Art Actually: North Oakland’s Actual Cafe is a hub of creativity

Ione Sterental/Staff

At first, it’s easy to miss the planters at the Actual Cafe in Oakland. On winter nights, warm wooden tables and chairs beckon frozen passers-by. Some leftover Christmas lights dangle by the windows. Bicycles hang suspended on the walls. The chalkboard in the bathroom displays curious bits of graffiti.  A few wooden bookshelves lounge in a corner; a sign on one of them has three written rules: Read anything. Take a book home, but leave a better one behind.  And, “Don’t break stuff, K?” Among this buffet of mini-marvels, it is very possible to overlook the planter that squats near the front window. It is made of what was once a recycled sink but is now an irrigation device that drips water onto the plants inside it. It is ingenious, a work of art.  Though it may be overlooked, it really shouldn’t be.

Actual Cafe, owned by ex-musician-turned-community-hero Sal Bednarz, is a hub of hubbub.  It is home to an abundance of live events featuring local artists and musicians. “I don’t think art is something you should have to go to a quiet, white wall to experience,” Bednarz said.

This past Friday, the cafe held an opening for an art show put on by Femme Cartel, who describe themselves as a “loose collective of talented, boundary-pushing, emotionally on-fire, contemporary urban artists” who happen to all be female. The show consists of a variety of mixed-media pieces, paintings, and photography.  Rebecca Kerlin, a local artist featured in the show, mixes digital photographs and oil painting to reconstruct construction sites. The blend of the two is perplexing.  It has a tickling dreaminess about it in the way that what is being seen is real but also not quite — a little like Actual Cafe itself.

On Mondays, fine artist Kerin Mentkow holds Art a la Cart, a series of two-hour painting classes for beginners. She teaches the basics: how to mix colors and where to put them.  Her students walk away with a finished painting at the end of the session. The most recent one was a still life of a pile of s’mores.
This is all a part of Actual Cafe’s secret mission: to be actual — meaning local, social, tangible — but not virtual.  So they banned laptops on weekends.  Bednarz found that on weekends, the cafe was often full of people glued to their computer screens, taking space away from those who wanted to have conversations with other humans. So he said that on weekends, “You are welcome, but your machine isn’t.”

Bednarz grew up frequenting coffee shop couches. He matured within cafes’ friendly walls, which is why all the events at Actual are meant to promote a gathering of minds and bodies, from performers like the musician Annah Anti-Palindrome to music trivia nights and nonprofit fundraisers with bicycle-powered bingo ball hoppers. He expressed his frustration with corporate business like Starbucks that he said are “pandering to the lowest common denominator.” “Why shouldn’t every business be different?” Bednarz said, “Why does every business have to offer the same service?” Bednarz, who was a drummer for a while, still thinks like an artist. What began as a small business meant to revive a dismal, comatose Oakland neighborhood is no longer simply a business, or even a business that supports art, but a business that has crossed some sort of a threshold, like the recycled sink planter, and become a piece of art itself.

Thursday’s article “Art actually” incorrectly stated that Sal Bednarz and his workers paint over graffiti. In fact, they only paint on North Oakland Actual Cafe property.