Lonnie Lee, the Origins of Vessel

above, work by John Ruszel

In my continued quest to collect and document interviews and interactions with locals who work behind the scenes to make Oakland art happen, I sought out Lonnie Lee. Lonnie is the owner of Vessel Galley and in two years, has built a solid reputation as a staple on the Murmur route. I realize that my current portfolio of art-scene makers and doers is mostly artists on this website, that may be changing in 2012 as I am not organizing the venues as I have for so long now, in any regular way, ie, the wine bar, et al. I am very pleased to begin the new chapter of Swee(t)Art with a chat with Lonnie about her gallery and the beautiful show that hangs there now, with work by Gordon Glasgow and John Ruszel.

Obi: How did you come to a career in the art world? Is Vessel your first project?

Lonnie: I grew up drawing on paper napkins as a child in my family’s Chinese restaurant. From there I studied art seriously throughout high school, then proceeded to study architecture, and painting. I finished college with a major in visual communications + design with a minor in photography. Coming from a very traditional immigrant family, I was misunderstood in my pursuits and I had to make a choice to be practical in my studies and career.  I had a design firm for 10+ years doing works for galleries, installations, fashion, VC firms, branding, packaging.  After kids, I took a break, then took the opportunity to redefine my energies and move back to fine art.  I opened Vessel Berkeley 7 years ago.  1.5 years ago I expanded that project to my current gallery location in Oakland, my home base since 1982.

Lonnie, in front of Vessel

Obi: When you opened Vessel a couple of years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot going on 25th was there? How did you decide to open Vessel there?

Lonnie: I was in search to expand my gallery space, while wanting to simplify my life by localizing it more.  My kid goes to an OUSD school, and I live in Oakland. I really wanted to work and own a business here. So I searched high and low all over downtown for a potential gallery space. In fact, I know so much about Real Estate in our city that one realtor said I should go into RE as a profession. No thanks. I was really compelled by the interesting architectural spaces that were all over Oakland.  I’m a bit of a compulsive hunter/scouter, and I love digging – I enlisted friends to be on the look-out as well. I called lots of people and looked at many spaces. I consistently found myself drawn to spaces that were overlooked, much too tattered and had POTENTIAL.  I saw a sign on the 25th Street, viewed the space and instantly fell in love.  It did not look the way it does now.  It had a makeshift staircase to the second story – the walls and pitched roof ceiling had 3 millimeters of patina dust, the floors had so much grime on them you couldn’t even see the wood beneath. I was madly in love.  Like a “bad boy” boyfriend that you want your friends and family to love, I brought everyone I knew to the space, including my artists, my clients and my family. They all said “Are you crazy?” followed by “Are you serious?” Because of their disapproval, I tried and tried to shake the gravitational pull I had for 471 25th Street. 3 months later, I was still thinking about the space, and my 16 year old daughter said to me, “Mom, I don’t understand, you keep asking for validation, you know where you want to be.”  From the mouth of that wise babe and her faith, I decided it was okay to trust my instinct, and my heart. I contacted Drew Mickel (long time friend of landowner Matt Igleheart) and they trusted in my vision and supported me through the remodeling and opening of my gallery. The relationship we’ve built is much like that of a family. That space was a family business for 60+ years, and all of these elements added up to feeling right.

above, work by Gordon Glasgow

Obi: The new show in your gallery is beautiful, Can you talk about how this show came about?

Lonnie: This is a show that focuses on artists new to my stable, sort of emerging but not really – each are very practiced artists. Assembling shows is sometimes a very organic process. Connecting of dots and the desire to reveal certain notions with a show / exhibition.  I know Gordon from my days in Berkeley, through two mutual artist friends.  Gordon approached me to view his works.  I was very impressed with his sensitivity towards the work and wit + humor revealed: I knew instantly I wanted to show it.  John Ruszel’s work I had seen at an Arts Benecia show and took a note that I wanted to learn more about the work and artists. It wasn’t until meeting his brother Kevin who came to help with an installation that I learned who his brother was.  More dots began to connect, John came by, and we began working together.  Marirose Jellicich approached me after visiting Vessel on a walking tour.  In this show I am drawn to the artist’s use of materials, but more importantly the artist’s use and approach to the subjects.  There is a similar viewpoint toward structure be it figural or geometric design of form.  IMO together Gordon, Marirose, and John present a beautiful counterpoint. In “Structure, Object and Truth Discerned,” these artists use expert skill and keen insight in creating their work, revealing the balances between pre-meditated design and human intuition, interdependence and independence, isolation and connectivity, as a subject or as a record.

There is a quiet and restrained quality to the work presented in “Structure, Object, and Truth Discerned” these attributes made me want to show these artist’s works, together.  I like to shake things up and make my programming unpredictable.  My hope, my desire, is to evoke a range of emotions, show to show, from the audience, be it intrigue, surprise, provoking new thoughts courageous, reflective, or meditative.  This show to me is unlike the previous show and unlike the next.  I guess I think of programming and curating as a narrative, and as a progression.

all photos taken by Obi Kaufmann, with permission from Vessel Gallery.

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