By Damon Orion
When artists of different mediums, genres and disciplines start exchanging ideas, incredible things can happen. A couple of noteworthy examples of this are Salvador Dali’s collaborations with Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock, which resulted in the stunning short film Destino and the dream sequences from the movie Spellbound, respectively. No less fruitful was the partnership of Andy Warhol and the New York rock band The Velvet Underground, which gave rise to one of the most iconic album cover images of all time.
Firehouse Art Collective Ocean Pacific House, a local art studio whose doors will open later this month, will be a breeding ground for artistic alliances like these. Located at 1543 Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz (fittingly enough, the former site of The Velvet Underground Clothing Co.), this new establishment will be both a gallery and a space where artists of all stripes can work alongside each other in an atmosphere of collaboration and creative cross-pollination. Members of the collective will have 24-hour access to studio space where they can hone their various crafts as they please.
The new studio is an extension of Firehouse Art Co., an East Bay-based nonprofit organization that offers workspaces, living spaces, galleries and storefronts where artists can create, display and sell their work. The collective’s director, Tom Franco, launched the first Firehouse studio in South Berkeley with some friends and artistic collaborators in 2004. Since then, the organization has expanded to five facilities in Berkeley and one in North Oakland. Between its studios, living spaces and retail spaces, Firehouse has about 100 monthly renters, not including people who occasionally rent the spaces for special events.
Franco, whose primary artistic mediums are sculpture and painting, grew up in an artistic household: both of his parents majored in painting at Stanford University, and as a teenager, he took art classes at night with his brother James, who is now a well-known film actor.
The idea for the Pacific Avenue Firehouse studio came into being earlier this year, when Franco, who graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz in 2002 with a B.A. in fine art, taught a class at UCSC for the school’s 50th anniversary. At that time, he invited students to participate in a show at the Sesnon Gallery. “We did a curatorial practice class where we did murals in the gallery and outside the gallery, and then we hosted a bunch of live acts like musicians and movie screenings, kind of to mimic what we do at the Firehouse Art Collective in the East Bay,” he explains. “That brought me back in a big way.”
The 35-year-old Firehouse director recalls, “It was almost a joke, but [I found myself saying,] ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if the students got excited and wanted to start their own space downtown? If we’re mimicking what the Firehouse Art Collective is, that’s the ultimate goal: to create space and to co-create community and culture in an artistic setting.’ The students took it seriously, and they were like, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Two especially motivated students, Julianna Chavez and Georgia Mowry, helped put the idea into action. After scouting out a few potential sites, they settled on the Pacific Avenue location. “We couldn’t pick a better spot,” Franco enthuses. “The community is also very perfect, because it’s full of artists wanting to make their work and wanting to exhibit.”
Firehouse is currently booking spaces in its new Santa Cruz location. Local artists interested in being a part of the collective can contact Franco at (510) 219-8688, via the organization’s website, FirehouseArt.co, or here on LocalSantaCruz.com (Firehouse Collective).
“First and foremost, we want the artists to make their stuff,” Franco states. “That’s success for us. And then from there, as a group, the networking propels art shows, art sales, art exposure. None of these are requirements to join, but that’s the momentum involved with the Firehouse Collective.”
Members of the cooperative will have opportunities to teach classes and workshops, as well as to sell their work at Firehouse. Since all artists are responsible for their own business transactions, there is no tracking or commission due on sales.
Franco enjoys seeing artists collaborating and creating mixed-media, multi-genre projects and events. “And it doesn’t have to just be at our space; it could be at anybody’s space,” he says. “We can work with people who don’t rent directly from us and just broaden the network. And since we are so strong in the East Bay right now, we can have a back-and-forth with artists from different cities as well.”
The Pacific Avenue studio will also be the site of various events and shows that promote community engagement and collaboration. Among other things, these will include rotating visual art shows and First Friday Art Walk events featuring performances by local musicians.
Franco says his involvement with Firehouse has impacted his own art and creativity in a positive way. “I want my own art to mimic the times when I have been the most excited about learning, and that’s working more in a mentorship system, working directly with a teacher or peer,” he offers. “The collaborative art-making has been just that for me: direct contact with other artists.”