Few remember the art professor and wife of Nobel Prize winner after whom the Laney art gallery was named
By David Rowe, Associate Editor
April 25, 2022
If you Google “June Steingart” the results will most likely relate to exhibits in the art gallery named after her in the lobby of the Tower building at Laney College.
Finding out more about the woman herself and why the gallery was named in her honor is a bigger challenge.
When The Citizen asked Robby Abrams, co-curator of the Shimmer exhibit currently on display at the Steingart gallery, about June Steingart, he replied “It’s kind of embarrassing. I haven’t thought about it for so long that I can’t really tell you.”
Even Rudy Besikof, the President of Laney College, admitted he “did not have the answer” regarding Steingart but referred us to Evelyn Lord, the Head Librarian at Laney.
Lord tracked down a copy of the Spring 1992 issue of “Good News,” an arts and literature magazine published by Laney faculty and students. An Editor’s note from Burt Dragin, the former chair of the Laney Journalism Department, dedicated the issue to Steingart, who he described as “the soul of the Laney Art Department from 1966 until her death in December 1991. June’s talent and concern for her students are legendary.”
Dragin closed the Editor’s Note by saying “There seems to be a consensus at Laney to name the new art gallery-in-progress in the Tower building ‘The June Steingart Gallery’. Considering June’s contribution to this campus, it would be hard to find a better tribute.”
Armed with this information, The Citizen was able to locate Steingart’s obituary in the December 12, 1991 issue of the Oakland Tribune. The obituary, listed under her married name of June Steingart Chamberlain, revealed she was married to physicist Owen Chamberlain, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1959 and a member of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb in 1945. He was also an instructor at UC Berkeley for many years.
According to the NobelPrize.org site, Chamberlain worked under Professor Emilio Segre at The Manhattan Project, investigating “nuclear cross sections for intermediate-energy neutrons.” Bringing things full circle, Good News featured a sketch of Segre drawn by Steingart in its Spring 1992 issue.
Steingart was a New York native, according to her obituary, and moved to California with her husband in 1964. She began teaching art at Laney in 1966 and was recognized as Laney College Teacher of the Year in 1989.
The obituary noted that Steingart passed away on December 10, 1991 at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland at age 71. The reported cause of her death was cancer.
Carol Joy, a fellow Laney art instructor, spoke at Steingart’s memorial service, which was held at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club on January 20, 1991. She recognized Stenigart’s “conviction of the importance of public art as a means of communication” and applauded her efforts to “help individual students of different ethnic backgrounds to paint the wall panels on the ground floor of the Tower building.”
Her son from a previous marriage, David Arathorn, was listed as a survivor in the obituary.
The Citizen was able to make contact with Arathorn, who is currently an assistant research professor at Montana State University in the Electrical & Computer Engineering department.
He provided us with a photo of his mother, noting “she was younger in this than when teaching at Laney, but I’m sure she’d prefer it.”
When asked about any recollections, Arathorn said “she was a good mother, exceptionally smart as well as talented. A mother is probably the hardest person to put into words.”
Arathorn also noted that Patricia Polacco, successful children’s writer and illustrator, was a student of Steingart at Laney in the 1980s.
The missing piece of the puzzle remains Steingart’s artwork. According to her obituary, “she exhibited her work regularly as a member of the San Francisco Women Artists and the East Bay Watercolor Society” (now called the California Watercolor Association). Arathorn was able to provide The Citizen with two sketches his mother drew, one of a trumpeter and the other of a cathedral. He also said Steingart’s sketch of Segre was “a study for a painted portrait commissioned by Rosa Segre, Emilio’s wife.”
If more of her work is discovered, perhaps the June Steingart gallery may someday feature an exhibit of the art of its namesake.