Author: Lilliane Ballesteros
Venture off the Occidental College campus into Highland Park, and you will find an artists’ haven where charcoal drawings, light installations, musical performances and politics mesh together to create a community with art running through its side streets. Take Bus 83 or drive down Figueroa Street, and finding alternative art spaces becomes a treat for students looking for new ways to enjoy a Friday night.
Located at York and Figueroa is Outpost, an art resource center where people trying to connect with international artists become inspired. At Figueroa and Avenue 50, the alternative art space Avenue 50 offers frequent poetry readings and painting showcases. Right down the street from campus, students can visit Sea and Space Explorations, a location that displays “other worldly” art.
Highland Park mixes cultures, foods, people and perspectives, all of which can be seen in the art that is found in this richly diverse neighborhood. The area has long been recognized for its architectural beauty, and thanks to thousands of artists, experimental art spaces and musical events, it is also known for its keen sense of expression—its art.
“It’s an area that has kept its architectural and cultural integrity,” poet Steve Abee said after a poetry reading at Avenue 50 Studio. Abee is the author of King Planet, a collection of poems and short stories.
Many people became familiar with the Highland Park art scene as it is today through the monthly Northeast Los Angeles (NELA) Art Walk, which takes place every second Saturday of each month. NELAart started almost two years ago as a way for local galleries and artists to come together and show their work to the community. Local artists and gallery owners Brian Mallman and Clare Graham started the organization.
Dig further and an entirely new concept of art and art space begins to reveal itself right down the street from Occidental College. Places like the Space Ark Gallery offer a different perspective on the neighborhood. The gallery, both a live-in space and showroom, serves a part of the Los Angeles community seeking alternatives to the big name museums that the city is known for. “We mostly focus on new emerging artists,” gallery co-owner Brian Kadoya said.
Every full moon, the owners of the Space Ark Gallery in Highland Park switch off their electricity, light candles and gather with community members to share thoughts and music. The event, which began last summer, lasts until midnight. It complements the gallery’s events every new moon when an acoustic artist plays by candlelight. Together, these nights make up the gallery’s “Off-the-Grid” event, one of the many offered by the various galleries in Highland Park.
While the Space Ark Gallery is involved in every NELA event, the gallery also organizes its own shows and offers t-shirt screening workshops for community members. The gallery also holds occasional film screenings; Kadoya explained that most of these films are of a political nature.
This gallery is located in a building which is a semi historic landmark, he explained. The Sunbeam Theater, an old theater that used to show silent films, was built in 1914 and closed in 1925. For many years thereafter, the building was used by the Highland Park Herald News and in the 1980s was reopened as the Outback Theater. The space then served as a community center for more than 10 years. The Space Ark Gallery has been located in the building for almost five years, the first two of which it was known as the Space Loft.
Kadoya said that he believes Charlie Chaplin once had a studio there. Whether or not there is any truth to this, it’s not hard to believe the myths about the studios of Highland Park. The spaces are not the only thing of interest however. Kadoya is working on a music project and is part of what is called the “noise scene” in Los Angeles. “The noise scene is made of lots of people who do all kinds of traditional pop music and are sick and tired of the idea of practicing and rehearsing,” Kadoya said.
This is what happens when you dive into the world of art in the Northeast Los Angeles area. You find the pulse of a city. Try talking to one of the curators or artists of any art gallery in Highland Park and you will eventually find yourself talking about the movements and undercurrents of Los Angeles.
As I stood in the middle of a closing art show for artist and gallery owner Reyes Rodriguez, I found myself talking to Salvador. An art and poetry aficionado and previous Pachuco, Salvador explained how he used to wear a Zoot Suit as a way of defining his Mexican American culture. Today, Salvador says he is proud of the Chicano art that is currently promoted in places like Avenue 50 Studio.
Avenue 50 Studio is a non-profit art gallery that showcases artwork from and about Mexico and Central America. The gallery’s website speaks to this purpose and to the gallery’s community ties: “By including our community, our shows bring a new understanding of Highland Park’s cultural breadth and wide range of experiences.”
