Danville Express

Living - November 2, 2007

Enter the illusion

Volunteers needed to share the world of art

by Natalie O'Neill

Art at the Bedford Gallery will lie to you. Like a magician, it will trick you with illusion.

Take a quick glance at the current exhibit and you'll leave believing the venue is adorned with black and white photography, wooden sculpture and stone carvings.

Look a little closer, though, and you'll see everything is made with graphite - the same simple medium, found in a pencil, that kids use to scribble math homework and doodle on desks.

"This gallery, more than others, seems to be taking us to the future," said Susan Helms, a Danville volunteer and gallery guild member.

Gone are the days when pencil art was limited to paper - just have a look at "Leaded: The Materiality and Metamorphosis of Graphite." Here, artists have used chopped up pencils for sculptures, four-foot lead disks for carving, and erasers to create a sense of visual trickery.

"There's a warmth to it," said gallery curator Carrie Lederer. "We as humans have a long history with pencils and memories tied to our first experiences with writing or drawing."

The 3,500-square-foot gallery, which serves 50,000 visitors annually, stimulates and challenges its audience and also showcases community art.

"It's sophisticated for suburbia," said Helms, who got involved four years ago, after retiring from her job as an attorney.

Despite the gallery's reputation for thought-provoking conceptual, cutting edge, cultural and historical art, guild members are having trouble rounding up volunteers.

And that's where Danville and Alamo folks come in, Helms says.

Volunteers don't have to know much about art. They should just want to know about it, she says.

Those interested can sign up to be docents, who lead exhibit tours. Or they can become guild members, who staff the front desk, greet visitors, and host receptions.

"Friendships are forged. It's so apparent how close you become and how rapidly that happens," Lederer says of the guild members.

Volunteers learn about the exhibits, hear artists speak, and see in-studio works. Most volunteers tend to be women who are seeking a life or a passion outside their kids, or have recently retired, or are new in town or empty-nested.

"There's something about being around intelligent people who want to learn," says Guild President Frances Wallace.

At a recent visit to "Leaded," Helms, who's somewhat new to the art world, explained the works she likes best were more traditional. While much of the art uses mixed media like oil, powder and wax, she likes the solely graphite pieces.

"Since I've been taking drawing classes, I'm fascinated to see what people can do with just graphite," she said.

To that, Lederer chimed in with a smile

"She's what you call a purist."

Moving on to have a look at a heavy four-foot dish of graphite, Lederer explained the medium in simple terms.

"You could pick the dish up and sketch with it - if you were Superman," she said.

For Helms, being part of the guild provides a social niche, a shared interest and the opportunity to gain knowledge.

"It enables me to experience my creative side," she said, adding that she gets to see all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the gallery. And that includes getting to know the thought process behind why the gallery chooses certain themes.

Past exhibits have used shoes, woven Indian American baskets and motorcycles to explore perspectives on culture. On a more traditional level, they have featured 19th century Dutch artists in an exhibit called "Waiting for Van Gough." They have also showcased exhibits with only 18-year-old and under artists from Contra Costa County.

"We aim to reflect and mirror our audience, but also to engage them in new ideas," Lederer said.

The current exhibit features 16 artists, including the nationally renowned artist Tara Donovan, who uses everyday objects like buttons, tape, paper plates and - in this case - pencils to create art that emulates nature.

The Bedford Gallery was established in 1968 as the Civic Arts Gallery and moved to the new Lesher Center for the Arts in October 1990. It is named after Peter and Kristen Bedford, who were generous contributors.

"Leaded" will run through Dec. 22 with a $3 admittance fee. Tuesdays are free, and guests of Lesher Center theater productions may view the gallery for free as well.

To volunteer, prior knowledge is not required. Contact Susan Helms at 837-0716, call the gallery at 295-1417, or visit it at 1601 Civic Drive in downtown Walnut Creek.

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