We were able to speak with featured artist Charles Valoroso and found that his 30 plus years of illustration experience has provided him with a wealth of knowledge and expertise. Moving from Hawaii to Oakland in 1968 Charles experiences living in Oakland have provided him with a unique perspective to contextualize Oakland’s current renaissance and the role street art plays in building community.
OMCA: Greetings Charles, would you mind telling me where you were born and raised?
Charles Valoroso: I was born and raised on the island of Kauai, in Hawaii. I came to Oakland for the very first time in 1968 to attend the College of Arts and Crafts, known as California College of the Arts (CCAC) today.
That was the first time I’d be been in a hardcore urban environment. Hardcore compared to where I grew up in Hawaii, which was kind of an agricultural, sugar plantation community back in the 50’s and 60’s. I arrived at the San Francisco Airport and took the bus to the Greyhound Bus Station on San Pablo Avenue. I thought I had landed on Mars.
What were your initial thoughts?
Well it was hardcore, but it was cool because back then I was ready to come to the Bay Area because of all of the things that were happening back then. It was the year after the summer of love in San Francisco, and the music, the political climate and the social upheavals were all happening, all within an earshot of graduation, so I said I gotta go to the Bay Area and have a life.
I think I landed here at the right time and the right place. There was the Vietnam War, riots in Berkeley and the hippies were all over the world. So between 1968 and 1972, I spent four years at CCAC and never looked back. It changed my life.
It opened up my mind. I was a small town island kid, and it turned me into a man of the world. It was because the things that I was exposed to at that time have not happened with so much intensity since. I look back and I think the paradigm shift really happened in the Bay Area specifically during the late 60’s. I became more aware of all the political agendas transpiring at the time as well. From the Black Panthers to the sexual revolution, the anti-war protests, free speech and more. It was the time that set the stage for a lot of the diversity we see happening today, some 45-50 years later.
To make a long story short, I studied art, and graphic design in school and moved back to Hawaii in 1974. I hooked up with an ad agency, and that’s where I got my licks in the corporate world. But I always kept a foot in the fine arts world as well. I kept painting and became fully involved in the music of the times. I spent almost 30 years as the creative director of an ad agency, until I got out of it and decided to go full on into my own business.
I started a gallery in Hawaii, but moved back to the Bay Area in 2004. I came up with this idea called “One Wave”. I’m a one man band. Surfing the internet, surfing the world, traveling, that sort of thing. I do consulting work mainly for community projects, ethnic groups and institutions. I like to work with the community a lot, especially in multi-media projects like we’re doing today.
Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of your creative work?
Well I never really left Hawaii until I was 18. When I left was the first time I saw urban neighborhoods. We just had little plantations camps where I was from. Living in Oakland, I first landed in the Rockridge District. I could see that there were distinct neighborhoods defined by the people that lived there. I never crossed my art school boundaries. I never went to East Oakland. I’d go to Alameda for the flea market, but I started wondering: “Why do I stick around just my art school area?” It was because at the time, that’s what defined me. So I started exploring other neighborhoods. And I started painting them with water colors and stuff. So since 1974 I’ve been painting neighborhoods.
When I came back here in 2004, I’d spent time painting Hawaii neighborhoods and places I’ve traveled to. I came back here, and for the past ten years I’ve been painting Bay Area neighborhoods such as the areas I used to frequent like East Oakland, San Francisco and Alameda. So when you look at the thread of all my work, it’s all about neighborhoods. And mainly about architecture, and cars in the street, all based on photographs that I’ve taken. But it really chronicles these different areas through the year, make and model of the cars at that time.
You look at something I did in 1974, and you see big Chevrolets and Buicks. Today you see Scion’s and Prius’. And while a lot of the architecture is still in the style of Craftsman bungalows, the painting schemes are different now, with a bit more life and color added to them. So, if you look at my thread of work and you have a slow motion movie going, you’d see an evolution of how the neighborhoods changed from working class College Avenue, to yuppies in the 1990’s, to hipsters in the 2000’s. Neighborhoods are all defined by who moves there. Not by who “takes over,” but over the years, who floats in and out. And now it’s about diversity. I love the old days because they were very ethnocentric, and I would frequent all those blues clubs when the music was funky.
