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Line by line with George Hopkins

George Hopkins is a smart guy. After all, he chose to move to Oakland twenty-three years ago. Hopkins’ detailed pen and ink drawings explore the city’s unexplored and underappreciated architecture and history. We sat down to talk with the artist about the greatness of cities, the Oakland art scene, and received a pretty damned-good Oakland history lesson.

How did you end up making art in Oakland?

My second wife brought me here — I met her when she was living in Oakland at the time. I’ve lived here for 23 years now.

As an artist you can’t help but love Oakland. You know, the energy here. Cities make people smarter because of the density and different ideas.

You’ve been in Oakland long before there was the art scene that there is today. What is it like now to see Oakland getting a lot of attention for having so many young artists who are transplants?

As an artist, it’s a great thing. It’s great to see Oakland change for the better. People talk about diversity in other places — sometimes it’s kind of a mosaic more than an actual melting pot. But here in Oakland, you go to one neighborhood and knock on the door and you don’t know who’s going to come and answer… here in Oakland, we’re all kinda living together.

You do a lot of pen-and-ink drawings of classic Oakland landmarks. Because people aren’t used to seeing them portrayed in that format, sometimes it takes a minute to recognize them. Is that part of the idea — to get the people to look at the city from a different perspective?

It’s a happy medium where you do the work that you wanna do — but at the same time you wanna do something that appeals to other people. Some of the sites, like the courthouse and the lake, are really landmarks that I think everybody identifies with. These things have emotional attachments for us. Especially when we’re not here or we think about the city where we come from.

Oakland is an industrial city. I come from a place that is very similar so I appreciate the blue-collar heritage of the docks and the different people who came here to build the city.

I love history as well, and in some of my drawings you can see that. I pay tribute to some of my heroes. I have a drawing of the Black Panther party. I wanted to highlight some of their other contributions. I don’t think people realize that they had a breakfast program, and the fact that a lot of the people portrayed in the picture all had advanced degrees and were highly educated.

Are there any untold stories about Oakland or underappreciated parts of the city that you try and highlight in your work?

I’m always uncovering new things. It’s just a matter of actually doing the work. There are lots of stories here. I am actually working on a drawing right now about the docks. I’m also working on a story about the Pullman Porters. They used to be important when the railroads were active here in Oakland. They were the first black union and they were responsible for helping to create the black middle class.

I’ve done a compilation of drawings with respect to black cowboys. That came into being because of the black cowboy parade that they have annually in Oakland. I went to a black cowboy parade and to the rodeo and did some research. I found out that one-third of the cowboys out west were black men; another third were Mexican. Cowboy or cattleman was a difficult job that not a lot of people wanted to do. “Cowboy” became a derogatory term in and of itself because whites wanted to be called “cattleman.”

What’s your idea of a perfect day in Oakland? What sorts of things would you do? Where would you go? What would you see?

I live in West Oakland, and one of the things I love about living in West Oakland is its proximity to everything else. It’s a stone’s throw from downtown, from Emeryville, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

But back to your question, I would go out to North Oakland, to Fruitvale, to the different neighborhoods to get a sense of the flavor of different neighborhoods. I would go down International Boulevard. I mean you have to go down International just to look at all the people. Take a tour of the world and stop in different places to eat.

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