At 7 pm on a Monday evening, the 20-foot ceilings in World Beat Cultural Center provide a feeling of spaciousness even though nearly all of the 100 or so chairs arranged in rows in front of the stage are full, as are the couches and benches scattered throughout the 12,000-square foot renovated water tower in Balboa Park.
In the moments before the show begins, the crowd fills the space with the sounds of conversation and greetings, while the stage sits empty save for seven chairs, seven microphones, and seven music stands. Soon after 7:00, the houselights dim, the crowd hushes, and six actors file in silently and take their places in the chairs on stage. A woman in a striped dress stands in front of the seventh chair, which is slightly set off from others, takes up the microphone and introduces herself as Gina M. Jackson, founder of Cultural Noire Performing Arts Company and artist-in-residence at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation.
Jackson explains that tonight’s staged reading of Flyin’ West, by Pearl Cleage, is part of the One Play One Day event, an annual series started by New York non-profit Project1Voice in 2009. On the third Monday in June, theaters across the country and the globe present staged readings of the same play by a black playwright. This is the fourth year that Jackson’s company has participated in the event.
After the introduction, a short film about Nicodemus, Kansas begins to play on an overhead screen. The actors on stage turn around in their seats to watch it. When it ends, three of the actors stand, place their scripts on their music stands, and take turns reading from the play’s introduction, which gives an overview of the Homestead Act and the Great Exodus of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era wherein thousands of “exodusters” migrated from the South to Kansas.
For the two hours or so following the introduction, the actors read through the script. The play centers around the relationships of four black frontier women and the all-black Kansas town where they own land.
Beside me, my friend Camille takes notes in a pink notebook. Camille is particularly fond of the World Beat Center. She was here yesterday for an African dance class that turned out to be free (it didn’t used to be), but she says she hadn’t known about tonight’s reading until I invited her to come with me.
Residents Free Tuesday in Balboa Park is an obvious choice when it comes to seeking out no-cost art. It turns out that on this third Tuesday in the month of June, the San Diego Art Museum is among the five museums offering free entrance to residents. I opt instead to check out an exhibit at the Japanese Friendship Garden. The exhibit is titled 50Artists50Fish, and it’s in the Inamori Pavilion, which is deep in the garden and accessible to the general public only by taking the path down the hill, so I give myself plenty of time to enjoy both the garden and the art.
Today, the entrance to the Japanese Friendship Garden is divided into two lines, one for residents and one for non-residents. I show my I.D. to a man in a red shirt and pass the line of paying visitors. The moment I cross beneath the Japanese torii gate, the scent of jasmine meets me, and I prepare to Zen out on the garden’s asymmetry and balance. But Free Tuesday in the high season and Zen are mutually exclusive. At 1:00 pm on a summer day, the narrow path is crowded the whole way down the hill. It’s a crush of slow walkers, picture takers, and energetic children with their voices at full-volume. And when I get to the bottom, I discover that not only is the Inamori Pavilion closed for an event, and even if it weren’t, this particular exhibit will always be closed during Free Tuesday. So much for that. Fortunately, Mottainai: Waste Not is on display in the Exhibit Hall near the garden’s entrance. So that’s where I head next. At first glance, the art by Cat Chiu Phillips looks like large macramé hangings, randomly sprinkled with film reels, cassette tapes, floppy discs, and other found items. A closer look reveals that the hangings have been created with the film and the tape.
In 2015, Philips told the Ramona Journal, “As consumers, our attention span is really fast. When you first look at the piece, you miss the details. But that’s where the beauty is.”
I meet San Diego resident Connie Schwartz standing in front of a piece created from the innards of cassette tapes. The 71-year-old estimates that she has taken advantage of approximately 48 Free Tuesdays per year for the past two years since her husband became a docent at the Railroad Museum. I ask if the crowds bother her, she says, “No. I love it. I love to see all the people here. Sometimes we come when it isn’t a Tuesday, and it’s not as well attended. Summer is different because of the tourists. But I like seeing all these people.”
Sarah Stieber stands in the alley with a cup of coffee in her hands. She guides me into the small parking lot at the back of Art on 30th, an art center in North Park. The south-facing wall of the building features a 16-foot mural Stieber created in 2017. The day after painting it, she suspended colorful ribbons from the mural and got together with friends for a photo shoot in front of it. The photos would become reference materials for paintings in her Rainbow Ribbon Magic series.
Stieber leads me through a black door, up a set of stairs down hall lined with art and doors leading into artist studios, and into her own 300-square-foot studio space. The window on the entrance door has been collaged over (by Steiber’s mother) with press clippings and images of Sarah’s art from a number of local outlets. Inside, all the walls and a few easels are hung with brightly colored paintings done in Stieber’s “electric realism” style. In the center of the tidy studio stands a table and two chairs, one of which is a vintage Franciscan armchair that Stieber calls, “the throne.”
I follow Steiber on Instagram. I contacted her yesterday to see if she had time for a studio visit. She agreed and later explained she used to have a studio at the Spanish Village in Balboa Park, where interacting with the public was expected. “It sort of correlated with being able to afford rent but also being in a place in my career where I could shift my interactions with people to more pointed and intentional shows and other events,” she says. “So in this studio, I have a door I can close and I can be as productive as I need to be. But we also have open studios every month where we invite the public into the studio. And outside of that, if somebody does ask if they can come by to take a look at a painting, I’m happy to do that”
She emphasizes that when she’s in her studio, she’s at work, just like anyone else who works from an office. In fact, her work is not just a job, but a business. Her overhead includes studio rental, paint, canvases, and a range of other expenses related to events and marketing. She won’t say how much she spends on this particular studio, but here they run from $300-$1000 per month. Paint is not a huge expense at about $200 for a few months’ worth, and she spends $25-$90 per canvas, depending on size. And then of course, there’s the hours spent painting.
