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AWD Connections

A Toast to New Beginnings!

As we usher in 2023, Art Works Downtown launches a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative called AWD Connections. Under this rubric, our newsletter, a special email, and website will feature a monthly segment highlighting artists in support of the voices of Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color and the LGBTQ community.

Coastal Miwok lived
Map of Coast Miwok settlements, California
Provided by Sonoma State University: North Bay Digital Collection

AWD CONNECTIONS: Issue #3 – Here in Marin

Art, Passion, and Confrontation: 
An Incident in the Life of Harry L. Caldwell IV 
Part II 
by Lisa Carlson

In our January 2023 issue, we introduced you to studio artist Harry L. Caldwell IV  Part 1, a master engraver, painter, and illustrator who lives in San Rafael. The story focused on an incident at his Art Works Downtown studio that brought up issues of race, cultural and sexual identity, and inclusivity for this Black artist.

Marin County’s History
To put artist Harry Caldwell’s story into greater context requires taking a look at the greater story of Marin County, where he resides. While he is Black, seventy-two percent of Marin County residents identify their race as white according to the most recent U.S. census data (not including white-identifying Hispanic and Latinos). It wasn’t always that way, as the land had been inhabited by the Coast Miwok Tribe for at least 3,000 years before their first encounter with Europeans in 1769. 

The Spanish established Mission San Rafael Arcangel in 1817 (now the City of San Rafael). Much of Marin was owned by people of Spanish and Mexican descent from 1834 to 1846. By World War II, many African Americans had also moved to the Bay Area to work in the shipyards.

The steps that led to a mainly white Marin County – present day demographics – have a complex history. It includes the fact that public transportation is limited in Marin County. For example, BART was not built to reach the county. Low-income Latino people in San Rafael often say they are in that city because of the access to transit, which includes public bus service and a ferry. 

It was the early stage of the environmental movement that included an 8-mile-long train ride up Mount Tamalpais on the Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway to show off the beauty of Marin to tourists from as far away as New York, back in 1896, that fueled a movement to preserve the beautiful landscape and restrict development. 

Eighty percent of Marin County remains undeveloped, which makes it hard for newcomers in general. Homes are incredibly expensive due to a combination of lack of supply and how wealthy a person must be to buy, so the self-limiting situation has inevitably influenced who settles here. 

Affordable housing has been mandated for Marin since at least 2011, when a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) audit revealed the exclusionary nature of local housing. According to the report’s co-author, Jessica Tankersley Sparks, “What we saw by and large was that the effective opposition to affordable housing had a corollary effect of creating impediments to housing choice to people in protected classes… “[That includes] people of color, people with children, people with disabilities.” 

Read the HUD report here: 

Our Spot on the Planet
Art Works Downtown is uniquely located in a spot on the planet that calls us to honor and respect the intersection of peoples who came before us and stand here today –– from Indigenous tobacco farmers and hunter gathers to Hispanic settlers with land grants to hard-working immigrants from Latin America, and survivors of slavery, the African diaspora — as we encourage artists of all kinds, including LGBTQ+, those with disabilities, and others whose voices are have been long muted, to thrive in our environment. In this place, Marin County.

Where AWD Stands
It’s not about tokenism. AWD is at a pivot point during a critical time in the U.S. for issues of race, gender, and equity.  “A post-racial society” is still viable. From LGBTQ rights to the recognition that fair housing can help redress the balance when it comes to who lives where, activists have found their voices and called on the country to recognize racism. It’s a watershed moment and there’s much work to be done to progress toward redressing the balance for those long denied their place in society.

Harry Caldwell, a remarkable artist who wants to leave a legacy through his work, especially his coins – “personal heirlooms,” he calls them – which he sees as a way “to connect us to the past in a positive way,” therefore represents all of us. 

Our Statement of Solidarity
Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) are the key themes Art Works Downtown deems critical to our success and longevity as a San Francisco Bay Area arts organization. It is our responsibility to provide an environment that nurtures the vibrancy and creativity of our community rooted in cultural strength – one that includes the arts through the perspective of a LGBTQ+, disabled, and multicultural lens. We therefore rebuke racism and segregation as we provide a sanctuary where all people can celebrate the practice, study, and exhibition of visual art.

“At Art Works Downtown we recognize that, along with all citizens of Marin County, we are stakeholders as the larger society progresses. We do our utmost to honor the historical and environmental wealth of this sacred land and peoples while we engage in acts that seek to uplift those seldom heard as we strive toward equity in the arts, education, and housing,” said AWD Director Elisabeth Setten.


