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Among the Landfillians

A new art show that celebrates the works—and the inhabitants—of the Albany Bulb.

Boxer Bob and his Mansion

Boxer Bob and his Mansion

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Boxer Bob and his Mansion

Mobile shelters and paintings by Jimbow the Hobow

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Boxer Bob and his Mansion

Zoetrope by Judith Leinen

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Boxer Bob and his Mansion

Dancing Landfillians by Jimbow the Hobow

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“They made a life out there, a unity there. People who had been sleeping in gutters and who had never had a place of their own, they could now have a place that they built themselves with million-dollar views.” Osha Neumann is standing at the center of a crowd at the opening event of Refuge in Refuse at SOMArts. The gallery is packed with patrons and former residents of the Albany Bulb, a now-demolished homeless encampment perched on a spit of East Bay landfill.  This is not your typical art show. This is, as Osha puts it, the “corpse” of what the Albany Bulb once was.

Known for his use of wood and metal that was uncovered at the landfill, Osha is a sculptor whose enormous statues are some of the final artistic remnants of the Albany Bulb community. His role in the so-called "landfillian" community, however, was more than just artistic. Osha—who is regarded as a “housie,” meaning he didn’t actually live on the landfill—also acted as the legal counselor for these feral residents and fought for their right to remain on the encampment, the inception of which dates back to the early 90’s. This fight came to a fatal end when the City of Albany turned the Bulb over to the California State Parks system and all of its residents were effectively evicted on April 24, 2014. Their homes were consequently bulldozed and much of their art destroyed.

During its time, the Bulb attracted a variety of memorable characters and with them came their paintings, sculptures, writings, performances, compositions, and makeshift houses. Tourists from around the Bay Area came to see Boxer Bob’s Mansion, a three-story home made entirely of debris, or Mad Marc’s Castle, which is a self-described “Fairy Castle” designed as a gift to California. Others sought out the colorful paintings of Danielle Evans or Judith Leinen’s zoetropes and mandalas or Jimbow the Hobow’s rugged poetry and painted driftwood, all of which are on display at the SOMArt’s exhibit.

When talking about the landfill, James Lee Bailey—a.k.a. Jimbow the Hobow—describes the Bulb as an expression of “how humans are a social society and how our social society gets together and stays together to help each other.” This togetherness, however, has been permanently disrupted for the Bulb's denizens. “I’ve just turned 61 and I’m ready to get back to work,” Jimbow says, adding that he's finding that getting back to work isn’t easy when you don’t have a home.

Fifteen years ago, Robin Lasser, a professor of art at San Jose State University and one of the show’s curators, was approached by an inhabitant of the Bulb during a visit to the landfill. This local resident, a woman named Stephanie, told Robin that “a lot of people think we’re homeless but we consider this our home.” Struck by this sentiment, Robin has been a vocal advocate for the community and a documentarian of the landfillians’ art, architecture, and lifestyle. This magic is being kept alive, not only by the art being showcased, but also with film screenings, photography, audio clips, Q&A’s with artists and former residents, and even a workshop on how to build mobile shelters.

After Osha Neumann concludes his speech at the opening, the microphone is passed to Andy Kreamer—a filmmaker, educator and former resident of the Albany Bulb. “Tonight is a sad night," he says. "Not everyone from our landfill community is still with us. Not everyone is alive.” As he talks, Kreamer chokes back tears and his voice begins to crack. The names of the deceased are shouted out by members of the crowd. Following the ceremony, Kreamer announces that his wife is pregnant and that their wedding has been scheduled for the following day. The audience cheers and Kreamer leads them in the singing of “The Diggers’ Song.” It's become the unofficial anthem of the landfillians’ endangered way of life. 

Refuge in Refuse runs at SOMArts, February 12–March 14

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