Rodriguez, whose closing art show “Appetite,” an exhibit that featured a series of charcoal drawings on paper and canvas, finds LA to be a thriving art scene. “LA is the place where you can break boundaries and explore,” he said. For many people, Highland Park is just that place. One can break existing creative boundaries and explore new art media and forms of expression. “There is a need for artists,” Rodriguez said.
In addition to being a painter, Rodriguez is also the founder and director of Tropico de Nopal Gallery-Art Space, which hosts four to six exhibitions per year and is located in Echo Park. “Art and galleries are the perfect experimental spaces where [boundaries can be broken],” he said.
Patricia Lazalde teaches art one-on-one and always finds the time to visit the local art shows. When talking about Rodriguez’s work, Lazalde said, “His work has so much strength. It is very inspiring.”
It is this idea of partnership between artist, audience, and gallery that Outpost for Contemporary Art is trying to encourage. As the organization’s website explains, “The mission of Outpost for Contemporary Art is to cultivate creative exploration, international cultural exchange, and a social setting conducive to lively discussion.”
Founding Director of Outpost Julie Deamer explained the history and vision of the local resource center. “Outpost started in 2004 and for the first few years there was no space at all,” she said. “It is a non-profit organization that relies on membership support and fundraising.”
Outpost is currently located across the street from Luther Burbank Middle School. It is the first time that the organization has a permanent location to work out of and, as Deamer explained, there are plans to begin converting the space into an art resource center and reading room for community members.
Deamer’s imagination began to pour forth ideas as she explained her plans for Outpost. “The resource center will have wireless work stations. We will start off fairly modest, start executing in a modest way,” she said. Deamer added that the center will have a wall dedicated to visiting artists’ work, art magazines for people to read and a private space in which visiting artists can live and work. “We will make the area more efficient in the next month or two,” she said.
Perhaps most exciting and innovative is the plan for a multipurpose room, where international artists will collaborate with community members through discussions, lecture series and workshops that aim to give both parties a chance to express their views on politics and art. “We want to build local communities. We want visitors to have a strong community to come into,” Deamer said.
In early November, Outpost will host two artists from the Ukraine. These artists will work and live at Outpost, and public programs will invite the local community to the space. Deamer reiterated the idea of Outpost as a resource center, and not just an art gallery. “We feel lik
e there are enough exhibition spaces,” she said, adding that Outpost focuses on building relationships between the community and international artists. “We try to be educational and useful to the community.”
Deamer was the owner of Four Walls, a gallery in San Francisco. She said that, although Four Walls had an “experimental flare,” it was still in a “fixed situation.” Deamer moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s and worked for another gallery until she found it to be “superficial.”
“[Earlier] there were not many alternative spaces, today there are many. Outpost was one of many [spaces] responding to a depleted cycle,” Deamer said.
Although it is an alternative art center, Outpost has worked with well known spaces, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). But Deamer explained that the organization tries to “promote creativity to large audiences by performing in public spaces where you have a broader audience.”
Deamer also referenced Outpost’s familiarity with Occidental, having worked with the College last year for a Fair Trade project that included speaker panels, a flea market and Luther Burbank Middle School students cutting adults’ hair.
“People ask why you are doing this. This is my favorite question,” Deamer said. “We are doing it because we enjoy the creative process and bringing people together. You do it because you enjoy it. It inspires [. . .] other people to give.”
Sea and Space Exploration Gallery owner Lara Bank is dedicated to giving artists a chance to show work that they would usually be hesitant to show in big venues. The gallery features artwork that is experimental and moves beyond typical concepts of space. As the gallery’s website states, “Sea and Space Explorations strives to create a hiccough beyond the binaries of good and bad, market constraints, and notions of progress, where artists who are genuinely engaged in the specificities of their own practice can come to take the risks that are entirely their own.”
Bank explained that the art that Sea and Space features is often considered “non-marketable.” However, she was insistent that artists be able to express themselves and create art whether or not they can sell it. The gallery is what Bank explained as “not profit and yet non-profit,” and she believes that artists should be able to charge for their work if they want to.
The gallery is constantly looking for volunteers and Bank said that she welcomes Oxy students to visit.
Whatever students are looking for in the field of art, they need not go too far to find a city thriving with all kinds of cultural, musical and artistic taste. Highland Park is teeming with ways to combine community and art. As Deamer put it, “The artists are reminding people that they [can] be creative.”
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