SM Pueblo RevoltAWD CONNECTIONS: Issue #2 – A Look at AlterTheater and Indigifuturism

by Lisa Carlson

“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”
Hopi proverb

In the play “Pueblo Revolt” staged by AlterTheater, it’s 1680 in Nuevo México, and the Indigenous Pueblo population is preparing a rebellion against the occupying Spanish colonial ruler. Two Native brothers, one gay, prepare for the Uprising. An inconvenience: one of the teenage brothers has a crush on the local Spanish baker’s son. 

“Pueblo Revolt” intertwines history and Indigifuturism to examine queerness, family, religion, and survival. Directed by Reed Flores, and starring Steven Flores and Eduardo Soria, “Pueblo Revolt,” written by Dillon Chitto, runs from February 16 through February 26 at Art Works Downtown in San Rafael. This follows an earlier February run at UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center. The company sees the performance series as “a rolling world premiere.”

Chitto is Native American and hails from New Mexico. He calls the play “an Indigenous story through a comedic lens.” It’s part of the emerging Indigifuturism genre, not unlike the popular Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that explores the intersection of the African diaspora culture with science and technology. In this case, Indigenous stories are told in new ways, embracing magical realism, fantasy, and alternative history, to make a powerful impact.

Long known in the S.F. Bay Area as “a scrappy theater company,” AlterTheater, now in its 18th year, has collaborated with Art Works Downtown several times, with the aim to make live theater more accessible to the public by, for example, performing in San Rafael’s storefronts along Fourth Street, and at the Art Work’s Downtown gallery.

“We have always had a shared leadership model,” says Producing Artistic Director Eric Avery. Importantly, at its core, the group seeks to honor BIPOC and marginalized artists. 

“AlterTheater's productions have brought theatergoers into the gallery, and brought Art Works patrons to see live theater,” said Jeanette Harrison, who has steered the group as visionary, artistic director, and more, since its founding in 2004. She is currently moving to a new job with Artists Repertory Theater in Portland, Oregon, presenting the theater group with a new staffing challenge: how to keep things flowing while continuing to engage audiences and maintain their multi-pronged mission.

As it nears its 20th anniversary, working in ensemble collaboration mode, AlterTheater seeks to “create a more just, more equitable community by supporting the creative growth of theater artists from historically underrepresented communities; telling stories that reflect the full complexity and diversity of our community; and sharing stories with our full community, in places where people are.”

“Our goals may sound lofty, but we also must do many practical things,” said Avery, acknowledging the business and bootstrapping side of community theater production. In the past he has worked with the progressive 10,000 Things Theater, based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, so he really understands the business challenges of running a nonprofit theater company.

Avery sees the theater’s current goals as figuring out how to diversify collaboration in the community; continuing to do innovative play development through AlterLab, a cohort of diverse writers (a playwright is commissioned to write a new play for and with the community, working with the ensemble to create a story that tackles issues in their community); and seeking new partnerships to help develop future performance venues.

Director of New Play Development is playwright Diana Burbano, of Colombian descent. AlterLab’s second First Acts cohort became the Decolonization Stories Project, where writers are encouraged to create in languages other than English. As part of the theater’s commitment to finding ways for theater to support Native language revitalization, one play was written entirely in Navajo.

“I am so excited by Eric and Diana and their vision for the future of AlterTheater, while staying rooted in the Indigenous leadership practices baked into AlterTheater’s DNA,” said Harrison.

“Right now, our space is fluid,” says Avery. “We need storage space. Having a concrete rehearsal space would be so important, too. We need to solidify. It’s an exciting time!”

Explore AlterTheater’s history and accomplishments:

This month and next we publish an article in two parts featuring Harry L. Caldwell IV, a local master engraver, painter, and illustrator whose story is set against the background of life in Marin County as it was, as it is, and as it is evolving.

Harry L. Caldwell IVAWD CONNECTIONS: Issue #1 – Harry Caldwell

Art, Passion, and Confrontation:
An Incident in the Life of Harry L. Caldwell IV
Part I
by Lisa Carlson

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” ― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Harry L. Caldwell IV, a studio artist of Art Works Downtown, is a master engraver, painter, and illustrator. One evening last year he was exhibiting with us when he sold one of his pieces to a new customer. The piece is a carved coin – a flower mandala – and the image led the buyer to engage Harry, who is African American, in a discussion of the history of race in America. 

The customer began to question Harry’s knowledge of history in what felt to Harry like an overly antagonistic manner. He asked why he wasn’t famous for his engraving.

“I told him my story of getting blacklisted in the greater engraving community for speaking out about LGBTQIA rights and Black Lives Matter,” said Harry.

