After Ghost Ship fire, an artist hub opens in old Berkeley grocery store

A former grocery store in South Berkeley opened its doors to creative mischief earlier this year, trading in a stockroom, shelves and liquor bottles for papier-mâché puppets and an industrious group of local children.

The artist residency program and summer camp that popped up in February at 2727 California Street, on the corner of Ward Street, is the brainchild of Marc Hellerstein, a Cal and UCSF professor who bought the building soon after the Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people at an artists’ collective party in Oakland on Dec. 2, 2016.

Hellerstein moved from Boston to Berkeley 30 years ago to begin working as a medical researcher in the Bay Area. He knew a young person who died in the fire, and one who didn’t attend the party but had planned to.

Appalled by the events of that night, and a lack of support for young artists in the Bay Area, he decided to step in and fill the gap with the creation of 2727 California Street. The creative hub includes a residency — one of the few programs in the area that pays artists and provides them room and board while they produce work for the community.

“The Bay Area is losing a lot of its vibrancy … the idea of this becoming just a techie place is really sad.” — Marc Hellerstein

“The Bay Area is losing a lot of its vibrancy … the idea of this becoming just a techie place is really sad,” he said. “But the Bay Area always evolves, because it’s such a wonderful place.”

Hellerstein set up an arts foundation using family funds and teamed up with Berkeley-raised artist Lydia Glenn-Murray to find the perfect location. They happened upon 2727 California St. and were able to secure the former home of Friendly Market corner store, which had closed and left the mixed-use residential building vacant for several years.

Renovations were completed in February and programming began in March followed by the arrival of the first resident artists and the first summer campers.

The freewheeling camp program is designed to give the children “a moment of courage,” said Glenn-Murray, sitting inside a “dining room” constructed by young locals in the backyard of the two-story building. Campers between the ages of seven and 17 hammered together wood beams, crafted complementary artwork and wrapped the structure in orange cloth to leave behind a cozy, communal meeting place that will outlast summer vacation — by at least a few months.

“Temporary permanence” is a theme at 2727 California Street. Glenn-Murray and Frank Traynor, a former resident artist who now teaches at the program, use the oxymoron as a loose structure for campers to brush off inhibitions and be as playful as possible. Every camper is asked to focus on “today,” Glenn-Murray said. Whatever happened yesterday, you can come back the next day with a fresh slate.

At the same time, Traynor said the camp operates on the 500-year principle, encouraging campers to leave their mark with projects like the “dining room,” or colorful tile inlays at the building’s entrance. This commitment to responsible silliness has turned picky eaters into adventurous foodies, brought too-cool teenagers into a line-dancing routine with elementary schoolers and given each camper the confidence to let loose, Glenn-Murray said.

Parents in the neighborhood have been appreciative of the program, she said, partly because the instructors live in the neighborhood and most registrations happen in-person through a friendly open door. The camp and the residency program are both free, and Glenn-Murray said this has allowed the program to reflect an “impressively diverse” neighborhood.

As the campers busy themselves with projects downstairs, a small staircase opens up to a beautiful artists’ residence bathed in light upstairs. Three bedrooms are open to artists who can create projects with a local impact — but this is the extent of their guidelines.

To apply, artists only need to describe their work and entertain a few whimsical questions, such as: “Describe a gift you’ve given or received” and “Tell us about a time you were in a new place.”

Experience isn’t a limiting factor for the application, according to Glenn-Murray, and the definition of art is all-encompassing; one resident at the camp created a digital archive for 2727 California Street, another did Terrazzo tile-work and one soon-to-be resident is a practicing clown.

Hellerstein, Glenn-Murray and Trayor are bubbling over with ideas for projects and programming for the next year, but they need to find the funds to underwrite them. The lease, artist stipends and camp materials amount to about $250,000 each year, and Hellerstein said he is “very aggressively” trying to raise money with partnerships and grants.

2727 California Street currently receives funding from the Atkins Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and it partners with Richmond-based NIAD Art Center and Oakland’s Real Time & Space, which shares the building for its own residency program.

The artists’ haven might not have panned out without the right building, and this one has both charm and a convenient location. The old store is located across the street from Longfellow Middle School and Hellerstein is working with Berkeley Unified School District to secure funding for a potential after-school program. In the long-term, the “no-school” program may offer creative programs in science, math, technology and engineering, in addition to art therapy-based projects and lessons in the humanities.

Applications for the residency program are pouring in, and Glenn-Murray said it has been difficult at times to narrow down talented artists, but the demand has been “incredibly encouraging.” For Hellerstein, it reinvigorates his mission to prove a link between creative expression and health.

“Health is getting worse in this country, not better, and no one really knows what to do about it. The medical model isn’t working” he said. “So, we’re trying to see if maybe enriching people’s lives, especially [young people] could improve medical health.”