Ceci Bowman opens her workshop of groovy art and textiles for a holiday sale

Gerard Ortiz

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Open North Berkeley

Ceci Bowman’s 1970s-inspired art and textiles go on sale for the holidays

The multimedia artist Ceci Bowman with some of her dog pillows. Credit: Joanne Furio

Step into Ceci Bowman’s workshop/gallery in Shattuck Commons and into the Berkeley of the early 1970s, the Berkeley of her childhood, when everything was groovy and, in design, bold graphics and bright colors ruled. 

“Everything I do sort of draws from that,” said Bowman, 56, a multimedia artist whose work ranges from illustrations in The New York Times to home textiles and fine art. “I have a lot of memories from that time: bright, flowery wallpaper and my mother sewing a lot, everything from tablecloths to dresses.” 

Bowman’s workshop, usually by appointment, will open for a holiday show and sale, beginning with an opening party on Saturday, Nov. 26, from noon to 6 p.m. The sale continues every subsequent Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 24, from noon to 6 p.m. 

Bowman is greatly influenced by Marimekko, the Finnish design firm whose bold and colorful textiles had a major impact on mid-century design. Like Marimekko, Bowman’s patterns can be abstract. Her figurative work features highly stylized and exuberant images of women in motion. 

New work includes aprons ($45-$65), dishtowels ($20) and ceramic trivets painted with Bowman’s designs and fired by Jessica Williams of Berkeley’s Brushstrokes Studio, along with giclée prints ($25-$100) and framed monoprints ($400-$500) with a collage-y feel. There will also be Ceci Bowman Designs cards (5 for $10), wrapping paper (3 sheets for $10), chiffon scarves ($45-$100) and dog print pillows ($35).  

Aprons are among Bowman’s most popular textiles, inspired by what her mother would whip up at the last minute before a holiday party. 

An assortment of bold graphic aprons in Ceci Bowman’s shop. Credit: Joanne Furio

“Nothing fancy but just a big piece of fabric that could finish a look and define you as a hostess,” Bowman said. Her stylish “hostess aprons,” awash in hot pink, orange and yellow flowers, are as pretty as dresses.

Bowman has an entire series inspired by her mother, Millie Hurd, who died of breast cancer when Bowman was 12. The cards, scarves and prints in the series are connected to motherhood and the textiles of her youth, “the light and warmth of Berkeley kitchens and growing up in Indian Rock,” she said. 

Ceci Bowman has turned many of her artwork featuring women into cards. Credit: Joanne Furio

Bowman studied printmaking at UC Santa Cruz and then worked as a set decorator and prop person for four years in L.A. When she returned to Berkeley in the mid-’90s, she became an assistant designer at Mouse Feathers, a line of girl’s dresses. More recently, she’s been an assistant textile designer at Inovatex, then in Burlingame, an illustrator and a muralist whose work covers the empty storefront at 2026 Shattuck Ave., next to Comal. 

“I have so much in my head,” Bowman said. “I need an event to inspire me to turn those ideas into objects.”

Ceci Bowman Designs, 1400 Shattuck Ave. #10 (at Rose Street), Berkeley. Hours: Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 26-Dec. 24,  Connect via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

In the spotlight Lorin District

A silversmith who has been hammering away in Berkeley for 60 years

Gary Reopelle in front of a wall of tools at his metal finishing and repair workshop. Credit: Joanne Furio

In 1962, after completing three tours in the Navy, 22-year-old Gary Reopelle went to dinner at a Navy buddy’s house in Concord. During the visit, his friend’s parents asked Reopelle what he planned to do after the Navy. 

Turns out his friend’s great uncle, a Norwegian silversmith who once worked for Shreves, owned Monsen Silversmiths, a metal finishing and repair business on Berkeley’s Ashby Avenue, and needed help. Monsen began in 1904 in San Francisco, making it one of the oldest metal restoration companies on the West Coast.

