What is Art?

I taught a high school photography class last year at a charter school in Richmond… though most of the kids had cell phones with cameras and were fond of taking quick snaps of each other striking poses, few had been exposed to the idea of photography as art, or even the idea of Art itself.

I put together a handout for them that they begrudgingly plodded their way through, then promptly discarded as they raced out the door at the sound of the bell.  What I realize now is that it was way over their heads.  The idea of Art is a heady one indeed.

The definition I came up with after consulting various sources was this:

Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”

There was more to it than that, but that’s it in a nutshell.  And if you agree with that definition, which I personally do, then all kinds of things can be considered Art.  The “elements” one is arranging can be paint, paper, fabric, metal, concrete, words, one’s own body parts, the ingredients of a pie, a pocketful of pennies, plants in a garden, the list is really endless

And what I’d like to focus on for the next couple of days are the gardens, specifically The Gardens at Lake Merritt. As I mentioned the other day, I truly feel that these are a little known secret that need to be exposed to the world. They’re fantastic and my pictures do not do them justice, as I was there during the not-so-pretty light of the middle of the day and was too lazy to go back and get better pictures later. Sorry.

The Gardens are a seven-acre collection of themed gardens… today we’ll look at the Asian gardens: Bonsai, Torii Gate, and Japanese.


The Bonsai Garden is Northern California’s only public bonsai collection and is home to over 200 amazing specimens, though they are rotated frequently, so generally around 50 are on display at any given time. This demonstration garden has some rather historic (and artistic) features including the oldest documented bonsai in the United States, as well as many viewing stones (suiseki), a dry waterfall and stream-bed, and an authentic Japanese garden gate (no nails or screws). The garden was developed and continues to be supported exclusively by volunteers and donations, so don’t forget to throw a few bucks in the basket, or better yet, donate some time (contact bonsailakemerritt@gmail.com).



Just west of the Bonsai Garden is the Torii Gate, a traditional Japanese gate commonly found at the entrance to Shinto shrines; it marks the entrance into a sacred space. The original Torii gate was a gift to the City of Oakland in 1969 from our sister city Fukuoka, Japan. Did you know we had a sister city there?? I didn’t. Fukuoka has many features similar to Oakland… it’s a port city, has a similar moderate climate, experiences occasional earthquakes, and is praised for its green spaces in a modern metropolitan setting.

The gate was rebuilt in 2002 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the sister city relationship by the Oakland Fukuoka Sister City Association (OFSCA), which is dedicated to fostering and promoting cultural awareness, understanding, and friendship between the peoples and cities of Oakland and Fukuoka. For more information, please visit http://www.oakland-fukuoka.org.



Ok… you still with me?! There’s one more. It’s actually called The Japanese Garden, and is not immediately adjacent to these other two, so you’ll have to do a bit of exploring, but then again, that’s half the fun! The garden was built back in 1959 by members of the Japanese-American community under the direction of designer Hisaichi Tsugawa, and recently received some necessary improvements to the aging gate at the hands of local wood-working artist Jay van Arsdale and many of his students from Laney College. It’s quite lovely… please check it out.


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