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Her Life

Roots & Offshoots: a glimpse of Ruth's artistic life

June 12, 2017

The following is a chapter excerpt from Roots and Offshoots: Silicon Valley’s Arts Community, written by Ruth's friend Jan Rindfleisch (with articles by Maribel Alverez and Raj Jayadev). The book aims to tell the real, behind-the-scenes history of the Bay Area region’s arts and culture. Ruth Tunstall Grant was one of the main inspirations for Roots and Offshoots, and her pithy insights into empowerment and community building are peppered throughout. An underrecognized trailblazer, gifted artist, and visionary leader who did so much to build arts education in schools and shelters, Tunstall Grant worked tirelessly to bring “creativity and light into people’s lives.”

Ruth Tunstall Grant: Artrepreneur

The Beginning Years

It’s spring 2012. Ruth Tunstall Grant and I are talking in her studio, connecting past and present, exploring values and ideas. In full sight is a large painting Tunstall Grant has started, filled with eight blue circular brushstrokes. More bold color and brushstrokes will come. For now, there are just hints of her earlier canvases, the Warrior Princesses, filled with the colors and the I-can-do-it-all joys of childhood.

In her youth, Tunstall Grant’s interests were art and architecture. “Only guys were interested in those subjects then,” so she was often the only girl. A straight-A student, she went to college at 16 and lived on her own. Today in her studio, we talk of the late 1970s and early ’80s, when some of us, including Tunstall Grant, decided to build an alternative arts community in the South Bay. She was there at the beginning. So was I. The past? “It’s all OK. Even the bad political stuff.” It gives her strength and perspective.


Overcoming Barriers

Tunstall Grant has had to deal with barriers and hostility in her struggle to build community. Talking about the past brings up memories of pain and anger for her. In the late ’70s and ’80s, it was difficult to join the art world in San José. Being a black woman and also not a graduate of San José State made Tunstall Grant an outsider. The aesthetic was narrow, fairly rigid. She was told, “You are not cutting-edge. Too ethereal.” We both agreed that anger could be a strong motivator for creative action. Tunstall Grant persevered. Somehow, like water, she can find a path and make something beautiful grow along the way.

Tunstall Grant ultimately developed a strong exhibition history. An early success was her 1981 exhibition with sculptor David Middlebrook in the San José Museum of Art under director Albert Dixon and curator Martha Manson. She had a prime spot in the new annex. Russell Moore, subsequent director at the San José Museum of Art, featured her in the late ’80s, when he opened three Allegra Galleries in San José. Tunstall Grant’s work was featured as the inaugural show at all three sites. The exhibit in the Dorman Building on First Street had one of the biggest openings ever in San José. It was across from Eulipia Restaurant, a white-tablecloth restaurant with poetry readings upstairs. “We took over all of Eulipia—over 600 people. The Mercury News did a good job of coverage. That was 1990–1991.” Tunstall Grant’s artwork was purchased for numerous collections, including the Presidential Suite at the Fairmont, where her work hung alongside the art of painter David Hockney.

Now she was a star artist. But recognition from the “in” crowd, a circle of establishment art academics and dealers, came late. “I was doing trailblazing on my own.” It was only after her work was placed in the Presidential Suite that an arts leader told her that her work had “grown and changed. Maybe you should have been shown earlier.” Commenting on the discrimination encountered at that time, Tunstall Grant says flat out: “Quiet, unseen stupidity” happens at every level. People at the top “have a lot of shit, too.” Those were the times when curators, directors, dealers, and academic committees made little effort to “encompass all of humanity, not just Anglo-Saxon men.”

Tunstall Grant has two ongoing projects. One is a watercolor picture book for her new granddaughter. She calls it a “Tunstall Grant Aesop Fable,” a tale about how to deal with life and what it means to give out joy. “Like a butterfly, joycomes back to you.” The other project is about a father she never knew, but learned about through Google. He was one of the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII, America’s first black military airmen. She says of her research, “That’s for my son and his family. It fills in gaps.”


Curatorial Trailblazing

As we begin to touch on various aspects of the arts in Silicon Valley, we remark on how the history of Silicon Valley from a get-past-the-barriers arts standpoint has not been told, and we proceed to add pieces to the puzzle, tracing Tunstall Grant’s footsteps.

Tunstall Grant and I connected early on at Works Gallery, a trailblazing space for emerging artists. She was on the first board of directors for Works, starting when it was housed in a former meat store on Auzerais Avenue in San José. For meetings we would often sit on the bare wood floor. San José State University art professor Tony May was president of the board.

Various curators took turns organizing early exhibitions. I was one of them, taking my first curatorial opportunity to address a wider perspective. At a storefront on First Street, Tunstall Grant went all out and created the first official graffiti show, Off the Streets, in summer 1986. She also advocated for one of textile artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s early shows. A professor emeritus at San José State, where she developed an innovative textiles program, Underwood would go on to make a big impact locally and internationally. Underwood’s powerful images are widely acclaimed and she is featured in the 2012 PBS special Threads.


