Costa Mesa Visual Arts Scene Starting to Make Waves

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Costa Mesa’s “City of the Arts” mural by Joshua Madrid in the parking lot of the the Costa Mesa Skate Park on Arlington.

Skeith De Wine toils away in his crowded Costa Mesa studio, working on detailed drawings, paintings, architectural concepts, new technologies inspired by nature and a TED Talk he’s apparently got in the works.

A former mainstay of the downtown Santa Ana art scene, De Wine has found a new space at the end of West 17th Street, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. He’s become part of a new creative movement in Costa Mesa, one that rivals whatever’s going on in Santa Ana or Laguna Beach — or anywhere else in Southern California, for that matter.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Skeith De Wine in his studio.

“I’m out here on the West Side of Costa Mesa, and what’s happening here is super exciting,” said De Wine, who calls his studio the California Leonardo da Vinci Institute of Discovery. “I’ve got a vision of how this should go down. I recently picked up my real estate license so I can bend (this scene) a little more and get more artists in studios.”

De Wine is one of more than a dozen artists and creative professionals working at 1001 W. 17th St., a blue-and-white series of studios that’s sometimes referred to as the “Oceanview Complex.”

A few doors down, there’s Costa Mesa Ceramics Studio, founded by ceramist Lauren Pedersen. Throughout the day, professional and hobbyist potters, as well as children, drop in and spend hours spinning clay at the wheels or participating in a workshop or class. Selected works are for sale near the entrance of the studio.

In Unit C, cartoonist and fashion designer Paul Frank and his associates are setting up a low-key studio space. In Unit A, 31Bits sells baskets, textiles, necklaces, bracelets and other accessories made by artisans in Uganda and Indonesia. 31Bits operates under the principles of fair trade, handmade articles and safe working conditions.

Also in the Oceanview Complex are Narwhal Salon, founded and run by former Sugar Ray bassist Murphy Karges; San Soleil, which produces sun-protective sports apparel; West of 5 Studios, a graphic and website design outfit that also produces displays for an array of companies; and 17th Street Recording Studio, a music recording joint.

“Word of mouth is getting out. We’re a powerhouse,” De Wine said. “I don’t think anyone’s seen anything like this.”

Ubiquity Records, a 29-year-old record company that specializes in California soul, funk, jazz, electronica and hip hop, sits across the street from the Oceanview Complex. Ubiquity is considered by many to be a leader in its eclectic mix of genres.

Overshadowed By Giants

Costa Mesa adopted the slogan “City of the Arts” in 1984, and incorporated the moniker in its official seal in 1999. However, the visual arts have generally been overshadowed by the performing arts, as well as shopping centers and global action sports companies.

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, with its 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall, 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, and 500-seat Samueli Theater, has dominated the cultural landscape since it opened as the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 1986.

Next door to Segerstrom Center is South Coast Repertory, a 55-year-old, Tony Award-winning theater company of national renown. There’s also the Costa Mesa Playhouse on Hamilton Street and the massive OC Fair & Event Center, which includes Pacific Amphitheatre.

A bevy of action sports companies have their headquarters in Costa Mesa, including Volcom, Vans, Hurley, RVCA and Rip Curl.

In addition, one of the biggest malls in the United States, South Coast Plaza, sits on the northern edge of Costa Mesa. A commercial art gallery chain, Martin Lawrence Galleries, is located in South Coast Plaza’s Crate and Barrel Wing. Liuli on level 2 features Chinese glass art.

Down Bristol Street are the funkier LAB, a.k.a. the Anti-Mall, and The Camp, both designed by visionary developer Shaheen Sadeghi. Strip malls with trendy retail stores and restaurants abound on 17th Street.

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An art installation of steel drums at The LAB Anti-Mall on Bristol.

Despite all the attention lavished on shopping, action sports and the performing arts, the visual art scene has been percolating in recent years, incubating and nurturing talent, much of it homegrown.

