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Artist Open Studios reveal creative undercurrent alive in Benicia

by Steve McKee on May 20, 2007

It was the orange-red door with all the visible brush strokes that got me.  It completely transformed a mundane door into something arresting and vivid.  This type of door (a standard issue four-panel “colonist” to those of you in the know) is so common in today’s built environment that it’s usually completely inert, a non-entity really, yet here it had been transformed into something remarkable simply with paint.  No big bucks needed, just enough talent to make the paint seem vibrant.  This colorful gesture was just part of the zeitgeist of the Arsenal, the abandoned industrial section of our town taken over by artists.

A couple weeks ago was the once-a-year open artist studios in Benicia, and I was making the rounds to check out some artwork.  That’s the weekend each year when the cover is removed and the creative id of Benicia made available for viewing.  Maps are handed out and one can seek out all these nooks and crannies and alleyways in town where people devote their human energies to creating this thing called art, or as Wikipedia calls it: “that which is made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind and/or spirit.”

The art was pretty cool – Melody and I dropped some money on a compelling plein-air oil painting – but more and more as I toured I began to take an interest in the studios themselves, the environments in which these creative types choose to pass their days, and sometimes nights.  It was especially interesting if the studio doubled as the artist’s home.

After the red door inspired me to observe the architectural decisions that these artists were making, I noticed how some of the studios had kitchens in them and the different attitudes each studio displayed.  Sometimes there was a curtained or walled-off section that hid a sleeping alcove (I peeked through a gap at one of them – sorry.)

By far the most hardcore loft-style environments were to be found in the Arsenal buildings (you know, that area where Military East becomes Polk Street and then ends amidst those great old heavy-duty feeling buildings.)  It was ground zero, if you will, for la vie boheme.  In surrounding buildings and environs the bohemian life could also be found in varying degrees.  Most of the credit for these unique spaces must go to the 19th century U.S. Army and the industrialists who created the oversized concrete buildings that make up that part of town.  After the buildings fell out of use, the artists came in and adopted and adapted them for their own use and added their fanciful touches: the twisty sculpted metal railing, the zig-zaggy wood palettes that serve as steps, the corrugated metal room divider with the flat black paint.

Go ahead and walk through an industrial space transformed into an artist’s realm, take in the sixteen-foot tall concrete walls with the industrial windows way up high, pass through a beat up steel door painted a color that takes multiple words to describe, and step over an abandoned train track embedded in pavement next to which grow wild flowers.  Do all that and you pretty much realize that this town of ours won’t be mistaken for Blackhawk any time soon. Thank heavens for that.  The world can make more Blackhawk country clubs; developers will always be seeing to that.  But making more places as real as Benicia takes a hundred years of time and a lot more.

Over the years I have had a couple of different artists as clients as well as a musician or two.  Right at the start they would acknowledge how they respect the creative process and that it was okay for it to take whatever form I needed it to.  To their credit, they would sometimes take a pencil and join right in on the tracing paper overlay I was using to explore a possible layout for their remodel.  Almost nobody else does that.  I liked it.  They just can’t help themselves, I suppose.

Architects work with constraints on every single project.  Never is there a completely blank canvas. Always there is a site, a set of needs to meet, a budget, a set of engineered limits to the shape, a context, etcetera, and these allow the mind a starting place and the comfort of always checking the work against some set of standards to meet.  Painters and sculptors don’t need to meet such limits.  That freedom, so appealing to some, can create a block in others.  Long live the difference!

Ever since I saw the movie “New York Stories” (in which the Martin Scorsese segment explores the life of fictional painter “Lionel Dobie” played by Nick Nolte in a huge loft studio complete with rock music and a lot of emotional tumult) I’ve been intrigued by the notion of such large and stark utilitarian environments given over to the creative process.

In the arsenal I came across a big concrete space filled with large colorful abstract sculptures that had a mezzanine level in which 2×4 studs and stapled-up clear visqueen seemed to imply a conversion in progress.  The resident sculptor explained she was converting it to live-work space.  I was glad to hear she was doing the design without aid of an architect.  Normally I would never be able to write such a sacrilege as the above sentence, but with minds at work like these full-time artists I was rooting for alternative points of view to find expression in an artist designed space.

If you missed the Open Studio weekend you can catch it again in, oh, just about another eleven and a half months.  All that cool artistic energy on display all at once, not to mention the funky digs.

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