Art Draws Attention to San Pedro

"Pinnacle Hendrix" by John Van Hamersveld. © 2014 John Van Hamersveld/Coolhous Studio

By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Writer

In the past few years several successful artists have moved from the crowded and costly habitat of Santa Monica and Venice to the port town of San Pedro.

Their motivations vary slightly. Some Santa Monica and Venice Beach artists fled metropolitan congestion. while others were fleeing oppressive studio rental prices. But most commonly, their move to San Pedro was just a fresh start in a creative environment.

Much of the impetus has been the chaos thrust upon the arts community by the arrival of the Metropolitan Transit Line to the Bergamont Station arts complex. Traffic congestion and noise from the construction has impacted the quality of life for many artists trying to live creative lives in the area.

To compound the crisis, rents in and around the site recently increased by 200 to 300 percent. Hungry developers and city managers have identified the potential for additional retail space at the location. The well-known Track 16 Gallery at Bergamont Station was one of the first – after 18 years in operation – to receive an eviction notice. The gallery was located immediately in the path of the new train station. Now relocated to Culver City, the gallery has a reputation for hosting contemporary exhibitions with a punk vibe.

Track 16 curator Laurie Steelink was living in Mar Vista while working in Santa Monica. She seized the opportunity to re-assess her life. Her mind recalled past visits to San Pedro. Various friends connected her to a studio on Pacific Avenue, which she calls ‘Cornelius Projects’.

“One of the reasons that I call it Cornelius Projects is because I want people to know that I am going to have exhibitions when the time is right,” Steelink said. “I want to do it when the subject and material that I have gathered is right.”

She launched her ‘project’ with This is Not An Art Show: Stencils, Zines and Flyers by Craig Ibarra. That show was followed up with The Mind of Joe Baiza. Cornelius Projects, located across the street from Harold’s Bar, seems to have plugged right into the punk history of San Pedro. Moreover, because of her Westside connections, Steelink has been able to pull art and music lovers down the 405 into the Harbor Area. Her exhibits have been reviewed by L.A. Weekly and KCRW. Punk rocker Henry Rollins showed up for The Mind of Joe Baiza.

Steelink has an all women’s show, Habit Forming, coming in August. The exhibition will feature all local San Pedro women artists. A date for the opening has not yet been announced.

Recently, the arrival of John Van Hamersveld, and his wife and business partner Alida Post, to the former Williams Bookstore location on 6th Street has created a flurry of excitement for downtown San Pedro.

Hamersveld has had a legendary career as a graphic artist. His autobiography Drawing Attention, records the amazing journey. It is impossible to overstate his impact on popular culture. His very first success, while still attending school at the Art Center in Los Angeles was the iconic DayGlo poster image from the Endless Summer surf film in 1963. At the same time he helped to create an incredible visual impact for Surfer Magazine, a publication that helped to distract millions of young teenagers of the day. As a teenager, my own bedroom walls were covered with these images.

It was an incredible beginning to a 50-year career that led to images familiar to millions around the world.

He naturally migrated to the music industry. In 1972 Van Hamersveld created the album cover for the Rolling Stones masterpiece, Exile on Mainstreet. The album, covered with an assortment of circus freaks perfectly represented the Stones notorious reputation at the time. He continued to create cover art for Cream, Bob Dylan and many more.

Infamous street artist Shepard Fairy cites Van Hamersveld’s Jimi Hendrix poster ‘Pinnacle Hendrix’ as a “perfect image, impossible to improve upon.” Fairey has said Hamersveld’s posterized black and white style informs much of the street art of today.

Van Hamersveld and Post moved their studio to San Pedro after reaching a point of total frustration with life in Santa Monica.

“It just became a nightmare,” Post said. “We were so trapped. I called it the Donner Pass, trying to get past the 405. It was a quality of life issue. I was looking for a place to live in a city that I didn’t want to live in.”

In the middle of their search for a way out of Santa Monica they came to San Pedro to look at the Bank Loft building. Although they found the lofts attractive, the apartments were too small for a studio. However they noticed the abundance of available rentals on 6th and 7th Streets.

Eventually, they found a classic mid-century house above Western Avenue. After buying the home, they discovered the newly vacated Williams Bookstore location on 6th St. They realized that they could use the location as a work studio for Van Hamersveld and Post could open her project, Post-Future, a store for art, books and education. Post is especially interested in connecting with the elementary and high schools in town.
The plus for them was the historical connection to the bookstore.

“I decided I have got to grab this so nobody can destroy it,” said Post, an avid reader and admirer of Charles Bukowski. “We came from a place that wasn’t what it was anymore. Then we came here and everything about it reminds us of what we loved about growing up in Los Angeles.”

Post was raised in Los Angeles and Van Hamersveld grew up in Lunada Bay. During his early years he surfed the local waters, which explains his early influence in surf culture.

Artist Ellwood Risk had been living and working on the Westside for 20 years when economics triggered his search for a new location.

Risk’s abstract works are based in his industrial background as a drywall hanger and house painter. Today, he is represented by galleries in Los Angeles, New York and London. Connections to television and movies have also provided him with a collector base.

“What facilitated my move was my landlord sold my space,” said Risk. “I had to start looking for a new space. I looked at mid-city and Jefferson corridor. It was just not doable because of the amount of space I needed for my work.”

Searching through Craigslist, he found a 4,500 sq. foot industrial space on Harbor Blvd. He hit it off with Landlord Yvetta Williams, who formerly owned the Shell Store. He walked away the same day with the keys to a massive space with a view of the ships in the Harbor, the Vincent Thomas Bridge and the Gateway Fountains.

“For me the big difference I noted immediately was the lack of traffic,” Risk said. “I have great views of the bridge and the ships coming and going.”

All of the artists interviewed for this story said that they were only vaguely aware of the deeply rooted arts community in San Pedro.

“I wasn’t really aware of all the history of it,” Risk said . “I heard over the years that people had moved down here, but I wasn’t really aware. Like everybody else on the Westside, it is such a bubble. All the years I lived there, I rarely went east of Lincoln. Now all my artist friends in Venice are starting to talk about San Pedro. San Pedro and Oxnard seem to be the areas that artist’s (from the Westside) are looking at.”

Artists have been migrating south to San Pedro for decades. Many well established and world renowned artists arrived years ago. Early attempts to establish an arts colony date back to the mid-1950s and even a movement in the 1970s.

Each influx has enriched the area . Many of these artists have discovered an ideal environment, with beautiful landscapes, moderate prices and an already existing art community to support their work.

One exciting benefit for San Pedro is a 20-foot tall mural installation that will be coming soon to 6th Street. Famed artist Van Hamersveld is creating his very first mural project to be placed downtown. The arrival of this work will bring an announcement that artists in San Pedro are living, working and creating world-class art. But we already knew that, didn’t we?
Image: Pinnacle Hendrix by John Van Hamersveld © 2014 John Van Hamersveld/Coolhous Studio


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