“We’re starting to get some steam, there’s no doubt about it,” said Frank Gutierrez, who owns and operates Mesa Art & Framing on 19th Street. He’s one of the Costa Mesa originals, running his frame shop and gallery since 1995. He organized a big Milford Zornes show in 2007, and is planning to bring back occasional art exhibitions.

“We’ve been busier now,” said Gutierrez, who also sits on the Costa Mesa Cultural Arts Committee. “It’s starting to move up. After the recession of 2008 (and especially since) 2016, we’re getting some steam.”

Jesse Fortune, who founded and runs Location 1980, agrees.

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Location 1980 hosts 11 studios and a gallery space.

“I definitely think we’re on the cusp,” said Fortune, a painter who describes his work as “contemporary impressionism, or abstract plein air.”

“It’s been 10 years of blood, sweat and tears, and it’s just now that we have an opportunity to blow up and take it to the next level.”

For and By Locals

Location 1980 consists of 11 studios and one large gallery space which can be used for exhibitions or as a classroom or workspace. The venue gets its name from its location: 1980 Placentia Ave. It used to be known as the World Gallery.

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An artist drawing a live model at a workshop at Location 1980.

Location 1980 hosts about six large art shows per year. In addition, artists conduct a drawing workshop with live models every Wednesday night from 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Current artists include Fortune, Rishi Linley, Lauren Kilb, Soheila Siedate, Amy Kells, Corey Clark, Joey Oliva, Jazmine Atienza, Lauren Fernandez, Leila Hashemi, Luke Hulen, Desiree B, Joyce Bell Freeman and Kevin Moran.

Notable former L1980 artists include Phil Roberts, Melody Owens, Trey Jolley, James Johnson (a.k.a. Mice of Millions), Spaz 12, Kate Ryan, Stephen Douglas Palmer and Alana Podrx.

“You can’t really tell the story about the art scene in Costa Mesa without mentioning Location 1980,” Fortune said. “Here, local talent connects with the local community. It’s a nice meeting point in Costa Mesa to appreciate the local talent.

“We’ve had a lot of artists having their first show ever, selling their first piece. And then we’ve showcased international talent from Korea and New Zealand. We make it really accessible for the public to come in.”

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Artists are setting up a new exhibition in the gallery space at Location 1980.

Even when the galleries are closed, visitors can still enjoy a concrete wall opposite Location 1980 that’s filled with street art and murals by artists such as Fear (a.k.a. Fearo or Fear One), Trixter, Boise, Tetris, Plek Kasl, Hummingbird and Shucks One.

A Driver’s Tour

If you’re just driving around Costa Mesa on a random day, you might notice murals at places such as the Costa Mesa Skate Park (titled “City of the Arts”) or The Camp, or utility boxes that have been painted in various colors and designs. About 30 boxes have been decorated as part of the city-sponsored Utility Box Beautification Project.

There’s an immense, colorful mural by famous street artist Shepard Fairey outside the Baker Block apartment complex at 125 E. Baker St. “Welcome Home” features flowers, a woman with eyes closed, a winged figure, some of Fairey’s signature symbols and the words “Welcome,” “Independence” and “City of the Arts.” Drivers can easily see it on the 55 Freeway.

The Lab has some cool installations of used CDs, tiles and steel drums, as well as a small gallery called the ARTery, which is made out of three steel shipping containers. The ARTery is open by appointment only, but it will be hosting weekly art shows starting in July, according to Belle Popoff, event manager at The LAB.

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The Lab has some cool installations of used CDs, tiles and steel drums, as well as a small gallery called the ARTery, which is made out of three steel shipping containers.

Hurley on Placentia Avenue has an art space that used to be known as H Space Gallery. The company, which was purchased by Nike in 2002, hosts art-related events on occasion.

RVCA’s headquarters on 16th Street has a large art exhibition space in its offices. Artists featured there — who have also been incorporated in RVCA’s designs — include Kelsey Brookes, Matt Gordon, Sage Vaughn and Kevin Ancell. On the exterior wall of RVCA, a large mural by El Mac and Retna depicts an Asian woman surrounded by a halo made of Sanskrit-looking script.

