Jana Olson is equally at home in her Panache Lighting studio in West Berkeley (2743 Ninth St.) as she is in her house in a ravine on Shasta Road in the hills, which comes with an art-filled garden and 350 tons of rocks and granite stabilizing the hillside.
Olson came to Berkeley in 1970 from Minnesota, hoping to land a job as a landscape gardener. She did land said job, and she stayed. After a decade designing and building gardens, Olson moved inside. For years she ran Omega Lighting on San Pablo, where she learned to repair and rebuild lamps.
When the relationship that tied her to Omega ended, she left Omega and opened her own lamp repair and fabrication shop, Panache. It is a great word to describe her — flamboyant confidence of style or manner.
She is fond of everyday objects repurposed as lamps — kitchen utensils and teapots and Wedgwood porcelain cups and Lustreware.
Her lamps are stunning, whether they are set off a plain white ceiling (albeit in a house filled with bright-colored African art) or a screaming-bright Bulwinkle ceiling mural.
To see Olson’s gardening, I visited her home on Shasta Road, just above the hill from the quatrefoil on the side of the road (her home is in the background). The quatrefoil signifies nothing, and so signifies everything. It was languishing unsold at Ohmega Salvage, so Olson brought it home and installed it on the top of the ravine bank. People stop and photograph themselves with it, next to, and looking through it, all the while imagining the backstory. It would be interesting to collect the imagined backstories.
Her upper garden runs inside a fence along Shasta Road as it winds uphill. The garden is filled with art, hers and that made by friends.
On the way around the house to get to the lower gardens in the ravine you pass under a deck, where Olson has created the Grotto of Santa Basura (“Saint Trash”) which bleeds into the Graveyard of Rusty Tools. The grotto is filled with trash found in the ravine during the big clean-up when Olson moved in.
The lower garden winds along Codornices Creek, which runs all year, drought or not. The garden is filled with art among the plantings.
The path then leads to a Bulwinkle rose-covered steel arbor.
A shovel tops the Bulwinkle arbor, with the words “A Woman’s Work is Never Done” cut into it.
Sitting in the creek is a Marcia Donahue stone sculpture named “Codornicia.” She weighs two tons. She was slowly winched down the bank to the stream by a tow truck. That I would like to have seen.
Olson’s house is stunning in an almost-only-in-Berkeley way. Of quirkiest interest in the house is this mounted head over the fireplace.
This Olson piece is inspired by the Unorthodox Taxidermy project that a young Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) embarked upon in the 1930s, matching bills, horns, and antlers from dead zoo animals with imagined and bizarre beings. The June 7, 1938, issue of Look magazine dubbed Ted Geisel “The World’s Most Eminent Authority on Unheard-Of Animals.” In this vein, Olson has launched her own Unorthodox Taxidermy project with his unheard-of-animal.
Jana Olson’s lamps and unorthodox taxidermy and chicken-plate flowers and Marcia Donahue art and Mark Bulwinkle art and John Abduljaami art and the Grotto of Santa Basura and 350 tons of stones and granite. Yes, people like Olson are found outside Berkeley. But she’s here. And only here. And there are more like her, what Mark Bulwinkle calls “aesthetic conspirators.” She and they make this a better place, a special place, a creative place.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.
For a fuller version of this post, see Quirky Berkeley.
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