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Dreams in color

Sahba Shere brings energy to Cubberley Artist Studio Program

The canvas is covered with blue paint. But it's not that simple. A gauzy streak of white runs along the length of its base like a fog bank settling over the land. At the right and left edges, thick brush strokes give way to brighter passages of turquoise, suggesting a brilliant blue sky peering out from behind heavy mists. Above, the blue grows even darker, vivid, a rain-cloud about to burst.

What might look at a passing glance like a painting done in a single hue is in fact a vivid, layered study of color. This is "Color Field in Blue," one of Sahba Shere's works from a recent series devoted to color theory.

Yet color doesn't tell the full story, either. In other works, there's little of it to be seen at all. Black strokes slash across white spaces like skid marks: evidence of dynamic motion and energy. Sometimes, black and white work together in a busy, frenetic dance of drips and ripples, echoing the intricate complexity of a human brain or the formations of stalactites.

Here and there, there's a dribble of red.

To step inside Shere's Palo Alto studio is to find oneself awash in visual sensations. Her primary medium is acrylic paint, though many works also incorporate ink and other media. Some works hang on loose sheets of velvety Japanese Yupo paper. Here and there, there's a dusting of glitter.

Without exception, Shere's current works are abstract, though she has worked in the past as a figurative painter and documentary photographer. Many of her paintings are done on canvas and on a large scale -- 60, 72 and 80 inches wide -- though others are smaller, inviting a more intimate viewing.

In the center of them all stands the artist.

At just over 5 feet tall in stylish leather boots and trendy jeans, her shiny brown hair falling around her shoulders and her wrists adorned with chunky bracelets, Shere could almost be mistaken for a recent graduate of Palo Alto High School. In fact, she's 48 years old, and the mother of a Paly grad and sophomore. A Canadian-born artist of Indian descent, Shere has lived in Palo Alto for the past decade and is one of the 25 artists who currently make up Palo Alto's Cubberley Artist Studio Program, or CASP. Inducted one year ago, she has quickly embraced her role and the space it affords, transforming the former chemistry lab into an attractive working studio and exhibition space complete with modern track lighting and clean white walls.

"I work all the time," she explained during a recent interview at her studio, F7 at the Cubberley Community Center. "I wanted to separate my studio from my home."

Having previous lived and worked in Paris and in Bangalore among other cities, Shere has painted everywhere from home studios to garages to tiny rented rooms in urban areas, but the opportunity to work in an artists' enclave like CASP was new to her.

"I love working alone ... for a certain amount of time," she said. "But here, at the end of the day, I can break out a glass of wine and sit down with other artists. A lot of us have become good friends. We really help each other."

The closeness between CASP artists will be on display along with their works next weekend when the program holds its annual Holiday Open House event on Saturday, Nov. 21. The free celebration is a chance for the public to visit the CASP studios, meet the artists, see (and even buy) their work and learn more about the nature of the program.

Founded in 1987, CASP provides 23 city-subsidized, affordable art studios, and has increasingly turned its attention to engaging the public through workshops, discussions and exhibitions, many of which are held at the CASP Cultural Cafe, a former studio that's been transformed into a dedicated gathering place. In 2014, the program also rewrote its mission and adapted its policies to welcome new members, include a wider range of artistic genres and encourage artistic collaborations. Studios are now rented on a four-year basis, and CASP artists are eligible for no more than two consecutive terms.

Reflecting on the changes CASP has seen in recent years, Rhyena Halpern, Palo Alto's assistant director of the Community Services Department, noted, "At one time, the program was very introverted. Artists came there and you didn't really see them or hear them. It was almost invisible." These days, the program is much more focused on reaching out into the larger community, she explained.

"Now we have a meeting space where artists can gather. Some of the artists are staring to paint their doors, which helps with place-making and identity. We just finished a logo for the program, and we're printing banners, brochures and door plaques."

And that's not all. On exhibition as part of the Holiday Open House will be works from CASP's MakeX, a makers studio where teen mentors support their peers in learning how to use technology tools and software to create new projects. And on Thursday, Nov. 12, CASP hosts its first-ever Meet the Artists evening, including refreshments, a pop-up exhibition and a dynamic PechaKucha-style group presentation where each artist was given no more than two minutes to share six slides of their work.

According to Halpern, Shere is "proof of why this program is so great."

"She just fits in with all of that new energy," Halpern said. "She's really positive, open, happy, and thrilled to have the studio space, which has been important to her for the creation of new work."

For Shere, her CASP studio has been a place of tranquility and focus as well as a site for community gatherings. In September, inspired by her travels in Asia, she hosted a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in her studio, welcoming other CASP artists and members of the public to participate for free. She also brought fellow Paly parents to her studio earlier this year for a parent support group meeting.

"It was nice to have it here, surrounded by art, which can help give you perspective," she noted. "Other parents were amazed these studios were here -- they never knew."

One of Shere's goals for 2016 is to launch a free salon series at her studio. She envisions guest speakers sharing their expertise in a range of creative fields and members of the public engaging in discussion. It would be a way both to share her work more widely and to give something back to the community that she feels has given her so much.

"I love where I live. I love the people I know around here. I love to know what they're doing and to talk about it," Shere explained. "I just want to build conversation and culture, and being around art is a great way to connect. Even start-ups need to start with a creative idea, I think."

In Shere's case, many of her best creative ideas find her when she's traveling. She tends not to paint much when she's on the road but to photograph extensively, coming home with images captured in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand and allowing those memories to direct her in the studio. Even recent travels to Kentucky and Vermont inspired her to produce canvases rich with the colors of turning leaves.

Yoga and meditation are also sources of creativity, Shere explained.

"When you go deep inside, you're excavating emotions," she said, noting that in periods of transition, particularly when living abroad and finding the cultural adjustment difficult, she would "get in front of the canvas and kind of meditate," often settling on a mental image taken from nature and using that as the starting point for her painting.

Sometimes, visions of color even come to her in her dreams.

Those who attend the CASP Holiday Open House on Nov. 21 will find examples of Shere's practice in works like "Vermont," a riot of vivid oranges and yellows shot through with veins of brown and green, and "Reverie," in which a single, wavering black line anchors a brooding swirl of deep blues and purples. Other works, including the blue canvas from her color theory series and many of her monochrome paintings, are currently on view in San Francisco; Peninsula businesses including Google have exhibited her work in the past.

As someone who has lived and traveled internationally, Shere acknowledged that Palo Alto presents some real challenges for a working artist. But CASP, she said, goes a long way to mitigating those challenges.

"Being in Palo Alto, the real estate market is very tough," she admitted. "For them to build an art center right in the middle of this tech world -- it's a wonderful thing."

What: 15th annual CASP Holiday Open House

Where: Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Saturday, Nov. 21, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to goo.gl/b4gRtA or sahbashere.com or call 650-329-2227.

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