Grieving their ‘little angels’: Latina women in Oakland process the loss of their children, together.

Originally published on Oakland North. Text and photos by Luisa Conlon. 

When she set out to memorialize her son, Nancy Macias wanted to remember him alive.

In 2010, Macias was 24 weeks into a difficult pregnancy. The baby wasn’t developing like he should. Some days she would get good news, but on others, everything would take a turn for the worse.

Macias had been in the United States for almost five years. She came from Teocalitche, in Mexico’s Jalisco region, and settled in Oakland with her husband Marco and her daughter, Evelyn. She didn’t speak any English, and struggled to navigate the pregnancy without any help.

Macias delivered her baby, Axel Aaron, by Cesarean at 6 months. He lived just two and a half days.

She remembers him squeezing her finger with his tiny hand. “I couldn’t carry him or anything, because he was so small and fragile,” she said. “He squeezed me tight. I felt his strength in such a tiny little hand. Even though it was a sad experience, his life was beautiful.”

A detail from Nancy Macias’ nicho

A detail from Nancy Macias’ nicho

“We were united,” she continued. “It’s like he told me that he would never leave me, that he would always be there, even if he wasn’t there physically.”

After the delivery, the hospital staff referred Macias to MADRE, a program administered by the Alameda County Public Health Department. MADRE — an acronym for Maternal Access and Linkages for Desired Reproductive Health — works with Latina women who have experienced the loss of a child, either during pregnancy or at birth. They also work with women who are pregnant and know that their babies will not survive.

The program’s social workers and administrators are multilingual, and provide a much-needed link to help Latina women cope with the grief of child loss while navigating an unfamiliar healthcare environment.

Just before the Day of the Dead this year, Macias worked with the MADRE team and 29 other women in the program to make a little shadowbox altar — a nicho — for the baby that she lost. She filled it with things she never had the chance to give him: a green baby shirt and a green rattle with a smiling elephant. Next to them, Macias placed a tiny white bonnet with a blue cross that she affixed to the brim. She rested a picture of her final ultrasound on the shirt, and under it, a Winnie-the-Pooh blanket, stitched with the phrase: “On a perfect day, a hundred acre wood can seem like a thousand.”

Nancy Macias’ nicho.

Nancy Macias’ nicho.


“I didn’t want to include the photos I took after he passed away. Everything in the nicho has meaning,” said Macias. “It’s hard to explain. It’s very personal. Everything you include is so personal.”

The nichos are being exhibited in an installation called Nuestros Angelitos (Our Little Angels) through January 3 at the Oakland Museum of California. They are included in a bigger show called Rituals + Remembrances, a part of the museum’s annual Day of the Dead exhibit, which celebrates memorialization practices in different cultures.

In one of the boxes, a mother placed a print of her baby’s footprints next to a bonnet with his name, Anakin, written on the brim in blue glitter. His mementos lie among blue and white plastic flowers and a miniature toy rattle.

Another contains the photograph of a toddler looking out the window, his hand resting on the pane. Surrounding the photo are images of his mom holding his tiny hand in hers.

A prayer card in another box depicts the Virgin Mary, regal in a robe of gold and blue, clutching her hands in prayer. Her gaze rests beneath her on a small cut-out of a basketball and a toy-sized baby rattle.

Each nicho was created for the exhibition by a woman who participated in the MADRE program. Some losses are more recent than others. Each story is bound to the others in a shared language of grief.

he museum has been marking the Day of the Dead since 1996 with both a one-day community celebration and an exhibit that runs through the fall. The museum partners with professional artists and community organizations to make the work. This year featured pieces including a six-foot mandala by artist Nancy Hom and an origami portrait of celebrated California artist Ruth Asawa, created by her granddaughter Lilli Lanier. Students from MetWest High School also crafted an audiovisual installation that celebrates their heritage.

MADRE was invited to participate by Evelyn Orantes, the museum’s curator of public practice, a new position designed to create a bridge between the museum and the Oakland community. She approached MADRE with the idea that the mothers could create individual nichos, the small altars that are ubiquitous in Catholic churches throughout the world, traditionally used to venerate saints. Nichos are also used in Mexican folk art, created by those seeking to honor departed ancestors and loved ones. Orantes said that nichos come from the heart and serve as a link from their creator to the spiritual realm — a way to celebrate and memorialize their own.

The museum had previously worked with other organizations to make nichos. Orantes said she comes back to them as a medium because of the breadth of experience they convey. “You have an individual voice,” said Orantes, “but at the same time, they are clustered together as a community, so all the voices come together as a larger conversation.”

