Lakeside Park is Oakland’s Central Park—embodying the heart of the city. The first designated wildlife refuge in America, it contains a small world of many wonders—exotic gardens, a nature center and bird sanctuary, a bandstand, a climbable mid-century sculpture, an art and science center, and the nation’s first storybook theme park. It is a place where all Oaklanders can come to recreate in their own special way—and they do.
On August 6, Lakeside Park unfurled eight whimsical and colorful new banners to celebrate the pride we take in our community jewel. The artist? Someone who has lived in the Lakeshore neighborhood for 20 years, and has been enchanted by Lake Merritt since he was a kid. Michael Wertz grew up in Fremont, and his mom worked at the lakeside Kaiser Building. He would visit her often, as well as nearby Children’s Fairyland. “I was fascinated by the park’s Magic Keys,” he recalls.
The grownup, but still playful, Michael Wertz now serves as assistant chair of the illustration program at the California College of the Arts, where he has taught for eight years. He says he didn’t consider himself a natural, but instead a late bloomer to the world of art. It was only in college (at UC-Santa Cruz) that he began to teach himself how to illustrate. And after five years of waiting tables, tarring roofs and trying to build a client base, he landed his first published illustration gig—designing the cover of Parenting Magazine. His work at that time was in pastels and “very pastoral,” he says.
But it was when he discovered the process of screen printing (think Andy Warhol) that things really starting taking off for him. “A funny combination of flat color and loose linework” is how he describes his art these days. And although his growing client list has included everyone from the DeYoung Museum to The New Yorker magazine, it is his work in his home town that holds a special place for him. His first local project was designing a poster for the Oakland Museum of California, but what he really wanted was to create his own content. Which is how the popular children’s book ABC Oakland came to be. “I’m really proud of that work,” he says. Each letter of the alphabet features a city treasure, where “F is for Fairyland, where magic is found.”
Michael found—and made—much magic at Fairyland with his art over the years, participating in its annual Drawn Together evening arts fundraiser, its annual Turn the Page! Children’s Book Festival, as well as a partnership that resulted in a special edition Children’s Fairyland Oakland library card. The latter particularly resonates with him. “For a very young gay kid like me, the library was a place of solace—a sanctuary; a safe place” he says. “It’s always thrilling for me to think of kids walking into the library with that card.”
How easy was it to design the eight new banners that attempt to represent all the facets of the park? “It was nearly impossible!” he says of the not quite one-year production process. Collaboration with the project’s leader, Ali Schwarz with the City of Oakland, really helped narrow down the scope “so that I could wrap my head around all of the park’s elements,” says Michael. The initial list of 20-30 features was brought down to eight. Michael thinks that the toughest image to design was one that depicts people of all ages enjoying themselves in the park (cycling, skating, rowing), explaining that showing movement while fitting people together in a meaningful way is difficult. It was also challenging to represent the park’s “Green Monster” sculpture on a vertical banner, given the fact that the piece itself is horizontal. “That’s the magic of photography,” he says, explaining that foreshadowing allowed for the successful artistic license he was able to take.
His favorite banner? Michael loves the panel depicting a rich cross-section of the park’s birdlife, as well as the art that features Fairyland. He visited Lakeside Park shortly after the banners were installed, and was pleased to observe folks appreciating his work. “It’s nice to interact with the public,” he says, noting that “as illustrators, we spend a lot of time alone in a studio.”
ABC Oakland has just been re-printed, and Michael has illustrated a new kids’ book, Golden Gate Park, An A to Z Adventure, (“another labor of love,” he says). Michael and his husband Andy Cowitt are known for offering book “singings,” in addition to signings, where they create and perform whimsical songs related to the books. The two had been in bands together since college, and the kids love the musical element it adds.
“We’re lucky to be Oaklanders,” Michael says, “and we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
And to quote from the ending of ABC Oakland, “There’s so much to love in our Oakland—it’s true. There’s no better city for you to do you!”
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.