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Downtown warehouse teaches Oakland the art of metal and scrap

Malinda Groening

The steel building I walked into looks like any other in West Oakland: 18-wheelers roar by and the streets and warehouses bear the usual trappings of an industrial area. Tucked away between Jack London Square and the Port of Oakland, a giant mosaic on the side of the building sets this warehouse apart, proclaiming in bright colored glass and fractured mirror: “The Crucible.”

The front door is heavy and closes definitively as the lobby, sparse and spacious, sprawls ahead. Punctuated by kinetic art pieces and a work consisting of blue glass bottles stuck into a V8 engine block, the office is where I begin my tour of this massive building. On the wall is a list of classes, from jewelry making to welding, glass flameworking to bronze casting.

The Crucible is “the Bay Area’s only nonprofit sculpture studio, educational foundry and metal fabrication shop,” according to their Web site.

I meet my guide, who sits behind a crescent-shaped desk. Program Assistant Paul Goodman, once a practicing lawyer, says that once he visited the Crucible, “It was all over.” With infectious enthusiasm he leads me through two sets of doors and into the main warehouse area.

Past the doors, I smell hot metal and wood; there is the constant hum of heavy machinery and activity; a handful of people are working on various projects. Norman Moore, a Crucible teacher, shows me his sculpture entitled “Spinner.”

“I have a tendency to be literal,” he says, gesturing for me to step on a foot pedal attached to a tall white figure with flashing neon lights; it spins wildly as promised.

Goodman says Spinner is one of “quite a few” pieces that was taken to the Burning Man festival, an event the Crucible artists contribute to every year.

Students and staff at the Crucible designed and made the tree grates, bike racks and garbage cans for the rehaul of the Laurel District, just outside the Mills gates.

We visit the Kinetics workshop where students add sound, movement and lights to their projects. “You can hook your Teddy Ruxpin up to a computer and control what he says, how he moves,” Goodman says. On a table sit a pair of carved wooden shoes on a box. “I think these are supposed to tapdance.”

Outside the Kinetics studio looms a large, weathered fountain. “It was on its way to a junkyard,” Goodman says, “We got it using the ancient legal doctrine of ‘Finders Keepers.'” Laughing, he explains that the grand plan is for the fountain to shoot a plume of fire. “If there’s anything thing we love here, it’s fire and electricity.”

Next to the areas for bronze, iron, aluminum and wax casting is the foundry.

The foundry provides a bit of a balcony to see the Crucible’s two fire engines. They are outfitted with blacksmithing, welding and glassworking equipment.

“We take them to fairs and schools to do demos,” Goodman says. They were recently at the Art and Soul Festival in downtown Oakland.

Goodman shows me the machine shop and then the scrapyard, where students can use just about anything for their projects. He explains that beyond scraps and leftovers, they almost exclusively use local suppliers for parts.

The Crucible is in the midst of an expansion. Up a flight of stairs, I get to see the newest addition to the building: a 6,000 square foot mezzanine will house six new classrooms, a library, a performing arts area and a computer lab.

The most dangerous room in the building, Goodman tells me, is the woodworking room. “Nowhere else are you working with giant spinning knives.”

When we reach the jewelry room, Goodman says “there was a time when I would have said the most popular classes for women were glass or jewelry making. But now we have welding and blacksmithing intensives for women.”

In the middle of the warehouse sit the staff studios and private artist studios that can be rented. Nearby, Goodman shows me some storage cages “which were originally used to hold monkeys at some medical testing lab,” he intones. “Lots of bad karma.”

Back outside the building, Goodman showed me a fire engine they outfitted for the Oakland Fire Department. It featured a dance floor complete with disco ball, a gigantic barbecue, an instant “cryo” drink chiller and a modified fire hose that shoots a 12-foot flame.

Classes aren’t cheap; depending on the class, materials fees alone can run up to $130. But the studio is packed with enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff who want to have a good time and share their craft.