Bringing Art to the Schools

We often talked about going beyond mere lip service to encompass a broad spectrum of humanity, and took action to realize this over the decades. Countering exclusion was a shared impetus behind our work—mine as executive director at the Euphrat Museum of Art, and Tunstall Grant’s as director of education at the San José Museum of Art and later at the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter.

In the late ’80s, Tunstall Grant and I often met at the onetime Good Earth restaurant near Santa Clara University, where we had many conversations about the needs of the art community and the need for programs for children. We both realized that creating an art community meant building it from the ground up, and at all levels simultaneously, from families to school district leaders and city government officials.

While the Euphrat Museum of Art had been working with school classes for years, I wanted a program that took art creativity, skills, ideas, and a diversified history to the school sites. Tunstall Grant helped me develop the Arts & Schools Program for the Euphrat. We began our Educational Committee in 1988–1989 as part of the Euphrat board. Tunstall Grant was our first consultant. We brought a few other heavyweights to join her, such as Maribel Alvarez, who was simultaneously co-founding MACLA (1989). Tunstall Grant, Alvarez, and I shared a deeply felt commitment to social engagement. We aimed to reach at-risk youth, and to add new cross-cultural perspectives.


Museum Outreach Program to Neighborhoods and Downtown

Tunstall Grant triumphed in developing unusual, new programs within mainstream systems, such as a uniquely engaging outreach initiative to build the San José Museum of Art School up to 3,000 kids. There were only 28 children when she started in 1979: 14 for Jeanne Aurel Schneider, then education director, and 14 for Tunstall Grant as teacher. This was a huge accomplishment in the growth of the arts in Silicon Valley. It was “the first outreach program ever for the museum.” In contrast to fee-based classes in the museum, this effort would go to the schools and reach kids where they lived— in their neighborhoods, including the museum’s downtown district. Tunstall Grant chose schools in impoverished, struggling San José neighborhoods, such as the East Side, Alviso and Berryessa. She applied for a Community Development Block Grant for seed money. Tunstall Grant recalls: “In the ’80s, around ’84, I told my outreach idea to Al Dixon [then San José Museum of Art director]. He didn’t think it made sense.” But the new director Russell Moore thought it did. Tunstall Grant persevered, and real collaborations were formed with the school districts.


Beyond Art: Relating to Children at the Shelter

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Tunstall Grant began her long stint as director of art education at the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter with a $2,500 grant. Over 15 years, she grew it to a $1 million program with funding from the California Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, and others. At the end, she employed 12 teachers to work with abused youth, foster youth, and runaways.

I’ve always loved kids. I’m a queen of pop culture. You have to be to deal with a seven-year-old. You can’t speak [the kids’] language unless you are willing to go into their reality. It is part of being a good educator.

She pauses, reflecting on her experience teaching maltreated children and youth at the shelter.

Society is being torn apart. Take the abused child. Every line has been crossed in a negative way: verbal abuse, lack of food, beatings, and sexual abuse. We are not just teaching art, but re-educating. For example, you are sitting in your chair. You don’t lean over, take another kid’s pen, and draw on his paper!

Tunstall Grant believes you have to send straight messages so the kids will learn about consequences.

My granddaughter is like any child in the world. Joy in; joy out. But one needs to make the lines clear. There’s no negotiation with a toddler, a preschooler. Art is about discipline, setting a goal, doing it over and over. Then you can stretch the rules because you know them. You have to know even the basics, like how to get away to a safe place. Ultimately, you are by yourself. There is not someone else always calling the shots.


A Visionary Leader

Tunstall Grant has been an energetic, visionary leader. She was one of the first board members of the Santa Clara County Arts Council, now called Arts Council Silicon Valley. Serving as chair of education, she created Hands on the Arts, an annual participatory, fun-filled arts weekend event to reach and include more children and families. The Euphrat participated in the early years in what would become a signature event for Sunnyvale.

The first one was at the County Fairgrounds. Then the City of Sunnyvale wanted to be involved [c. 1985]. Sunnyvale still has the program. It’s going strong.


Nurturing the Arts

Tunstall Grant started Genesis / A Sanctuary for the Arts from scratch in the same time period that she began at the Santa Clara County Children’s Shelter, and continued with both simultaneously for well over a decade. She would tell people, “The shelter is my day job.” After working all day at the Children’s Shelter, she’d pick up her son and go to Genesis. “He grew up at Genesis, listening to the music.”

The nonprofit, full-of-life studio and art space was housed at three sequential locations in San José that she renovated and developed. The first, on Ryland Street, was a huge warehouse transformed into art and music studios, with a gallery plus rehearsal and performing space. The second space for Genesis was at 40 First Street; it occupied the whole second floor, with use of the fourth floor for huge performances. The third location on The Alameda took seven months to clean out and convert to exhibition and artist spaces. It later transformed into ArtWorks,the current fine-art studio complex dedicated to helping students of all ages tap into their artistic capabilities and realize their artistic goals. Figurative painter George Rivera, director of the Triton Museum for many years, had a studio there.

