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The Birth of a Gallery in an Oakland Mortuary

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By LSN

If you have been frequenting the Oakland artisan circuit, it is no secret that outdoor shopping, flea markets, swap meets, gallery displays, and popups have been on the rise since the early days of the pandemic. The opportunity for local artists and makers to come together collectively in a safe outdoor setting has allocated for creative people from all walks of life to network, sell goods, and really live that “side hustle” life. In some cases, many pursue these opportunities as a full-time gig.

On a late summer’s afternoon in 2021, I was exploring the blossoming neighborhood of Mosswood in Oakland. After a day’s worth of thrifting, coffee-sipping, and Korean eats, I thought I had seen most of what this part of the Telegraph strip had to offer. Upon my journey home, a strikingly beautiful Spanish-style chapel caught my eye and on the front lawn was an odd sign that read “Unkle Morty’s Popup and Discount Sausage Factory”. Thinking this was not only hilarious and bizarre, I glinted down 37th street to see what the deal was.

Upon entering the back parking lot of what seemed to be an old church of some sort, I was welcomed by 3 fabulously dressed women standing next to a hearse who enthusiastically greeted me: “Welcome to Unkle Morty’s!”.

What is this place, I thought? Beyond intrigued at this point, within my optical view was a deluge of mind-blowing makers ready to converse about their goods and share their unique artistic gifts with attendees. I strolled the market to discover a well-curated group of specialized artists, many of which boasted items I could not resist but to purchase.

Unkle Morty’s Pop Up, at UMA Gallery, Oakland

The surly security guard seemed like the person to ask if I could enter the chapel and he guided me inside. As if I was not already impressed, I found myself in a remarkable and ornate cathedral space lit up with golden-hued stained glass windows and stunning wood detailing. I fell in love straight away and knew this was a place where I needed to perform music someday.

“Who can I speak with regarding the use of this space?!” I eagerly inquired. I was then escorted directly to the person responsible for all of this awesomeness – Donna Davis, founder of Unkle Morty’s and what is now also known as Uma Gallery.

In early 2016, John Warner obtained the building and shortly after, he and Donna agreed to embark on a mission to bring artists together in a space that was unique, collaborative, and intentionally lacking pretentiousness. This is anything from your typical “white box” display scenario.

Artwork by @johnnydismal and @jeremyianmeyer.  Image via @unklemortyspopup

But, this is not where it all started. In fact, Donna and John both have a deep history in the arts and culture world- everything ranging from galleries to retail and restaurants. They were known years ago in San Francisco for their bead and jewelry-making shop “Forbeaden” that had two locations over their time in business between 1994 and 2012. Simultaneously, they have over 30 years of expertise in entrepreneurship, building businesses, and fostering creative communities.

Mosswood Chapel was built in the 1930’s and historically has been a mortuary and funeral home. The space boasts 3 active rooms – a large chapel, a smaller chapel, and of course, the embalming room (yes, this is where they used to prepare the corpses). After acquiring a center with such aesthetic quality, the vision for Uma Gallery, a space for artists of all mediums (particularly the odd and obscure) began to birth itself.

I was immediately enamored with Donna and John as people and captivated by the concept of so much emerging talent in a dwelling which used to house death. During one of the darkest times in history, I could not help but feel that what they are creating here is in fact, in the truest sense of the word, a Renaissance.

The artists they represent are impactful, suggestive, and have powerful messages that are in alignment with the times we are in. These works are a carefully woven web of both low-brow and pop surrealism with a controversial and introspective meeting of minds. The intention of this gallery and collective inspires us to think beyond the narratives of our realities while bringing the heart and soul back into our community.

Mosswood Chapel, Oakland

A few recent Uma Gallery exhibits include the incredible:
Michael Kerbow, Diane Koffman, Lori Herbst, Dan Levin, R. D’Mauries, Feodome, Felishita, Maria Camela Art, Marc Ellen Hamel, Doug Rhodes, Pullette Traverso, Johnny Dismel, Jeremy Ian Meyer, to name a few…. None of which are to be missed.

Vendors include Minerva Press, Cracked Sandwich, Gashly Tentacles, Heads or Tails Collective, Lipton Cunningham, Dirty Blonde, MooseSharkRhino, Luna Negra, Poolhall Guitars, Destroy Art + many more….

Musical guests have included Mauro Ffortissimo, Elektra Schmidt, Mobile Community Channels radio, and yours truly + more TBA for future events…

And what’s with this “Unkle Morty’s” theme? Who is Unkle Morty? Where are the discount sausages and house-roasted coffee beans? You’ll have to stop by to find out!

The popup is every first Saturday for most months out of the year – Follow Unkle Morty’s Instagram for continuous updates. The next popup for Spring 2022 will be held on March 12th. Gallery hours are expected to resume in March. For inquiries regarding Unkle Mortys, Mosswood Chapel, and Uma Gallery, please email: donna@umagalleryoakland.com

www.umagalleryoakland.com

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