Orantes felt strongly that one of the more important parts of the Day of the Dead celebration is the Day of the Little Angels, also called Day of the Innocents. It is a time when communities remember babies and children who have passed away. In the anthology Latina and Latino Voices in Literature: Lives and Works, the author Frances Ann Day describes the tradition: “On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children’s altar, to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit.”

People leave food and toys as offerings for the children’s spirits.

The tradition has roots in both pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial history, and is also said to have derived from the biblical tale of Slaughter of the Innocents, the Old Testament narrative that details King Herod’s sweeping infanticide through Bethlehem.

Orantes wanted to acknowledge this specific day, which she feels honors traumatic loss. “This exhibit is about being a site for healing, and a place where communities can come together and mourn, but also to celebrate people’s lives,” said Orantes. “We also get to showcase the amazing work that MADRE does 365 days a year.”

MADRE helped Macias get back on her feet after losing the baby. The social workers sat with her in the days after she returned to her home in East Oakland. They accompanied her to clinic appointments. They held her when she couldn’t bear to look at Axel’s empty crib.

They also helped her through the anxiety she felt about the possibility of losing another baby. And in 2013, they were by her side when she gave birth to a healthy little boy named David.

Nancy Macias and baby David.

Macias feels that her work will encourage dialogue, if only just for other mothers who are suffering as well. “Doing this is to help people see that they are not the only ones that this is happening to. They should know they are not the only ones going through this,” she said. “Tragic things can happen if you don’t share your feelings.”

The installation had a marked effect on visitors at the opening. One man stood in stunned silence before remarking on the tragedy of the experience; others clutched the hands of their children while looking through the boxes. Orantes was struck by a father who picked up his son and pointed to one of the boxes on the wall: “That’s your brother,” he said.

“That’s what the work is about,” Orantes said. “It’s about being a place where communities can come together to mourn, but also to celebrate people’s lives.”

MADRE was formed in 2006 by a group of health workers within the county’s public health department. Their goal was to reduce infant mortality and early childhood death within the East Bay’s Latina population through carefully monitored and consistently administered care. They would also provide grief counseling to women who had already lost a pregnancy.

MADRE addresses the multiple ways that women can experience the loss of a child, including fetal demise and neo-natal death. Alison Brooks, a clinical nurse specialist in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, explains the difference between these terms. “Fetal demise is a baby that dies before delivery, whereas neo-natal death is a baby that dies after being born. With fetal demise, there is no heartbeat at the time of delivery,” said Brooks.

There is no easy answer for what can cause fetal demise. Brooks said that it can sometimes be due to genetic abnormalities, but can also be totally spontaneous. “It could be profound cardiac abnormalities, it could be brain anomalies, it could be related to an infection or placenta problems, so the baby doesn’t get enough nutrients,” said Brooks.

Because the causes are so varied, it can be difficult for women and their families to accept. “One of the hardest things is when mothers are feeling their babies growing, and getting bigger, and kicking, and for us to tell them that they won’t live very long, it’s very challenging,” said Brooks. “With these families, they are not only planning for the birth of their baby, but the death of their baby as well.”

MADRE works with each mother for a year or more, depending on her circumstances and medical or psycho-social history, said Isabel Aguilar, a lead medical social worker for the program. If the client goes on to have another pregnancy, they work with her through the pregnancy and up to two years after the birth, depending on the health of the baby. “We prepare the woman so that she doesn’t have the same experience with the next pregnancy,” said Aguilar.

The loss of a baby can be physically taxing on women, too. Aguilar said that in late-term losses, the women need to go through labor, either naturally or via Cesarean, which can leave them with pain and stitches. Natural births can tear the perineum. Many women will also have developed breast milk, which needs to be expelled.

Aguilar said the physical pain is compounded by the reality that the women are leaving the hospital with their arms empty. “They tell me that when they hear the cries of the baby, or when they go to the post-partum appointment and see kids, that is very painful for them.”

Workers at the county health department saw a particular need among the Latino community, its third largest demographic group after white and Asian residents. Latina women experience infant mortality outcomes at rates similar to the national average. For fetal demise, that’s 5.1 deaths per 1,000 births. For neo-natal deaths and infant deaths, it is 3 and 4.1 deaths per 1,000 births, respectively. Aguilar said that the need for the program arose out of the size of the Latina/o population, and the challenges people faced in navigating the healthcare system, rather than a disproportionate death rate. “There was a gap in programs serving this population,” she said.

Originally from Guatemala, Aguilar began working with Alameda County when she arrived in the United States, first with the county’s election department, and then as a health worker with infants and pregnant women. She was recruited to join MADRE in 2006 and started to help develop the specifics of the program.