Concerts at Genesis included India Cooke, the renowned jazz violinist, and others. Current United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera performed there. Tunstall Grant even brought the legendary painter Jacob Lawrence to Genesis.


Relationship Building

Tunstall Grant’s outgoing, encouraging manner has helped her build substantive relationships across the valley. In the midst of our conversation about the growth of the local scene, the phone rings. The friend/colleague on the phone had worked with Tunstall Grant on the Children’s Shelter’s Quilt Project, which Tunstall Grant started with a volunteer around the year 2000. This program spanned her last 10 years at the shelter and involved 23 women, all quilters, working from an artistic perspective. There were various exhibitions. “A lot of quilts! Many still hang at the courthouse on Terraine Street.”

A long-time San José Art Commissioner, Tunstall Grant was chair of public art for six years. In recent years, she chaired the City Hall Exhibits Committee, in which I had the pleasure to participate. Tunstall Grant developed wide-ranging, compelling City Hall exhibitions, starting with San José’s early history and Hidden Heritages: Six African American Families 1860–1920. Throughout her tenure, she worked closely with the former director of the City of San José’s Public Art Program Barbara Goldstein, who put San José public art on the map and brought it to prominence. In addition to the City Hall shows, they worked together on art at community centers and at the new Norman Y. MinetaSan José International Airport. Having come from public art programs in Seattle and Los Angeles, Barbara Goldstein understood what Tunstall Grant has been trying to accomplish in these last decades.


Crossing Rivers and Cultures

On Tunstall Grant’s studio wall is a large meditative painting of China that she did around 1988–1989. She received a fellowship to teach painting and drawing at the Children’s Palace in Beijing and was a special guest at the University of Shanghai because she had written a paper entitled “Creativity and Discipline,” feeling at the time that U.S. education was lacking in the discipline department. The scene is a little village outside of Xían, before it was totally excavated, before tours—mountains, a river, and a small boat. Tunstall Grant sees this “crossing-the-river” landscape every morning. While I am pondering the river-crossing metaphors in Tunstall Grant’s life, she proceeds to tell me about the African work the University of Shanghai held, and about the blacksmith teachers brought from Benin and Ghana in earlier centuries. Tunstall Grant, who easily crosses from one culture to another in the course of a day, uses this moment to make the connection between cultures, even ones overseas.



As Tunstall Grant and I consider life directions, she muses:

My creative journey? It was like [being] an ‘artrepreneur.’ The first thing an art student would be told then was, ‘There are no jobs in art. If you are a woman, there are no jobs in art. If you are a minority, there are no jobs in art.’ But I was determined. If you can create things, you can create jobs. You see openings. You see voids … where one could make a living.

The creating-the-job part was true for me also; there was no funding at the Euphrat when I started. For both of us, our art forms involved job creation, not interviews for established positions.


On Mothering and Mentoring

We talk about mothering and Tunstall Grant’s son. When he was young, she says, she was clear: “I’m an artist. I got to go to the studio.” When her son was asked what stood out from his childhood, he mentioned the time she had the cheese, crackers, and celery out and said, “Let’s snack up and go to the museum.” His other friends’ moms made cookies. Tunstall Grant said to him, “I’m not a cookie [and] jello mom. Know who your mom is. Don’t have expectations.”

We talk about her students.

I’m not a pushover. Clear expectations. Non-negotiable. If they act up, it ups the ante. Their time-out increases. One student asked, ‘How long is my time-out?’ I asked, ‘How old are you?’ ‘Seven.’ ‘OK, seven minutes time-out.’ That’s a long time.

I never met a really bad kid. Many have seen a lot, experienced a lot, so that is how they act. I always liked teaching kids, even the worst of the worst.

Some of the youth she mentored have gone on to develop their art, poetry, and community awareness, but mostly it is about their own personal growth. “No matter what, you need to start with the basics. Talk about art. You don’t give illusions.”


An Advocate for Creative Power

Bougainvilleas bloom outside the window. Tunstall Grant is cutting silhouettes of girls walking and playing for her “Tunstall Grant Aesop Fable” book project. The letter “A” is for African girls. We speak of power, something so many people want. Tunstall Grant says:

I don’t have the power. I’m trying to empower [others]. This is a hard spiritual, moral lesson for people to learn. … I am an advocate for the arts, an educator. I happen also to be an artist.

For Tunstall Grant, it has always been about “being an advocate for the creative power we all have, bringing back creativity and light into people’s lives.” The art goes off the canvas into daily life. “There are no wasted moments. All moments are magical, gifts.” Like the time I have spent with her today—truly a gift.