Mixed Media, Painting, Photography, Visual Art

not just another enclave | the Santa Fe Art Colony

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The Brewery is one of the largest art colonies in the world with several hundred residents, and the Santa Fe Art Colony is not striving for that superlative. It is comfortable with its own identity with around 50 residents. Both colonies are in downtown LA and both colonies open twice a year to the public for self-guided tours of the live-and-work spaces. I visited the SFAC on May 18 and sought answers to the question, “Why do you live here?”

I already have a general sense of why artists join colonies. Such a place allows creators to be around likeminded souls and to be shielded from traditional society. The 40-hour work week does not exist in this zone. Only possibilities do. And all colonies produce their own possibilities and culture, just as the European colonies of the New World did with varying degrees of oversight from across the Atlantic Ocean.

But I did not define the culture of the SFAC in one day. Learning about why some people call it home was more viable. And so on that Sunday, I put on my black tank-top and charcoal jeans, and I lugged my backpack around this urban oasis. I was soaking up solar radiation and bringing a film of sweat into every living space, and I learned from residents that the scale of this colony is its strength, offering both fellowship and an atmosphere for individual expression.

Photographer Roberto Gomez has lived at the colony for less than two years, and he said that where he lived before “everybody seemed to be on their own. It wasn’t like a community where you [could] go ahead and talk to people and express your interests with other folks. Here, it’s open for expressing how you feel and what you do.”

Deity, a musician and visual artist, is relatively new to the SFAC also. She said, “I had an option to live in Woodland Hills, but I really had a desire to stay with my own kind—artist people who understand me.”

While LA offers many creative communities, the Santa Fe Art Colony offers something unique, according to Trina Churchill. “It was really hard to find something that was affordable and that has some of the spirit that you need as an artist—that you enter your space and you feel inspired to do work. And so when I came to this place, I knew immediately from the moment I noticed the gates.”

“When you drive in, it’s like a different world,” said Churchill who was born in Copenhagen. “You know, you see all the plants, the pots. There are birds singing and you [say], ‘Did I really hear a bird in the midst of LA?’ But they’re there. Then I walked in and saw the windows, the light, the height, and I knew I had to get it [laughing].”

Deity had a similar impression: “It’s like being in a different world. You’re in a world surrounded by light and color, and it’s where you can actually place your dreams and imagination on paper. It’s where I belong.”

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Roberto Gomez

When Gomez was asked why he doesn’t live at The Brewery, he said, “I used to go there a lot because they had a lot of cool set designs and stuff like that. It’s definitely a different vibe. Everyone seemed to be in their own world. Personally to me, the criticism there is very different. They like to criticize what you do and how you’re not doing a good job—and I’m all for criticism—but it seems like they have their own kind of agenda there.”

No agenda was spoken of by the SFAC residents about their own home, which was built in 1906 and used as a mattress factory for nearly 40 years. Its identity as an art colony began in 1988. Artist Elena Phillips moved to the SFAC a year and a half later, and has since stayed, never feeling drawn to go elsewhere.

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Elena Phillips

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Asked how her neighbors are different than the ones in 1989, Phillips said, “The continuity of people living here as fine artists has remained the same. And that’s great. Faces may have changed but people are still artists and I like that.”

Phillips was not sure if people are drawn to the Santa Fe Art Colony for the same reasons now as back in 1989, but was sure that “artists are always looking for good spaces—light and space—I don’t think that really changes. I don’t think artists are looking for the amenities so much as good spaces that they can work in.”

Churchill elaborated on preserving tradition: “The owners and the managers have done a great job in selecting people that truly are artists, because I notice sometimes when I go to other spaces that it’s hit or miss. Some people are there to have an affordable place to live and enjoy the creative community, but they may not be artists themselves, or working artists—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but it creates a different dynamic for a space. So the Santa Fe Art Colony is truly professional artists doing their thing.”

Leaving the SFAC, I knew I could never live there because I was a writer of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and arts journalism. I wouldn’t qualify. My home was another kind of space with another kind of light, not in any colony, not in any oasis. I lived in between the walls of many worlds—all the places we forget about when we’re going to work, or lost in someone else’s arms, or paying bills. I lived there, and I colonized the mind and the heart one story at a time.

— Tommy Tung

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Trina Churchill’s space

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My friend, Karina Colón, is the model in the left photograph. Discovering this was happenstance.

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