Most days of her are spent in the field, shuttling between clients’ homes and doctors appointments. She is soft-spoken but an emotional rock, always comforting her clients with a soft touch of her hand. She carries a small flip-phone that buzzes constantly with calls from clients, clinics and insurance providers.

Aguilar said that first and foremost, MADRE exists to give mothers grief support after they lose their baby, or prior to an anticipated stillbirth. They accompany women to the doctor to ensure that they understand their diagnoses, and advocate to obtain interpreters for clients who don’t speak English. If the client has a condition, they help her understand it and take her medication, and help her figure out what will be required for her care. They refer the women to specialists if they need special treatment. The program also communicates with health insurance companies on behalf of the mothers. They help them navigate state and federal programs. “Anything that they need,” said Aguilar.

Most of MADRE’s clients come to them through hospitals, clinics and healthcare providers. Sometimes, women who have gone through the program refer friends, family and acquaintances. At the beginning, they did local outreach to build their client base, but it soon became unnecessary. The demand for their services was high, and Aguilar and the staff quickly became busy.

Aguilar said that MADRE helps women alleviate pain that often goes unacknowledged by their families and friends. “People don’t pay much attention to these mothers who lose their babies, whether they are newborn or in the womb,” she said. “People don’t recognize it. With fetal demise, people say, ‘Oh, you can have another one.’ But some women can’t, and the grief is very hard.”

Ingrid Escobar is from Guatemala, and has lived in the United States for nine years. She joined MADRE in 2008, after losing her baby when she was eight months pregnant. Escobar didn’t know the baby was sick. “I lost him inside of me,” she said. “I had him like a normal baby, and then he wasn’t alive. That hurt me so much.”

The hospital referred her to MADRE, who helped Escobar find psychological programs to cope with the loss of the baby. Like many women, Escobar suffered from depression in the wake of the loss, and struggled to shake the guilt that the death was somehow her fault. Mostly, she wondered why this was happening to her.

Details from Escobar’s nicho

Details from Escobar’s nicho

In addition to psychological support, the program helped her with doctors’ appointments. They also helped Escobar translate English documents that she couldn’t understand. When Escobar became pregnant again with her now two-year-old son Marvin, MADRE helped her throughout her entire pregnancy. “I don’t know what I would have done without the program,” Escobar said.

MADRE also helped Escobar connect with other women who had gone through similar experiences, which made it easier to cope with her grief. “You think you are the only person this is happening to,” said Escobar, “but when you hear other people’s stories, it motivates you to get better.”

Most of all, she was simply grateful that she had someone to listen to her. “The beautiful thing about a program like this is that it helps you move forward without forgetting your baby, which I think is very necessary,” she said.

Since joining MADRE in 2008, Escobar has participated in their community altar celebration — first with her husband and eldest daughter, and now with Marvin. This year, Escobar made an individual nicho dedicated to the baby she lost. She included gifts from her baby shower and an ultrasound. Her daughter helped her figure out how to arrange things inside the frame.

Ingrid Escobar and her son, Marvin. 

Ingrid Escobar and her son, Marvin. 

Ingrid Escobar and her son, Marvin. 

Ingrid Escobar and her son, Marvin. 

Escobar loved seeing her nicho in the Oakland Museum exhibit, and knows it will help other women. “The pain of losing my baby comes every year” said Escobar, referring to the Day of the Dead, “but I will be able to help another mother by sharing. Your words can help another person going through the same thing.”

Celia Mendez, who was referred to the program in 2013, echoes Escobar’s experience. Mendez was eight months pregnant when she realized that her baby wasn’t moving. She went to the ER, where doctors told here that the baby had died. She had planned to name him Noe.

Mendez was new to Oakland, having recently emigrated from Guatemala. She has almost no family here. Mendez’s primary language is Mam, a Mayan language spoken regionally throughout Guatemala. She still struggles with Spanish, and that made it hard to communicate with hospital staff.

Mendez describes only wanting to sleep when the baby died. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. “I wanted to run out and see the baby again. I wanted to be with him,” she said. She said she couldn’t calm herself down until they buried him ten days later.

Details from Mendez’s nicho.

Details from Mendez’s nicho.

A social worker at the hospital referred Mendez to MADRE, and when she returned home, Mendez said Isabel started checking in on her at home twice a week and taking her out to the park. Mendez said the program helped her climb out of her sadness little by little.

“I don’t know how to read, so they helped me with that as well,” said Mendez. “It’s very hard going through this in a country that is not your own.”

Mendez is glad she joined the program, because she can talk to them about her feelings. She recently passed Aguilar’s number to friend who lost her own baby. Mendez smiles at the thought of being able to help her.

