Island Arts: Jon Kerpel at the Alameda Free Library
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By Michael Singman-Aste
In her introduction of artist Jon Kerpel, Alameda Free Library art exhibit committee member Ruth Belikove said, “Go upstairs and you will be knocked for a loop, as we say.” Indeed, when was the last time you saw a child walk into an art exhibit, stop in her tracks, and murmur, “Oooh”?
As you ascend the stairs to the second floor of the library, Kerpel’s “Earth Temples” rise into view. I was reminded of Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon,” where survivors of a plane crash enter a passage in the Himalayas and emerge in Shangri-La.
Kerpel has transformed the space with his mixed media “earth temples” and shrines, 65 pieces in all. “Upstairs looks magical and wonderful. Life is supposed to be,” the artist said. “If it’s up to me I’m going to put some of that magic back. I want to change the world, but I’ll settle for the library.”
His work is constructed primarily of found objects. The deity at the center of “Angels of the Fish,” one of his first small pieces, was purchased at a flea market for a dollar. Many pieces incorporate toy animals, “because I’m really a kid inside,” he said, “and I think kids identify with them.”
Kerpel doesn’t just find and assemble these materials, though. Some pieces are adorned with dozens of small images of animals. He used a bandsaw to cut each from a piece of masonite coated with laminated aluminum (the material used to make signs), then burnished them.
These temples and shrines are “affirmations of the earth’s animals and creatures,” and also celebrate Kerpel’s human heroes, such as the members of Greenpeace, “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson, and Julia Butterfly Hill, who decided she wanted to do something important with her life after a horrific car accident, climbed a redwood tree for a week-long shift to save it from loggers – and stayed for two years.
“She’s one of my heroes,” Kerpel said. “She didn’t do this for a good old time. She did this for us.”
“Dora Angel of the Amazon” is named for Dorothy Mae Stang, a nun who was murdered in 2005 after receiving death threats from loggers in the Amazon. “Some people die in this battle. They do it for us. And they are saints,” he said.
Kerpel said he addresses “accidents and incidents that happen in our world.” For example, “Total Recall” refers to the recall of hundreds of millions of eggs due to contamination by salmonella. “Every time you turn around, some other of our food is poisoned,” he said.
“Siberian Eleven” calls attention to 11 tigers that starved to death earlier this year at Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo in northern China after the zoo ran out of money.
He told of another of his art openings where a mother and child were discussing his work. When the child asked a question, the mother indicated the artist and said, “Why don’t you just go ask the park ranger?” There is definitely something ranger-like about Kerpel, and he’s happy to be thought of that way. “There is absolutely no stewardship, and it saddens me,” he lamented.
He “tries not to get involved in the whole political thing,” but seeing “a change from an organic world to a synthetic world,” he can’t help it. “This is our planet. This is where we live. The environment is our kitchen. It’s our living room. This is what I try to talk about in my works.”
Kerpel’s reception took place on October 3, the artist’s 60th birthday. “I know it’s a really heavy thing to put out on my birthday. But it’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to,” he said.
The exhibition runs through October 30. The library is located at 1550 Oak Street. Their hours are noon to 8 p.m. Monday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.