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Life and Art Meld in a Berkeley Home and Gallery

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A staircase with various metal objects on each stair. The wall has multiple works of art hanging above the staircase.

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Bonnie Grossman's home is also her gallery; photos via Patricia Chang
For the first time in 45 years, Bonnie Grossman is soon going to be able to come downstairs in her robe. After operating the Ames Gallery out of her home in the Berkeley Hills for nearly a half century, Grossman is retiring and liquidating her vast collection of what many would call folk and naive art (although she hates labeling it). For her, there's virtually no separation between life and art, as the works are displayed in nearly all the spaces of her home. Although it's by appointment only, she's accustomed to drop-ins. Thus, it pays to be dressed and ready for business.

A room with multiple tables, chairs, and works of art on the walls.

↑ Grossman came to specialize in this art genre and sell it out of her home in a roundabout way. She started operations in her house "temporarily" 45 years ago after a disagreement with the landlord of the commercial building where she rented space. She was introduced to naive art while volunteering for a KQED art auction. "Alex Maldonado was an unschooled artist who started painting in his retirement. I first saw his work when he donated it to the auction," Grossman says. "I found his work refreshing." At the time, Grossman was having difficulty with some of the traditional artist she represented. "The academic artists were coming from a different place. They had a 'look at me' attitude," she says. "These artists, who had no formal training, were creating for the pleasure of it." Soon, she had switched gears, even swapping her living and dining spaces in order to better accommodate the artwork.

A wall with multiple framed works of art. In the foreground is a wooden table with chairs.

↑ Now, her walls are filled with art that nearly defies classification. "I find that many of the labels for this type of art—naive, outsider, or raw—are pejorative," she says. "I prefer to simply call it art." Call it what you will, most of Grossman's offerings show the unique imprint of the human hand. She offers folk art (quilts, mended implements, whimsy bottles, and memory jars) and the work of non-traditional artists (self-taught painters, sculptors, and ceramicists).

A bed with patterned bed linens and pillows. Above the bed are multiple works of art and a quilt. There is a dresser.

↑ Not only is the art unique, the setting is uncommon. After all, the term "art gallery" is hard to separate from the image of minimalist white walls and nearly empty rooms. Grossman displays the works in the living room, dining room, kitchen, on the stairway, and in a guest bedroom. In other words, she lives and breathes her career—and by association, her late husband and two children (now grown) did too. "I raised the children with the art throughout the house. There was only one case where they broke something. Unfortunately, it was a piece I had sold."

Other than that instance, having a home gallery has been a good experience. "Back when I was in a traditional retail space, people would ask to take things on approval, to see how it would look in their home," she says. "But once I moved into the house, I never had that request. Here, they can see how it looks in a home."

A shelf with multiple mugs, cups, and pitchers.

↑ A big part of the collection are pieces that are mended or patched. Back when America was a less disposable society, utensils and tools were not easily replaced. Instead of just tossing them and buying new, our more thrifty ancestors had to repair household items and farm implements. Some would ask: Why is it art? "I think those items speak to the human spirit," Grossman says. "Back in the day, people didn't just throw things out, they couldn't. They had to come up with ways to fix things. I have everything from darned socks to stapled china. To me, that makes them more appealing." So appealing, in fact, that when she had an exhibition of mended items, she hung repaired china and pots with their backsides showing—the better to see the fix. Here, you see cups whose broken off handles were replaced with metal and leather pieces.

A shelf with multiple glass jars filled with religious objects.

↑ Another specialty is whimsy bottles. These pieces follow the old ship-in-a-bottle model, but with the creators carving all kinds of intricate wood sculptures that they then assemble in a bottle. "Many of these were done by people who were constrained, perhaps in jail or confined to a hospital bed," Grossman says. "It interests me that people in confinement would choose a similarly confining art form."

A woman stands in front of a shelf with glass jars that hold various objects.

↑ Talking to Grossman, it's clear she has an affinity for the art and the life of a home gallerist. Even so, this year she will be gradually divesting herself and her Craftsman house of much of it. "We are not stripping the house to the bare walls," she says. "But I will be selling a lot of it, and donating some of it as well. I'm 81 years old, and keeping up the gallery is a lot of work." Details of the sale will be posted on the Ames Gallery website.

Looking ahead, Grossman sees a future that's still filled with art, but perhaps more restful. She says: "I look forward to sleeping in."


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· Ames Gallery [Official Site]