As a neo-natal nurse, Brooks sees that there is a particular need for programs like this in the Latino community, and very often refers her patients to MADRE. “I could not imagine what it’s like to navigate the healthcare system not speaking English, not having adequate health insurance, not understanding what we’re saying,” said Brooks. “Also, we’re telling women things they don’t want to hear, because it is so awful.”

Brooks said that the care that the women need goes beyond just language. “You need culturally-sensitive support. You can interpret, but that doesn’t mean that you’re actually meeting someone within their own culture. It’s a badly-needed program in the community,” said Brooks.

Brooks and Aguilar both mention that MADRE can’t keep up with the demand from the community. They take on as many clients as possible, but, with only two full-time social workers, they are sorely understaffed.

With group programs, like activities for Mothers Day and the Day of the Dead, the women can create a self-sustaining community support system so the women can help each other when MADRE’s social workers can’t be around.

“It’s hard to find support even if you are an English speaker, so it makes it more difficult for a woman who doesn’t speak English to find this support,” said Alicia Diaz, a licensed family marriage therapist who runs grief groups in the East Bay. “I can only imagine how painful and scary it is for them, especially not speaking the language,” she said.

Having run the only Spanish-speaking grief group in all of Alameda County, Diaz knows the importance of creating a grieving space for the Latino community. She started incorporating nichos into her practice ten years ago. Diaz also sits on the committee that puts together the museum’s annual Day of the Dead celebration. She said seeing the women’s work at the museum exhibit opened her heart: “I just wanted to cry. It’s by women just like me; all of these women are just like me. With the MADRE nichos, I know it is somebody’s heart that I am holding.”

Many of the women who found solace in MADRE have gone on to have other children, and have gotten through their pregnancies with the group’s help. In 2014, they helped Mendez through another pregnancy, starting with accompanying her to her doctors’ visits. This time, she gave birth to a healthy little girl, Maite, who is just now learning to walk.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Mendez gazes at Maite lovingly as she takes halting steps across the floor of their East Oakland apartment. She hands Aguilar and her mom some candies before settling into a deep nap on Mendez’ breast.

Celia Mendez and baby Maite.

Celia Mendez and baby Maite.

Celia Mendez and baby Maite.

Celia Mendez and baby Maite.

Mendez went to the exhibition opening with some of the other mothers. They talked about how nice it was to remember their babies. She describes making her own nicho with the help of her partner and nephew. Together, they drew little sleeping angels and a manger. “And clothes,” she adds. “Clothes I was going to put on my baby.”

Macias’ family also joined her at the exhibit opening. She describes her daughter Evelyn as having been particularly marked by the loss of the baby. After Macias gave birth to David, Evelyn would stand by his crib, just watching him breathe. She would run to her mother whenever her little brother fell into a deep sleep. “She was scared of losing him,” recalled Macias. “She would say, ‘I don’t want him to die.’”

Evelyn had come to the hospital to visit her mother after Axel’s death. She wanted to see her baby brother in the incubator, even though she knew he wasn’t alive. The hospital let her see him, and Macias recalled “the strangest thing happening.” As Evelyn looked at her brother in the incubator, she turned to her mother and said, “My baby brother is an angel.”

“She was such a sweet girl,” Macias said. “I said ‘Yes, your little brother is an angel.” Evelyn turned back to her and said, “No, really. He has wings.”

There is a hidden dedication in one of the nichos at the Oakland Museum. It’s almost impossible to spot, glued to the bottom edge of one the shadowbox frames. Wedged in between two yellow crosses is a date and under it, a note to a baby girl, Maria Asunción:

Siempre estas en mi mente. Mi niña, te extraño.
“You’re always on my mind. My little girl, I miss you.”

Update: MADRE will start offering their services to women of all ethnicities in 2016.

Text and Photos by Luisa Conlon. Interviews translated by Robin Simmonds.

Corrections: On December 7th, corrections were made to clarify the services MADRE provides, as well as anatomical details about childbirth. On December 15th, an update was added as to the services that MADRE will provide in the future.

East Bay Astronomical Society mobilizes to repair the Zeiss Universarium

Oakland's Chabot Space & Science Center is home to a Zeiss Universarium Mark VIII projector that has been unused since 2006. The East Bay Astronomical Society is hoping to restore the star projector through a fundraising campaign.

The Zeiss Universarium Mark VIII star projector looks like a sleepy robot, dotted with a dozen eyes. It sits at the center of the planetarium at Oakland’s Chabot Space & Science Center, the state-of-the-art astronomy complex nestled in Oakland Hills.Thanks to an advanced fiber-optic projection system designed by the German company Carl Zeiss, the Universarium is able to project over 9,000 stars onto the planetarium dome with impressive clarity.

