In 1969, radical activists in Berkeley, CA took possession of an underused parking lot owned by the University, with an eye to creating a public park. University officials objected to the takeover, and then-governor Ronald Reagan sent in officers from the California Highway Patrol and Berkeley Police Force to clear the park, touching off a day of violent clashes known as “Bloody Thursday.” One student, James Rector, was shot and killed by the police. For decades, People’s Park has been the site of ongoing conflict between the University and a community of protestors and park users. Today, the former parking lot continues to be used by the public and is now home to basketball courts and community gardens, a reversal of Joni Mitchell’s classic lament about paving paradise.

In a series of watercolors, Oakland artist Anna Ludwig explores the complicated past and present of People’s Park. With sharp figures revealed in layers of dreamy, gauzy color, her paintings mimic the way that history leaves its marks on the physical world.

Events leave traces of themselves—faint traces, ephemeral but indelible—on the places where they occur. I’m especially interested in the physical sites of political action. My current work examines People’s Park, a battered but still-functioning relic of the 1960s. Today People’s Park, with its seedy atmosphere, homeless population, and history of police brutality, is a stain on the Berkeley landscape. But a stain can be many things: dirt or filth, yes, but also artistic mark. Also evidence.

The stains on and surrounding People’s Park are contradictory. Its creation planted the seed of a green revolution in public urban spaces. The violent police response solidified a loss of trust in the state. The Park’s political potential has been defanged by the slow violence of time and poverty, and has been manipulated by the University to give the impression that the idealism of the 1960s was futile and naive. Now, the site is both an emblem of failed 1960s activism and the source of a glimmering afterimage, a reminder of the energetic clash between establishment and counter-culture.

My palette is romantic, fairytale-like, but tart and acidic. Some of the paints are mixed by hand from dirt collected at the site. I work flat, allowing the water to pool and the pigments to form layers of sediment.

The stain on People’s Park seeps beyond the park’s geographical boundaries. The idea of fluid, seeping edges informs my watercolors of the park. The images are fleeting, shimmering, interrupted by oily traces left by my own fingers. The mythology of the park is like an imprint, a degraded mimeograph image overlaying the present, causing snags, delays, interference.

Completing the People’s Park project has made me hyperaware of the police violence and controversy surrounding the Occupy Oakland movement. When I started exploring the history of People’s Park, I was surprised to learn that tanks had rolled down Telegraph Avenue and that a helicopter had sprayed CS9 gas on the Berkeley campus. Then, in November 2011, I saw police piling out of buses to teargas several blocks of Occupy protestors in downtown Oakland. That night I had the sense that I was inside one of my paintings.

Anna Ludwig

Anna Ludwig is an Oakland artist whose work has been exhibited at venues around the world, including galleries and museums in San Francisco, Boston, North Carolina, Washington D.C., New York, Germany and Denmark. She earned her M.F.A. from California College of Arts and her B.A. from Harvard University. In 2011, Anna was awarded an East Bay Fund for Artists Grant to create an art installation that will open to the public on September 7, 2012 at the Capoeira Mandinga Academy in Oakland. Her work can be seen in Elephant in the Room, a group show at Oakland’s CK Gallery from August 11 though September 7.

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2 Comments on “Afterimages

  1. Your acidic colour palette and stain-infused watercolour technique reveal and emotional breaking point which echoes the turmoil, violence and hopelessness that the park has and continues to experience. Your image of the holicopter laying down the CS9 gas is particularly disturbing. It’s ironic that many of the people who are in your paintings have their backs turned to you, but have not turned their backs on the potential usage of the People’s Park itself. Thanks for the reality update. Bravo Anna

  2. I graduated from U.C. Berkeley and still lived there at that time. My husband, a Boalt Law student, and I did not go down to the People’s Park gathering. Somehow, we knew that it would become a confrontation between the property owner, UC, and the people in the park. We had already experienced the Free Speech Movement. We were caught by the helicopters spraying tear gas in faculty glade, as were other students studying there. Nothing good happened for UC Berkeley when Reagan was governor. The Peoples Park was a cause for young people who inhabited Telegraph Avenue at that time. It was a mixed bag. Students mostly avoided it; homeless kids lived there and begged for spare change on the Avenue; it was not really clean or pleasant. I remember the murder of James Rector. But, if you were on Telegraph Ave. during the FSM, you remembered the snipers Reagan had stationed on rooftops. It was shocking, but not surprising that a shooting eventually occurred. That was the atmosphere Reagan created.

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