Reopelle had no experience in metalwork but grew up doing all sorts of chores on his grandparents’ 150-acre farm in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. With a farm boy’s pluck, Reopelle left the Navy and started at Monsen’s the next day. Two years later, he bought the business. 

Reopelle’s now 82, a master craftsman who’s still hammering away. 

“Some people are good writers. Some are good carpenters,” said Reopelle, who wears navy work clothes on the job. “I’m mechanical.” 

Around 1972, Reopelle moved Monsen to its present location at 3370 Adeline St., a building he now owns. In addition to his 4,000-square-foot shop, the building also houses Domino Computer, a computer repair shop on the ground floor and an upstairs apartment where Reopelle lives. 

Fall is Monsen’s busiest time when churches, synagogues and individual customers are preparing for major celebrations, from the High Holy Days to Thanksgiving and Christmas, and need their silver polished or repaired. Shelves were recently stocked with items like a Russian samovar, pewter plates, silver candlesticks, metal lamps, copper pans and silver flatware that needed to be polished, replated or bent back into shape, a surprisingly common repair. 

“People are always bending something, dropping things onto the floor or down into the garbage disposal. Almost every week, I take in something that has gone down the garbage disposal,” he said, smiling under his Monsen Silversmiths baseball hat. “Maybe I am stretching it a little bit.”

A recent order at Monsen Silversmiths. Credit: Joanne Furio

Monsen’s looks like the industrial workshop that it is and includes a room with old-time machinery and about a half-dozen vats where electricity and chemicals combine to plate brass, nickel, copper, silver and gold. Working alongside Reopelle are Ernie Nino, a plater and metal finisher, and Ken Smith, who takes care of orders and some repairs. 

Reopelle keeps reminders of his past near the shop’s entrance: photos of the aircraft carrier Hancock he served on and his grandparents’ farm. 

“The older you get, the more you like to be surrounded by old things,” Reopelle observed. That’s why he still has a glass kerosene lamp from his grandparents’ farm and an almost complete set of vintage cast iron skillets he’s more than happy to show you. 

Monsen Silversmiths (its sign now being restored) has been at this Lorin District location since 1972. Credit: Joanne Furio

Monsen Silversmiths has customers all over the country. Reopelle has just sent pieces back to Maryland and Texas. New business comes via word of mouth. 

How has such a business endured? Perhaps because it’s a niche. Like the horse-drawn plows Reopelle remembers from his grandparents’ farm, silversmithing, he said, is a type of work that’s disappearing. 

“I guess the younger generation doesn’t like to use their hands like they used to,” he said.  

Monsen Silversmiths, 3370 Adeline St., (off 62nd Street) Berkeley. Phone: 510-655-0890. Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. 

In the spotlight Westbrae

Forty years of granola at Berkeley’s Natural Grocery Company

Bob Gerner, one of the founders of what is now the Natural Grocery Company, at the Berkeley store. Courtesy: The Natural Grocery Company

The backlash against white flour, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, colors and preservatives is nothing new. In 1970, banning such ingredients was the guiding principle adopted at a meeting of the Organic Merchants on Mount Shasta. Bob Gerner was there.

“I became involved in natural foods because I believed in organics and wanted to change the way people eat,” said Gerner, 76, a self-described former “hippie granola maker” who was a founder and then an owner of what would become the Natural Grocery Company. 

In 1971, Gerner was one of the founders of Westbrae Natural Foods, a retail store and food manufacturing company at 1336 Gilman St. As the manufacturing portion of Westbrae expanded and moved to a nearby warehouse, he bought the retail part of the company and renamed it Gilman Street Gourmet Natural Foods and Delicatessen.  

In 1980, Gerner sold Gilman Street Gourmet to devote more time to Westbrae Natural Foods and to get married. The buyer, however, went bankrupt before completing the purchase. So Gerner and his wife, Pattie, reopened the store on Dec. 10, 1981, renaming it Berkeley Natural Grocery Co., the beginning of the Natural Grocery Company customers know today. The grand reopening was in February 1982. 