“It looks like real stars,” says Gerald McKeegan, an astronomer at Chabot and board member of the East Bay Astronomical Society. “You see things the way you would see them out in the mountains or the way people could see the sky 1,000 years ago.”

But the Zeiss has been sitting unused for nearly 10 years. Zeiss projectors are not only costly to install, but also to maintain. According to McKeegan, Chabot’s maintenance budget was redistributed during the 2006 recession, and they could no longer afford to keep up with maintenance costs. As a result, the projector developed mechanical problems. When the planetarium’s show presenter stepped down to pursue his PhD, Chabot decided to retire the projector.  The Zeiss officially shut down in 2006.

Since then, the projector has remained dormant and today would require a professional analysis, repair and mechanical upgrade to work again. “Just like any other complex mechanical instrument, if it sits unused, it’s not very happy,” says Richard Ozer, treasurer of the East Bay Astronomical Society.

Now, thanks to the efforts of the East Bay Astronomical Society, the Zeiss might illuminate Chabot’s planetarium again. The volunteer-run astronomy group recently launched the first phase of afundraising campaign to save the Zeiss. They hope to collect $25,000 in donations via YouCaring, a crowd-funding site designed to help charitable projects raise money.

The first batch of funds will pay for an analysis and diagnosis by a technician from Seiler, a company that installs and repairs Zeiss projectors. The diagnosis “includes reconnecting all components,” says McKeegan, including a control system that was disconnected and put in storage. “$25,000 covers the cost of having a Seiler technician come out to Oakland for a complete diagnostic check,” he says.

The diagnosis is the only way to confirm the final cost of repair, but McKeegan estimates that it will cost between $150,000 and $350,000. “Based on the outcome of the diagnostic check, the next phase involves replacement of the control system and software, cleaning the instrument, replacement of lamps and filters, plus other repairs that may be needed,” says McKeegan. “Seiler will also upgrade the system to the full Model IX configuration, which involves replacing the dimming systems, lamp ignition units, and other hardware.”

After the diagnosis, the East Bay Astronomical Society will launch the second phase of the funding campaign. They hope to raise the full amount needed to bring the Zeiss back into action.

The Zeiss Universarium Mark VIII was custom-built for Chabot at a cost of around $3.5 million when the center relocated to the Oakland hills in 2000. These projectors need to be designed based on the specific dimensions of a planetarium, adding to the cost and complexity of each project.

With it’s new home in Oakland, the Zeiss at Chabot became one of only four of its kind in the United States. It was a big deal for the East Bay to own one: Chabot joined other prestigious Zeiss Universarium owners like the Hayden Planetarium in New York and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. But, says Ozer, “Ours is the only one that is not functioning.”

The Chabot’s planetarium currently uses digital projectors, but McKeegan and Ozer both agree that, while the digital projectors work just fine, their projections just aren’t comparable in clarity and precision to the Zeiss, thanks to it’s high-quality fiber optics and glass. “The Zeiss will project everything, including the faintest stars,” says McKeegan.

McKeegan says that the projector is a special treat for East Bay residents, especially children. He said that the Zeiss projects a sky full of stars, unadulterated by light pollution, and that kind of night sky is rarely available for kids in urban environments.

The projector also has a number of special functions, including the ability to zoom into images of planets and move around the night sky. It can even show viewers what the night sky looked like in the past, or how it will look the future.

Representatives from the Chabot Space Space & Science Center declined to comment on the fundraising campaign, specifying that the East Bay Astronomical Society is taking this on as an independent initiative. In addition to bringing the Zeiss back into working condition, the society members would also like to replace the control panel with a more modern one. “We noticed a couple things weren’t working,” says McKeegan. “So we decided that we would take this project on. The East Bay Astronomical Society is going to do it, and we will turn it back over to Chabot as a fully restored instrument.”

“The motivation here is that it is a very unique and rare piece of equipment,” says Ozer. “We don’t have anything else close to its quality and capability. So we’ve always advocated for it’s continued use.”

Since its launch in mid-October, the fundraising campaign has raised $2,891, but Ozer says the big push will come in the next couple months. On October 26, the campaign received the biggest donation yet: $1,000 from the Zeiss Planetarium Division itself. With the funds came a note of encouragement: “Good luck with your fundraising! We hope that our donation will help to reach the goal and would be very happy to bring the Starball back to life.”

Bay Area quilters featured in newest Oakland Museum exhibit

Photo by Luisa Conlon.

Photo by Luisa Conlon.

Rosie Lee Tompkins was a reluctant art star.

Born Effie May Howard in rural Arkansas in 1936, her mother taught her to sew and quilt, just like a long line of ancestors before her. Out of necessity, they learned to make quilts—to keep their family warm and to be sold for extra money. Howard learned a unique, improvisational design style, passed down through generations of African-American quilters. The works, spontaneous mazes of shapes and colors, are a stark contrast to traditional American quilts, known for their strict form and patterns.

