Hopi Breton Lets Her Sculptures Become Her Voice

The Alameda sculptor is a master manipulator of artistic material.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Alameda sculptor Hopi Breton has deep-reaching roots. A self-described Jewish hippie-kid, Breton grew up in the flatlands of Oakland in the 1980s and is firmly grounded in the East Bay. She even married the boy she fell in love with at Claremont Middle School and still mostly hangs out with her school friends from Oakland. “Oakland kids are thick. It’s a thing. So now we get to grow old together here,” she said. She also has close ties to Mendocino where she went to high school and where her mom and brother now live. Her father, from the south of France, provides connection to that terroir as well.

Breton grew up in a family filled with creative spirit — her mother and grandmother are artists, and her father and uncle are musicians. She recalled having very few boundaries, no plastic toys, no television. “I remember when I was 6 or so, I had a hammer and bag of nails. I covered an entire cut tree round with the nails. I really liked the new texture and new form it created,” she said. “I also spray-painted a bush. I braided grass. I spun wool. I pried apart anything I could find. I was always very much in the physical world. I never had much of a voice, so I think it made sense to explore and express through materials in the world at an early age.”

Breton credits her grandmother with being her greatest influence. At age 97, she is still just as excited about making art as ever, Breton said, and her passion is a lifelong inspiration for Breton. As a child, her grandmother lived in Los Angeles and took her to museums. “It was a huge education,” Breton recalled. “I really believe in mentors. I’m aware of whose shoulders I stand on — of my artist family, my own teachers, and more experienced peers. It’s a kind of scaffold.”

But it took Breton a while to find her own voice as an artist, one different from her mother and grandmother’s, and sculpture provided a unique path. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Loyola University in New Orleans and an MFA from Montana State University, returning to the Bay Area 17 years ago to take up residence in Alameda. “I spent 10 years away from Northern California, and I missed its smells, its earth, its roots, and its people, so I moved back,” Breton said.

Breton’s sculptures are created by manipulating mostly natural materials like grasses, rock, tree bark, and roots, through various sculptural processes of mold-making that involves wax, plaster, welding, and casting molten metal. Philosophically, her work focuses on the connection between physical and social landscape and metaphysical space. And you can sense her early childhood explorations reaching into her adult expression; her ability to make materials speak for her. “Someone once called my art ‘eco-feminist,’” Breton said, “and I thought, oh, that’s just fancy for hippie kid art. I can joke about my childhood all day, but it’s pretty deep for me, sometimes painful and sometimes prideful.”

In her recently renovated art studio in Alameda, she concentrates on developing ideas and laying groundwork in beading, plaster, wax, latex, or gold leaf. Then, using the facilities at Diablo Valley College, where she is chair of the art department and a full-time instructor, she completes the work of forging, grinding, and welding. The latter usually involves working with others, which provides a balance she finds satisfying and productive.

Besides being an artist, Breton is the mother of two children — apples that don’t fall far from the tree since they have evident artist sensibilities. Her classes at DVC include 3-D design, beginning and advanced sculpture, metal casting techniques, welding, and an occasional class in something random like make-up prosthetics. To learn more about Breton, visit her website at HopiBreton.squarespace.com.

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