The Boathouse Collective on Pomona Avenue features live music on a regular basis and rotating art shows.

The Costa Mesa Cultural Arts Committee has established a Youth Art Gallery wall in the lobby of city hall. This gallery provides local youth, nonprofit organizations and Costa Mesa schools the opportunity to display their artwork every three months. Artwork is displayed on 4-by-4 feet canvas boards. The lobby is open to the public between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.

There’s also a display of artworks on the fifth floor of city hall, amid the offices. The city is collaborating with an independent, L.A.-based company to produce an art walk on June 15, although some artists and studio denizens on the West Side say they haven’t been notified about it yet.

Last but not least, there’s the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity on Hyland Avenue at the still relatively new South Coast Collection, also known as SOCO. The Jones Center offers workshops for kids and also features some of the legendary “Looney Tunes” cartoonist’s original artwork.

Despite all the recent activity, the art scene hasn’t always been rosy in Costa Mesa. Over the years, many galleries have come and gone.

Art Gallery International is no longer at 1500 Adams Ave. But there’s an “InspiRed Art Studio & Wine Bar” at that strip mall, offering art-making classes and special and private events paired with wine tastings. The Light Gallery on East 17th Street has been replaced by Buck’s Clock Shoppe. 4th Dimension Studio on Randolph Avenue is no longer there. Instead, it’s an empty space with a real estate agent’s “Available” sign in the window.

Making It Happen

The creation of art all comes down to the process, or the making of it. At Urban Workshop on Clinton Street, a makerspace, “the making” happens every day (except for Mondays).

Urban Workshop features a slew of incredible — and expensive — tools, such as laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC routers, welding equipment, auto lifts and computers. Seriously, who can afford $100,000 for one of these machines?

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Jerry Caldwell works on a project at the Urban Workshop in Costa Mesa.

The 28,000-square-foot facility includes workshop spaces, storage, an outdoor work area, a conference room and a computer room. Dozens of classes are offered for kids and adults.

A number of artists work at Urban Workshop, including woodworkers and sculptors who participate in the Sawdust Art Festival in Laguna Beach. Many sculptors here work with wood, metal, glass and foam.

“I’m one of the bigger (makerspaces) in the country,” said Steven Trindade, founder and CEO of Urban Workshop. He opened the business in 2014 in Irvine, then moved to Costa Mesa in April 2015.

“If you’re curious, you’ll put down your phone and you’ll go and do something,” Trindade said. “People here are curious about different ideas, or problems they can solve.”

Rocky Evans, a volunteer at Urban Workshop who also teaches a silk screening class, says a lot of creative stuff is happening at this makerspace.

“Some people are just messing around, some are doing work for their business,” said Evans, who also serves on the Costa Mesa Cultural Arts Committee. “I really enjoy (Urban Workshop) because people are willing to share and teach each other. I accidentally learn stuff all the time.”

The entryway of Urban Workshop features a bunch of creations made at the facility, including wood and metal sculptures, knick-knacks, paddles for beer brewing, topographical reliefs and a humongous black robot made of light foam.

For many, Urban Workshop is a perfect blend of practical, professional and creative energies, with an industrial tone underlying everything. There’s a definite DIY vibe coursing throughout the facility. In many ways, it represents Costa Mesa and the art scene that’s percolating to the surface.

“Costa Mesa has always had a bit of a creative undertone to it, and now the pockets are getting a little more formed,” Trindade said. “Little pockets of it are working their way and boiling up.”

Evans, former chair of the Cultural Arts Committee who sported a green beard until recently, concurs.

“I don’t know if there’s a renaissance happening, but there’s a lot more art stuff going on,” he said. “We’ve been known as the city of the arts, but people who have been living here for 30 years don’t know that. I think that’s changing now, and people are beginning to notice.”

Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at richiechang@gmail.com.