For Tompkins, a skill that started as a necessity evolved into an eclectic body of work. Starting last weekend and running through February 21, 2016, a selection of Tompkins’ pieces is now on display in the Oakland Museum of California’s newest exhibition: Yo-Yos and Half-Squares: Contemporary California Quilts. Her quilts are showcased alongside those of four other Bay Area women: Angie Tobias, Arbie Williams, Mattie Pickett, and Sherry Byrd.

“These were not like any other quilts I’ve ever seen,” said Oakland Museum of California director Lori Fogarty. Fogarty comes from Midwestern roots, and said that “quilts from Iowa are straight seams, and square and meant to go on beds. I looked at these quilts and thought ‘Wow, this is something really extraordinary.’”

The exhibition is a dizzying display of radiating colors and unique fabrics. Some of the pieces are riffs on traditional quilting patters, like Sherry Byrd’s 1989 piece Roman Stripe Variations, which pairs red and black piecework, framed by striking blue outlines. Byrd’s work is accompanied by a quote from her that explains the philosophy behind improvisational quilting: “I’ve always been surrounded by music and quilt. To me, they are alike. Both are improvisational. Instead of playing jazz with musical instruments, we play jazz with a needle and thread.”

Another stand-out piece is Tompkins’ Unfinished, which associate curator Carin Adams says she worked on throughout her life. Tompkins used a lush red velvet as a background to a singular mix of patchwork. The piece includes beads, turquoise sequins, embroidered flowers—even a painting of maracas.

After moving to California in 1958, Tompkins continued to quilt, but became most active in the 1980s. Her work is a singular web of sparkles, beads and upholstery so shiny that she called it “Christmas fabric.” Her work eventually caught the eye of Eli Leon, an Oakland quilt collector who began collecting Afro-traditional quilts in the 1970s. Leon and Tompkins became close friends. Together they began to exhibit her quilts in over 30 cities, and eventually landed her work in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

According to her New York Times 2006 obituary, Tompkins was a deeply pious, and “fiercely private” woman. Her designs were inspired by meditative prayer, and she believed she was communing directly with God in her work. Tompkins did not want fame. So together with Leon, she chose a pseudonym that would follow her work around the world: Rosie Lee Tompkins.

Leon, a lifelong collector of quilts, has over 3,000 stored in his Temescal bungalow, according to Adams. Amongst his greatest finds were the works of these East Bay women. In his mission statement on his website, Leon wrote about the spontaneous approach to quilting that makes this type of quilting so unique. Afro-traditional quilters, he wrote, have a “generous attitude toward the accidental, embracing innovations that originate beyond the conscious domain. [Their] methods are antithetical to the standard American quiltmaking tradition.”

The quilts in Yo-Yos and Half-Squares were hand-selected from Leon’s vast collection; Adams notes that the pieces in the show represent a “tiny fraction” of them. “My colleagues and I looked at hundreds of quilts. But we tried to focus on quilts that were made locally, in the Bay Area,” she said.

With this exhibition, Adams hopes visitors “see something that [they] weren’t expecting, and leave with a feeling of transformation and appreciation for something that is so vital, and living, and going—intimate and really extraordinary.”

Yo-Yos and Halfsquares: Contemporary California Quilts runs through February 21, 2016 at theOakland Museum of California.

Oakland Drink & Draw event connects, inspires local artists

On a recent Wednesday night in Uptown Oakland, friends Robert and Grace (who only gave their first names) are giggling over their collaborative masterpiece. “We drew a bucket of chicken, and a roller skate – a roller skating bucket of chicken. Also, a dinosaur with a hat and butterfly wings,” said Robert.

Robert is a first timer at Oakland Drink & Draw, a weekly drawing (and boozing) party at The New Parkway, a cinema-cum-community space steps from the city’s Auto Row. Once a week for the past four years, professionals and casual doodlers have gotten together on the mezzanine to hang out, have a drink, and draw. Robert credits his beer (“a Heffeweizen”) for loosening up his creativity: “I had a small amount of doodles down here, but it made me come up with more things to draw. I knew this beer would help me do that.”

Oakland Drink & Draw is the brainchild of professional artists Megan Lynn Kott and Justin DeVine. Kott says they started the evening as a “way to be encouraged to simply draw more.” They hosted the event at Café Van Kleef for their first year, but eventually moved to The New Parkway after the movie theater invited them to host there. “We really liked the space, and the amount of room and lighting we were afforded,” says Kott.