The El Cerrito Natural Grocery opened in 1988, followed by the Prepared Food Annex opened next door in 2014.

For a small regional company, the store has had an outsized influence on the natural foods industry. In the early aughts, the non-GMO Project started at the Berkeley store in 2003 in response to customer inquiries. As a result, Food Chain Inc., the nation’s largest GMO testing laboratory, enlisted Natural Grocery Company (and The Big Carrot in Toronto), according to Gerner, to help create the first non-GMO regulations in North America in 2007. 

Gerner converted the grocery to worker ownership by becoming an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) in 2002. His motivation: “to ensure the company could survive after I’m gone.” 

Gerner’s no longer an employee, but remains active in the business as a trustee and board member. The business has attracted many long-term employees. Out of a staff of 130, 14 have been at the company for more than 20 years. One employee, Phan Beh, retired in August after 40 years. 

 “We try to do right by our employees as well as our customers,” Gerner said. Maybe that’s why the El Cerrito store has been voted Best Natural Foods Store by the East Bay Express in 2021 and East Bay Magazine in 2022

The predecessor of Berkeley Natural Grocery Company has been at this Gilman Street location since 1971. Courtesy: The Natural Grocery Company

“When I started, I wanted to change how America ate,” he said. “At the time, only hippie stores had organic food. Now every store in the country carries organic foods,” not to mention local competition from national chains like Whole Foods and Sprouts. 

“I’m amazed we survived,” Gerner said. “We’ve had lots of competition, but we’re still here and thriving.”

The Natural Grocery Company, 1336 Gilman St. (off Northside Avenue) Berkeley. Phone: 510-526-2456. Hours: Daily, 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Connect via Facebook and Instagram.  

In the spotlight Southside

Stiles Hall replaces a retiring leader with one of its own

David Stark retired in October after serving as Stiles Hall’s executive director for 36 years. Courtesy: Stiles Hall

“Where leaders grow” is the slogan for Stiles Hall, a 137-year-old nonprofit that helps students of color gain access to — and then graduate from — top colleges. As evidence that Stiles’ leadership model works, the organization has replaced its longtime executive director, David Stark, who is retiring, with Jonathan Nussur, who had started at Stiles as a program coordinator during his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley. 

“I used the skills, mentorship, and confidence I gained in that role to become Stiles Hall’s executive director a decade later,” Nussur said. 

The leadership transition took place at a Blackwell Hall celebration on Oct. 8.

Founded in 1884, Stiles Hall focuses on “creating pathways for higher education access and student retention through mentorship, strategy and community,” especially for low-income Black and Brown students, according to its website, while welcoming students of all backgrounds. 

Stiles has a dual legacy of promoting racial justice. In the 1940s, Stiles was one of a few organizations to speak out against the internment of Japanese Americans. 

Stark became Stiles’ executive director in 1986. During his tenure, Stiles has helped 1,000 Black and Brown first-generation high school and community college students gain acceptance to top colleges and mentored, coached and tutored over 2,000 K-12 students from Berkeley, Oakland, West Contra Costa, Bakersfield and Coachella Valley school districts. Also, under his leadership, Stiles has raised and awarded over $1 million in scholarships to Black UC Berkeley students. Programs such as Options Recovery Services, Colorwave and Underground Scholars started out of Stiles Hall with Stark’s support.

Stark looks forward to seeing Nussur take the reins: “I couldn’t be happier with Jonathan as the new leader,” he said. 

Jonathan Nussur, the new executive director at Stiles Hall. Courtesy: Stiles Hall

Nussur graduated from UC Berkeley in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in public health. Since then, he has spent the past decade overseeing or managing youth development programs in various health-care settings, including the California Endowment Building Healthy Communities Initiative and the Pediatric Weight Control Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University. 

“I am excited to coach and shape the next generation of tenacious, compassionate and well leaders,” Nussur said. 

Stiles Hall, 2400C Bancroft Way (at Dana Street), Berkeley. Phone: 510-841-6010. Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Connect via Facebook and Instagram

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