How do you think collaborative art projects contribute to the community of Oakland?
I think it’s a lot more important that there’s a collaboration between community and artists because the old template was kind of myopic in a sense. One artist, one man show, and it rarely had an affect on the larger population. You’d hear about shows and such amongst the elite, in museums and galleries but never outside of that social strata.
I like the idea of collaborating with a lot of people rather than one or a few, because that way it doesn’t feel one dimensional. There’s no bounds in community work, and that’s part of why I like it. You can pretty much work anywhere in the world and define what you do and you’ll hook up with somebody. Quite frankly since I’ve moved back to Oakland in 2004, over the last four years, I’ve heard the words community arts played up more than gallery exhibits.
The guys I’m hanging out with now are in their 20’s and 30’s, so that’s how I got hooked up with the mural genre that’s making a huge impact in a lot of cities. Large projects where everyday people can see your work on the street.
Street art is kind of defining art communities today. I love museums don’t get me wrong, but museums can be contained within certain communities, and often show certain artists only. [In street art] where the community is so diverse, everyone from different ethnic groups and genders, from different economical stratas can be all be included.
In what other ways do you see us celebrating diversity through the arts?
Through music, food and visual arts. That’s my trilogy right there. The foundation is art, music and food.
A lot of the focus at the Oakland Museum of California and our surrounding community has dealt with the concept of healing and how art can be used as a method of healing. Tell us how healing has played a role in your art over the years?
Well the word healing can take a number of connotations, because you usually hear that word in the medicinal context. You have a physical problem with your body and then you try to heal it. But the word healing has a lot to do with your psyche. Using the arts as nourishment you can heal yourself.
In a funny way, I’ve seen it all evolve because it wasn’t until the 1990’s that [the Museum] introduced the triad of art, music and food. Then they brought in music, they brought in food and community arts, and it has blossomed into what it is today. It’s amazing.
I went to Friday Nights @ OMCA last night and it was great. I’ve never seen that kind of diversity. They had all the basic ingredients, they had food trucks, a band playing and the art inside the Museum.
What words would you use to describe or characterize the evolution that you’ve personally seen in Oakland?
The main word I would say is diversity and the breakdown of ethnic borders. The word fusion also comes to mind, from different foods coming in, to different demographics all together. High tech guys will be hanging out with down and out hippies and such. There’s a lot of mixing right now. Also , the diversity of cultures of ethnic groups co-mingling is great. Last night it was great to see the mixtures of cultures that I’m used to seeing in Hawaii. Because of the World War II era, Japanese were marrying Caucasians, and African Americans were marrying Filipinos. There was a mix that was happening there as early as the mid forties and fifties, which led to a racially mixed population. Now I see that happening in Oakland. Mixed couples in 2014--beautiful!
What are you most excited about as you look to the future of Oakland?
I’d like to see Oakland be on the tip of everybody’s tongue. So when you say: “world class city” people think Oakland! It used to be just New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and maybe Chicago. In the future, I hope when people say: “world class city” people think Oakland. San Francisco, New York, Chicago--they all had their day, but it’s kind of unattainable to live there anymore. When people say New York, they’re talking about Brooklyn now. But when they say Bay Area they’re talking about the East Bay. East Bay is the hip place to be now. And I’m sorry to say, but I think it has a lot to do with what’s in people’s pockets.
When I talk about world class cities now, it’s not about how many rich people live there. It’s about the diversity and the standard of living. It’s about the appreciation the city shows for the arts and culture, and how well they can serve as incubators for business. Usually it takes visionary people like artisans, street artists, and restaurateurs to open up the doors. Then the people with the change in their pockets say, “Hey there’s something going on here.”
Photos by Max Gibson.
—by Max Gibson, OMCA Community Storyteller