While a movie theater and a drawing party may seem like an odd coupling, the founder of The New Parkway, J Moses Ceaser, says that events like Oakland Drink & Draw are central to their philosophy as a community space. “The New Parkway is first and foremost a community, so we love hosting any activities that connect people,” says Ceaser. And there’s an added layer to their collaboration: a monthly drawing contest based on the cult movies showing at the Parkway.

On this night, the crowd is a mix of Oakland Drink & Draw newbies and veterans, like Vincent Kukua, a professional production artist at Image Comics. Kukua is a longtime attendee of the Drink & Draw who was transformed from drawing party skeptic to believer. “I’ve always thought that doing these things like Drink & Draw are kind of weird, because all artists are a little isolated,” Kukua said. But he found that the Drink & Draw helped him build community with other local artists, and got them to engage with each other’s work. “It’s nice to see other people’s drawings and see what other people are about,” Kukua added.

Oakland Drink & Draw is one of the only free drawing nights in the area that is open to anyone regardless of experience, Lynn says. Newcomers are encouraged to make use of the community drawing supply shelf, which is chock-full of donated drawing tools. Supplies are available to anyone who needs them. Crayons, pastels, watercolors, drawing pads have all been donated by Kott and DeVine, or generous regulars.

Ceaser is enthusiastic about the community impact of events like the Drink & Draw. “Watching films is great,” he says “but providing an opportunity for our patrons to make connections to their own lives is the real value add.”

Oakland Drink & Draw happens every Wednesday from 8 PM to 11 PM at 

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By Luisa Conlon and Gigi Rose Gray

Have you ever had a stranger openly question your upbringing?

We have. A lot.

It’s a sensitive subject. Despite the hard-line attitude often associated with "real" New Yorkers, the truth is that no one likes hearing their hometown is the wrong place to raise a child, and that it was probably a mistake for their parents to attempt it. That tugs at heartstrings you didn't even know you had.

The questions native New Yorkers field from people who didn't grow up here are enough to throw the staunchest city dweller into a full-blown existential crisis. Did we really miss out on a real childhood as kids in the concrete jungle? Would we be more wholesome people had we grown up in an idyllic suburban landscape of houses and trees and backyards? If our parents had moved us there, would we be less cynical? Less jaded? Less New York?



The authors, as children in New York

It's unclear. Because we've never known any other childhood; and ours was beautiful for both of us, strange as it may seem to an outsider.

We’ve known each other for twenty years. We met for the first time in a Manhattan nursery school, where we shared nap time on the floor of a mid-nineteenth century townhouse.

Our fathers grew up in Queens, they themselves the children of city kids. We come from a long line of New Yorkers. We are the product of men and women who have seen this city change at an immeasurable pace, and somehow survived it all.

The truth, it seems, is that many people think we lived through a childhood that was out of a Tom Waits song: Fast men and women, drugs, alcohol, and whatever quotidian insanity New Yorkers wake up to every morning.

Much of that is true, yet we thought we’d take on some of the most common doubts and questions from non-natives and reply to them. At the very least, to answer some of our own doubts about growing up in the city that never sleeps.

"New York is no place to raise a child"

Gigi: It's no surprise someone would question whether this scary metropolis is a safe or nurturing place to raise a child. However, as products of this city, I feel confident that a child can flourish amongst all its conflicting extremes.


Gigi Rose Gray

Growing up here, kids experience and see things some people miss out on altogether in life. Yes, we did get a condensed, large dose of reality early on, but children are children no matter where they grow up. They live in the fantasies of their minds and take in the realities of their environments in stride. My nightmares were filled with crazy bums chasing me down the street rather than ghosts or zombies, but I too dreamt of fairies, frolicking the magnolia trees of Central Park, the closest I got to having a backyard.

Central Park is an oasis that holds a lot of mystery for a child, and many of my own beautiful experiences were lived there. Whenever I woke up, looked out my window and saw the city quietly covered under a blanket of snow, it felt like Christmas. My mother would pull out our old wooden sled as I would zip up the waterproof onesie that filled me with such shame, and excitedly waddle out of the building into the park. Climbing the boulders of Central Park felt like scaling Mount Everest: knee deep in snow, we would search for the highest point and I’d speed down, gathering snowflakes in my eyes. It was exhilarating! But the actual highlight was the enchanting ride home. I would lie down, my onesie cushioning the wooden planks of my sled, and my mother would pull me along all the way home. Gazing up—with the park's trees and skyscrapers perfectly framed in the night sky, I was floating through a city that was my Narnia. Every noise was dampened by the snowfall. It was magical and peaceful. It's one of those memories that, upon reflection, I question whether it was a dream or a reality.

