A Berkeley artist turns 50, creates 50 pieces about light

The old Black Oak Books building on Shattuck has been converted into a pop-up art exhibit for the month of October, curated by Berkeley artist Deb Durant. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The old Black Oak Books building on Shattuck has been converted into a pop-up art exhibit for the month of October, curated by Berkeley artist Deb Durant. This is a piece by Jess Parker of porcelain leaves. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

When Berkeley artist Deb Durant thought about how to celebrate her 50th birthday, she decided she didn’t want an over-the-top party with champagne and colorful hats.

Instead, Durant wanted to savor the transition between her 40s and 50s and use the time to connect with others. So she launched the 5050Light project – a yearlong endeavor to create 50 art pieces – 25 by herself and 25 in collaboration with other artists.

The results of Durant’s efforts were on display Sunday Oct. 12 in the cavernous space on Shattuck Avenue that once held Black Oak Books (which, as reported on Berkeleyside, will soon become Books Inc.). As Sunday Streets took place outside, dozens of people wandered through the building to admire Durant’s pop-up art exhibit, which will be on display until Oct. 28. 

Deb Durant standing next to "Falling Pieces" one of the exhibits at her pop-up art show, 5050Light. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Deb Durant standing next to “Light as a Feather” one of the exhibits at her pop-up art show, 5050Light. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

All the art pieces in the show have some connection to light, either literally or figuratively. The show features 20 Bay Area artists working in nine different mediums: metalwork, painting, photography, glass, lighting, ceramic, textile, encaustic, and the written word.


The centerpiece of the exhibit is a sculpture of porcelain leaves that appear to be fluttering to the ground. It is called “Light as a Feather.” Durant and Jess Parker, a member of the Berkeley Potters’ Studio, spent months handcrafting the leaves and figuring out how to attach them to translucent fishing string so that they appear to be hovering in the air. They “fall” into a mound of black sesame seeds. Throughout the day, as the sun moves through the sky, the light shining on the leaves changes.

“I decided to devote my 50th year to an exploration of light,” said Durant, a soft-spoken, elegantly dressed woman who is a goldsmith and jewelry maker. “I chose light because it is universal. It would be an easy subject for artists to explore.”

Durant reached out to close friends who were artists and artists she barely knew. The best-known artist in the show may be Peter Houk, the director of the MIT Glass Lab. He painted on a piece of hand-blown glass a dystopian scene showing military jets flying against a bleak sky above abandoned oil wells. Houck  then mounted it in a light box. Amy Murray, the owner of Revival and Venus, has two photos, one a selfie of her taking a picture of her shadow and the other a collage of a recent eclipse. Cari Borja, a clothesmaker, has made dresses inspired by Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Jesse Abbot Williams, the owner of Brushstrokes, has a series of ceramic plates with quotes on them. Durant also collaborated with her husband, Matthew Winkelstein, an architect, and her daughter Sadie.

Clothesmaker Cari Borja was inspired by Milan Kundera's Impossible Lightness of Being when she made these pieces. Photo: Deb Durant
Clothesmaker Cari Borja was inspired by Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being when she made these pieces. Photo: Deb Durant
Photo: Deb Durant
The artist Emily Payne titled her piece “Wired Globes.” Photo: Deb Durant

Three novelists — Edie Meidav, Andrew Pham and Tucker Malarkey — wrote some prose for the show. Their words are mounted on the wall.


Catherine Stern did not know Durant before the show, but approached her after a mutual friend told her about the theme. Stern had been working on a project she calls Fragile Pieces – a long piece of yellow organza decorated with paint and pieces of mica found in a river in Connecticut. The art piece is based on a story disseminated by Rabbi Isaac Luria in the 16th century, said Stern. It represents the moment when light was introduced into the world and

“She’s created this community of artists who have contributed large and small,” said Stern. “It’s been a year of interactions. I think Deb was brilliant to do something so community oriented for her 50th birthday.”

Artist Catherine Stern stands in front of her piece in the show 505Light. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Artist Catherine Stern stands in front of her piece in the show 505Light. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Durant almost didn’t get to use the space at all. She reached out to the owners to propose a short-term rental, but got no response. So she went to a coffee hosted by City Councilman Laurie Capitelli and explained what she wanted to do. Capitelli put Durant in touch with the owners, who agreed to rent it to her significantly below the $11,000 a month rent. Durant raised more than $6,000 to fund the show through Kickstarter.

Durant got the keys to the space on Oct. 4. She only had 72 hours to clean and set up the exhibit. The space had been vacant for years and was filthy, particularly the concrete subfloor that had been exposed when the wooden floor has been ripped out. Durant spent nine hours on an industrial cleaning machine going back and forth over the concrete, which turned from a grimy to shiny gray.

On Sunday, people talked about how nice it was to have the room once again serve as a community gathering space.


Matthew Winkelstein, an architect, collected pieces that he and his wife Deb Durant, had gotten from Home Depot to use for their daughter's birthday party and reassembled them into the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Deb Durant
Matthew Winkelstein, an architect, collected pieces that he and his wife Deb Durant, had gotten from Home Depot to use for their daughter’s birthday party and reassembled them into the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Deb Durant

“People have been coming by and saying this place has been empty for so many years – wouldn’t it be great to keep it going?” said Winkelstein. “Sadly, it won’t.”

“People are thrilled by not having a missing front tooth on the block,” said Durant, referring to the long-vacant space. “People are excited even before they walk through the front door to see something here.”

Durant also created a way to lure people in off the street by putting up a photo of a vortex with an oval peephole on the front window.

A man looking through the peephole into 5050Light. Photo: William Newton
A man looking through the peephole into 5050Light. Photo: William Newton

By the time Durant closed up the space on Sunday — her 50th birthday — more than 500 people had come through the space.

“I can only describe it as a dream come true,” said Durant. “It was everything I had hoped for. It was joyful.”

5050Light is open every day from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Oct. 28. It is located at 1491 Shattuck Ave., right near Vine St.

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