Author: Emma Lodes
Nestled among the shops and cafes of Eagle Rock Boulevard lies a unique and colorful oasis of art and artisan crafts that caters to art lovers and window shoppers alike–Cactus Gallery and Gifts. Sandra Mastroianni, owner of Cactus Gallery, resigned as a school teacher to create this eclectic haven for the creative expression of Argentine artisans and local Los Angeles artists.
Cactus has a unique background. The idea for the store has its roots in the South American jungle, in a little town called Puerto Iguazu on the border of Argentina and Brazil. Mastroianni, an Argentinian by descent, resigned as a school teacher years ago and found artistic inspiration while traveling in Northern Argentina. She also met her ex-husband, Abraham Szmukler, in his artisan shop in little Puerto Iguazu.
“The art he sold there made me appreciate all things handmade.” Mastroionni said. “In Argentina, nothing is trash, everything becomes something else. Everything continues to have a life after you think you’re done with it.”
Eager to help Argentinian artisans sell their art in the states without a middle man, Mastroianni and Szmukler decided to open a gift shop and gallery in the States. The pair launched Cactus Gallery and Gifts in March of 2005, with their first show just three months later.
“In Argentina, the artisans depend on tourists. It’s tough sometimes, and then they call me. Most were afraid to ship their work out at first, because everything is so unstable in Argentina. It took about two years to convince them. There are more and more artisans shipping out here now,” Mastroianni said.
Since many of Cactus’s featured artisans have no means to send their work electronically, Mastroianni would travel down to Argentina to select pieces in person. Now, she runs Cactus herself, playing virtually every role in her business. She has incorporated more local L.A. art into her shows, and has created a nurturing and welcoming environment for local artists. Cactus has had a show every month for seven and a half years, with a grand total of 90 shows under its belt. The current show is called “9×9,” referring to the nine artists participating in the show, each with nine pieces on display. The show lasts until October 8.
Lena Sayadian, an artist featured in the 9×9 show, has been exhibiting at Cactus for two years. She says that exhibiting in the gallery has played a big role in bringing her into the art scene. “The gallery is very open to newcomers, and it makes original artworks affordable for the general public,” Sayadian said. “Some galleries can come off as being conservative or uptight, but Cactus does not fall into this at all. The gallery is very people-friendly and welcoming, with a light atmosphere. It does not intimidate like many other galleries tend to.”
Today, Cactus is a part of the North East Los Angeles Arts Organization, inc. (NELA). The gallery participates in a bi-weekly art walk every second Saturday. Over 40 galleries participated in the most recent art walk. Nicole Bruckman is another artist exhibited in the 9×9 show, and a NELA enthusiast. “As an artist in Highland Park, I like to show at a local gallery and participate in NELA’s month art walk?. Not only is it convenient, but it promotes a sense of community,” Bruckman said.
Cactus’ fitting catchphrase– ‘Art for the People’– embodies the idea that everybody should be able to own art. As an artist, Sayadian can see those democratic values in Mastroionni’s approach to art. “It is not about the money with Sandra. Of course, everyone would like to make sales, but it is about spreading the love of art, and I truly believe she does this,” Sayadian said.
Mastroianni said she will not likely return to teaching. “This has fulfilled me in a different way. You’re still nurturing in a way,” she said. Instead of nurturing kids, Mastroionni has transitioned to nurturing the growth and success of artists. In some cases she has guided them from not selling at all to selling pieces for thousands of dollars.
Cactus Gallery is open on Tuesday through Saturday, from 11:00 to 6:00. All Occidental students get 10 percent off. Whether a visitor wants buy something or just look around, they’ll find imaginative inspiration on every wall and leave with a new appreciation for local art and for the beauty of South American artisan works.
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