Luisa: When I was in kindergarten, my aunt Joan would bring me to a playground on the West Side, off of Riverside Drive. This was the early ‘90s, a time when you had to keep discarded syringes out of your kids’ hands. Joan had a deep trove of New York stories: Muggings, assaults, robberies. Walking to the park, my little hand in hers, I would beg for another tale: “Like when the guy stole all your money from inside of your sock.” My aunt would look down at me, her morbid and cherubic blonde niece, and tell me the same story again and again. I relished crimes stories, which I’m sure has everything to do with growing up here.

Illustration by Sara Griffine

Children like me are why people think that kids just can’t be kids here.

And they are right. In part. New York is a big, and often terrifying, city. There is a lot that can detract from the purity of childhood experience. But I always thought it is, in fact, the perfect place to raise a child. Where else can you come of age surrounded by such rare breeds of people? Artists, musicians, cooks, bankers, doormen, station agents, teachers. If it takes a village to raise someone, then we’ve got a pretty special one. To a New York kid, there is no one thing you can’t be. You navigate the city streets with childlike minds and the collective community on our side. Sure, it can get weird. Sure, there are mornings where your mom tries to shield you from the guy taking a piss on the sidewalk at 9 a.m. But you’ll meet that guy one day, whether as a kid or as an adult. Here, it just happens earlier.

"Don’t you feel like you grew up too quickly?"

Luisa: There is a lot of truth to this. It’s almost impossible for parents raising kids in this city to gauge the pace at which their kids are growing up, with unique experiences, some of which are not the kind you would want your five-, ten- or fifteen-year-old to have. From speaking to other lifelong New Yorkers, it seems many of us feel like there are things we could have waited for.



Luisa Conlon

I had a fake ID before my sweet sixteen, purchased from a shifty man in the back of a smoke shop on St. Mark’s. We all had one because that was the only way to keep up. Everyone wanted to be part of the cool crowd, and that’s what they were doing. Clubs, bars, restaurants—we were hitting all of them at an age when most people are satisfied with the thrill of a high school dance. The advantage is that we stopped at an earlier age. I’m twenty-four, and have almost no desire to “go hard” anymore. So we did grow up fast, but we also gained perspective a little sooner.

Gigi: New York makes no allowances for naiveté. Perhaps it's true-as adolescence approaches, we were more like young adults than gawky teens, navigating the streets with caution and attitude, quick to bark back at any hecklers. But wouldn't one see this as an advantage rather than a loss of innocence?

Besides, the exposure to this landscape of differing human conditions, drugs, poverty, wealth and mental illness is not influential until a person develops an understanding of the world and their place within it. Anyone who comes to New York is struck with the variety of faces passing them in the streets, exotic languages spoken, and churches, mosques, temples all coexisting in the same neighborhood. A tolerance was instilled in us before we could even recognize the difference between black, white and everything in between.

"Wow, I've never met a real New Yorker before"

Gigi: Each time this phrase is uttered, which is upon nearly every introduction made, I think to myself: Where do we all go? What is this elusive character of the lifelong New Yorker? I always find myself promising people that in fact there were once many of us here roaming these avenues, mommy, daddy and (in some cases) nanny in hand. With over 1,400 schools in New York City one wouldn't guess us to be such a rarity. We populate all corners of this megalopolis. We are born and live everywhere. From the urban canyons of Midtown, to the townhouses lining cobblestone streets of the West Village, to the flamboyant yet demure Chelsea, to the noble Upper East Side and its bohemian counterpart the Upper West Side, to the ultra cool and euro-central Soho, to the distant memories of punk and grit in the East Village. We cover a lot of ground on a small plot. However, this island is also teeming with tourists, commuters, international exchange students, out-of-state and foreign residents. So perhaps the reason we are so often viewed as a rarity is we are one. We are outnumbered.

Luisa: Meeting another native New Yorker in New York always feels like a homecoming: We’re usually just as shocked to meet one of our kind as visitors are to meet us. And I too wonder where we all go; because when it comes to it, I rarely meet New Yorkers who feel like they could be happy anywhere else. Sure, we have traveled and even lived in other cities, but to us, there is no place like this to settle down. Surely, there should be more of us around.

But the truth is that we grew up in a place where other people come to form their lives. New York is a part of us, and it formed us into who we are today. But it’s not ours. It belongs to every man and woman who came here to make something for themselves. And this city takes them in whole heartedly, as it always has. We are outnumbered. By an incredible eight million people who, whether they love it as much as we do or not, make this city what it is.

Gigi and Luisa, today (Photo by Sophie Butcher)

Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator, designer and overall image maker, born, bred and working in New York City.

Luisa Conlon is a freelance filmmaker living and working in Brooklyn. She received a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2011 and is an active member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective.