Published Sunday, June 24, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News
Four hands, Two Fish, one goal
SAN JOSE COUPLE WORKING TO REVIVE THE HEART OF ART, ACCESSIBLE TO ALL
by Jack Fischer
``Hey, Two Fish!''
Sometimes people shout that at Cherri Lakey and Brian Eder as they walk by.
As a rule, they don't take it personally.
Among many other things, Lakey and Eder happen to be the ``two fish'' of Two Fish Design, a graphic arts shop near downtown San Jose. But Lakey calls that moniker ``Persona No. 238.''
And it's no wonder, when you're a two-person cultural renaissance.
From their warehouse headquarters in an old Navlet's florist's shop on Montgomery Street, the couple quietly, cosmically presides over an array of enterprises and events that makes them among the most influential people attempting to breathe life into an art scene
in downtown San Jose.
Never mind the billions that the San Jose Redevelopment Agency has spent to do the same. Eder, 38, and Lakey, 35, routinely and on a shoestring produce crowds that come from as far as Berkeley and Oakland to attend the art exhibits they host on the first Friday of each month under the auspices of their gallery, Anno Domini // the second coming of Art and Design.
Perhaps most importantly, they have located themselves, attitudinally, at a place that embraces art before the art institutions, a fact that brings to their door everything from East San Jose graffiti artists to successful commercial artists. In January, they mounted perhaps the nation's first exhibit of the art of `` 'zines,'' the small, self-published, often arty magazines that have sprung up in the wake of desktop publishing.
Anno Domini's current show, a delightfully eclectic exploration of Mexican wrestling that has brought work from 40 professional illustrators nationally, marks the end of the gallery's first year of operation. During that time, the couple's e-mail list has grown from 300 to 3,000 people, San Jose Museum of Art Executive Director Dan Keegan has begun to visit, and the word-of-mouth keeps growing. The secret of their success?
Redevelopment take heed: ``We always thought those who want to find us, do,'' Eder said.
Of course, the couple has provided ample reason to try.
In addition to Two Fish and Anno Domini, they serve as the clearinghouse for artists working on the Sharkbyte public art project, which will festoon the downtown with artist-decorated fiberglass sharks later this summer. Then there's Human Tribe, the non-profit group they run to teach budding student-artists graphic design. And Village Savant, a little self-published 'zine (also on their Web site, www.galleryAD.com) that serves to explain their outlook on art and life, as well as offer calendar listings of matters artistic. It really needn't also be noted that they recently were named the Bay Area's Lomo Ambassadors, Lomo (www.lomo.com) being a relatively cheap, Russian-made plastic camera with great cult appeal at the moment.
On top of all those, the couple has decided to make a personal crusade of, let's say, ``adjusting'' the public's attitude about what some might consider grafitti. After spending inordinate amounts of time chasing taggers away from the red brick walls of their Montgomery headquarters, they decided to rethink.
The result was Zero Tolerance, which is the opposite of what you think. Having decided ``zero tolerance is never the answer'' they have embarked on a project, posted on their Web site, to identify unsanctioned art that has been posted or painted in public places. When Eder or Lakey find something they think qualifies, they photograph it and post it to the site.
``We're not talking about people marking their territory like dogs,'' Eder said.
``But we understand the difference between tagging, vandalism and art,'' Lakey said. ``Whether it's on canvas or a wall, if it says something, it's art.''
So sprawling are the couple's efforts that one fan and friend, Frederick Spratt, owner of the Frederick Spratt Gallery and de facto father of the downtown art scene, is always after them to clarify their overall goals, Lakey said. It's a notion that seems to elude them.
``For us, it's all for the same purpose,'' she said of their diverse efforts. ``Blurring the boundaries is the whole point, really. We want it all to be an inspirational thing,something to bring people out of their hermit existence and to live more creatively.''
Eder and Lakey frequently finish each other's thoughts, and Eder added, ``To us, art is the excuse for bringing the culture together. We want to bring out the diversity that's here and bring it together. We think if you get caught up in the person in the suit, or the guy in the Mohawk, you get trapped.''
``We try to transcend the spheres,'' Lakey concluded.
Civic savvy and faith
Looking like an aging skateboarder and a post-punk rocker, Eder and the blue-haired Lakey combine a growing civic savvy with a slightly mystical faith that ``the universe takes care of us.'' A full 40 percent of their business is for non-profit groups or pro bono.
The paying customers with deeper pockets -- several of them involved in track and field events, such as the recent Peregrine Systems U.S. Track and Field Open at Stanford University -- in effect underwrite the activities that keep Eder and Lakey right with the larger karmic forces. It makes you wonder whether the San Jose City Council should start to meditate.
The two say they met a dozen years ago at the opening of work by Eder, a San Jose State fine arts graduate in photography.
``We kept running into each other, here and in L.A. and Portland, and it finally smacked us upside the head to be together,'' said Lakey, who learned design from Eder.
They settled for a time in Mountain View and did freelance graphic work but found it unrewarding and launched Two Fish seven years ago from their apartment. While the two aren't religious in any conventional sense, the name is a biblical reference. ``We thought of the whole fish and loaves thing,'' Eder said. ``You reach in and two more fish are always there.'' It's a reference both to their design firm's inexhaustible creativity and the couple's faith that something will always come along.
When they were ready to set up shop, they made a decision of typical, prescient contrariness and moved to San Jose instead of San Francisco.
``We felt the pull to come south,'' Eder said. ``We thought San Francisco already has what we wanted to do. We knew we could bring it here. You're 40 minutes from Santa Cruz and San Francisco. It's just such an epicenter.''
They also decided to forgo the bounty they could have made in Web design as it began to burgeon -- it didn't feel right.
``We knew it was a huge choice for us the money,'' Eder said. ``The work was walking in the door.''
``But,'' Lakey added, ``it was getting hard to get up in the morning. The energy wasn't good. Now artists give us paintings just to thank us for helping them. We'd rather be infamous than famous designers.''
Flirting with politics
In the past year or so, the couple has begun to get involved in the periphery of city politics, suggesting that their influence may be waxing. They served on a focus group for the Redevelopment Agency's new master planner and joined Circa 2000, an informal volunteer group of a dozen young professionals that is, among other things, bringing Gypsy Cinema to the walls of downtown buildings. The project presents free screenings of feature films at various ad hoc locations downtown.
``We see ourselves as a bridge between things,'' Eder said mischievously. ``We relate to people our age and to younger people but we also respect our elders.''
Still, it seems unlikely the couple will be running for office any time soon.
Several years back, Eder read about and then struck up a correspondence with a German humanitarian named Gottfried Müller, who runs a series of programs for that country's orphans. Eder said Müller's iconoclastic advice still guides them: ``He says, `He who is swimming against the stream comes to the source.' We feel every time someone says you can't do this and you shouldn't do that, we should push harder.''
``We don't shut off the lights at 5 p.m.,'' Lakey added. ``This is our lives.''
Contact Jack Fischer at email@example.com or
(408) 920-5440. Fax (408)271-3786.