, but a picture that motivates people to take actions to not walk toward that dark future, but to a different one. We want to plant, nurture and grow ideas around environmental justice,” he explained.

    Morgan agreed and said the response she has received to the exhibit thus far has confirmed her overall purpose, which is to better understand what happened in Greenville and to cause people to become involved in protecting and preserving the natural environment.

    “People are moved and sobered by ‘Requiem.’ For me, I am compelled to do this work, whether it’s to expose the criminal justice system or climate change. Greenville sounded an alarm for me and hopefully will for other people. We need to meet this moment. Individually and collectively, we can make a difference. We need to understand how much damage humans are having on the planet. We need to know we can still change course,” she said.

    Asked for her thoughts about the power of imagery to convey complex matters relating to social or environmental justice, Morgan said, “For some people, the visual is more impactful than any words I can use. You can look at the photographs and see climate damage right there, unmistakably. As a photographer, I think there’s nothing like an image. One image can say a lot. The power of art is palpable.”

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    2540 Barrett Avenue
    Richmond, CA 94804-1600


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