“I am here to share my art; I did not come here to educate him… The man was of a privileged class, being older and white, so of course our lived experiences would be different. Yet as he asked about my history I felt he was baiting me while taking a victim position,” said Harry. “I felt the buyer did not assume I was racist, he felt I was attacking America by calling American history racist.”

After it became clear that the customer had no intention of listening, only focusing on contradicting Harry’s lived experience, Harry stopped the conversation. The buyer then asked Harry to engrave the word “Peace” on the coin. Harry accepted the task at no additional charge, simply to encourage him to leave.

When it came time to pay for the coin, buyer and seller agreed to use PayPal, as the buyer didn’t have cash on hand. After the transaction went through, the buyer became upset that Harry had not placed it under the “friends and family” payment option. He expressed his anger and quickly left the exhibit space.

Then, a bit after 9 p.m., when most of his fellow artists had gone home, Harry heard footsteps coming his way. The man had returned because he said he had forgotten some art cards.

Harry was stunned that such a simple thing as selling his art could have led to this array of subtle and not-so-subtle stress.

After this series of events, he said, “I felt alone, felt unsafe in my own studio.”

The transaction had touched on issues of race, sexual identity, education, history, and empowerment: the very same issues the U.S. continues to grapple with this century.

Harry asks, “How can we hope to understand and fix problems like racism if we don’t listen and learn from the perspectives of the oppressed?”

Rooted in His Mixed Heritage
A native of East Lansing, Michigan, a descendant of African American and Dutch family, Harry Caldwell was raised in “an upper-middle-class white environment.” He identifies as queer and is also a stepfather of two.

As he writes in his online biography, he is also “a tantric yogi with a passion for exceptional design.” Harry’s work has been published nationally and exhibited in solo exhibitions in Seattle at the CORE Gallery. He has received multiple design awards and holds a B. S. in industrial design from the Art Institute of Seattle.

He designs what he calls “personal heirlooms” made from long-lasting materials such as precious and semi-precious metals, including silver, gold, and platinum. 

“My engravings create a sense of permanence in a world of rapid change. My intention is that they are a legacy to be passed forward through generations. I currently focus on creating two forms of hand-engraved coins. Hobo Nickels are miniature bas relief sculptures depicting the faces of travelers telling stories from various points in history. Love Tokens are joyful reminders of the beauty found in the smallest of details. The coins are intentionally engraved with maximum detail to bring the viewer into a moment of reflection. Delicately carved monograms, flowers, scrolls, and sacred geometry remind us to slow down and witness the beauty in the moment.”

How ironic, then, that Harry’s creative passion to connect us to the past in a positive way could have led to such discomfort between buyer and seller.

“In our current climate of polarization, I feel particularly called to depict faces and feelings of marginalized communities. I want to amplify the voices of the disenfranchised. My coins are a message, moving my audience toward the social, spiritual and systemic changes that make our society more equitable.”

In Solidarity
We at AWD recognize our role in ensuring a diverse and inclusive society. We have therefore institutionalized a proactive practice by establishing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee charged with considering DEI in all AWD’s planning, policy, and operations.  

Cultural inclusivity is critical to the long-term viability of the arts sector. Everyone deserves a vibrant creative life. That’s why we provide an environment where visual art thrives for the well-being of community. We must recognize and rebuke systems of racism and segregation and build a more healthy and equitable community in Marin County. It’s not through words alone that we can succeed, but through our actions, which include our continuing commitment to holding and offering a space where all people can commune using the practice, study, and celebration of visual art.


In Part 2 of this article for AWD Connections, we will discuss where AWD stands vis-à-vis the history of Marin County.


Lisa CarlsonLisa Carlson

Lisa Carlson was born in New Jersey and raised in Latin America. After graduating from NYU with a B.A. in anthropology and French, she moved to Paris, working at the Cinémathèque Française. Returning to New York, she produced presentations for corporations, had a sales career, and consulted for the U.N.

Moving to the Bay Area in 1990, she worked as writer/editor in corporate communications and publishing. She taught copyediting at UC Berkeley Extension’s Certificate in Editing program and was founding writer and editor of two East Bay monthlies. In 2021-2022, she taught creative writing and tutored at Richmond College Preparatory Academy, serving immigrant and African American children. She’s a writing coach and edits fiction and non-fiction. 

Former chair of Bay Area Editors’ Forum, Lisa also co-chaired the National Writers Union BizTech division in its activist years.

Lisa is an actress, appearing in commercials, industrials, and community theater. She has traveled widely in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and India.