“So many hours,” she says. She points to a 30”x40” painting of a woman with superpower hands and says, “This painting probably took me two weeks, and I’m painting six hours a day for every day of those two weeks.”
If it takes 84 hours to paint a $3200 painting, that comes to about $38 an hour. But that hourly rate goes down considerably when you factor in other parts of the creative process, including coming up with the ideas, and in Stieber’s case, arranging for the photo shoots that will serve as reference for the paintings.
For the past two months, she estimates an average of eight hours of painting (she’s painted 10 new pieces since January 2018) and four hours of public relations, marketing, and sponsor relations, seven days a week, as she prepares to take over the 1200-square-foot Mee Shim Fine Art Gallery in Little Italy for the summer. Even during a normal week, when she’s not getting ready for a big event, she paints six hours a day, and does administrative tasks for two.
Although I do not have $3200 to purchase the original painting I really want (Akasha, featuring a coolchick superhero who spews rainbows from her hands), before I leave, I buy a print of the woman with superpower hands, which is entitled Females are Strong As Hell for $108, and a copy of Stieber’s art book, Magic is Something You Make for $35.
Note: I am on the hunt for free art experiences, not free art.
Car trouble has me stuck in my own neighborhood. A quick Google search for “art in Eastlake” yields only “dental arts,” martial arts, and a couple of kids art classes. “Art galleries in Eastlake, Chula Vista,” leads me to a Yelp list of the Best 10 Art Galleries in Chula Vista. Four are in the Gaslamp, two are in Barrio Logan, one is downtown, another in Coronado. Only two are Chula Vista, and one of them is a framing company, not an art gallery. The other one is a vintage clothing store that offers boudoir photography, and it’s on 3rd Avenue, 20 minutes away by car. Not walkable. But I add it to my list of potential free art sites for when I have my car back, and then spend the rest of the day envisioning myself starting a mural project to zazz up Eastlake’s billion miles of terracotta and stucco. My husband laughs at me.
The Athenaeum Music and Arts Library on Wall Street in La Jolla hosts free walking tours of the Murals of La Jolla on the last Wednesday of every month. Today is third Friday, so I’m on my own. I park on Ivanhoe, and on my walk over to the Athenaeum, I catch a glimpse of Kelsey Brookes’ One Pointed Attention, which overlooks the parking lot at Pacific Western bank. The 21’x 41’ pastel-colored psychedelic mural went up in 2014 and is a popular photo backdrop for visitors with camera phones and Instagram accounts. I head southwest on Wall Street, past Sushi Nekosan and Coffee Cup, cross Herschel, and make my way to the Athenaeum, where I pick up a map of the 15 murals on view.
Before I head out on my self-guided tour, I spend a few minutes chatting with Angela Lynch, the membership manager/library assistant who sits at an ornate wooden desk facing the library entrance. She explains that they cap the free monthly tours at 40, and attendance is rarely under 20. Because I’m mildly demophobic, I’m glad I’ve arrived on the third Friday and not the last Wednesday.
But, of course, I’m missing out on more than being jostled by 39 other people. I’m also missing out on behind-the-scenes information provided by Lynda Forsha, the project curator and tour-guide.
“Along the way to the first one, which is just around the corner, Lynda will talk a little bit about what the process is and how they decide,” Lynch says. “And then at each individual mural she’ll talk about the actual piece, the artist”
Each 90-minute tour features more than half of the 15 murals, and the route changes occasionally to accommodate new ones.
Lynch says Marcos Ramirez ERRE’s Is All That it Proves is one of her favorites, so I circle that one on my map. She also explains that John Baldessari’s Brain/Cloud (with Seascape and Palm Tree) is best viewed from George’s at the Cove. Because I’m hungry, that’s where I head next.
Over beer, burrata, and overpriced mediocre fish tacos, I contemplate the 40-foot by 36-foot mural featuring a white brain-shaped cloud hovering over a skinny-trunk king palm on a blue-on-blue expanse of ocean and sky. In the cove down below, snorkelers and sea lions play in the water.
From George’s, I head back down Prospect, pausing briefly in front of Raul Guerrro’s Raymond Chandler at the Whaling Bar, which went up on 1162 Prospect Street in April of this year. Then south on Herschel past Kota Ezawa’s Once Upon a Time in the West hanging on the Citibank Building, past the overly festive live music at Herringbone, and right on Kline to Girard where I have to double back because from the corner of my eye, I’d dismissed Tear Stains Be Gone as an advertisement. On second glance, I’m fairly certain that Jean Lowe’s mural is a spoof; it reads, “Being human is hard, but it doesn’t have to LOOK that way!”
For another 45 minutes or so, I continue mural hopping, enjoying my own company as well as the challenge of getting around without Siri. Reading the map is part of the fun.
One of the things I love about the art gallery on the 9th floor of the Central Library on Park Boulevard downtown is that it’s usually empty or close to empty when I go. This afternoon is the same. Just as I arrive, a woman leaves, and besides the woman at the desk who logs my entrance as a tally mark in a notebook, I have the whole 3010-square-foot gallery to myself. Outside on the terrace, the wind sings through the building’s steel mesh dome, adding an eerie melody to the gentle ventilation hum and the sound of my footsteps on the glossy wood floor.
The current exhibition, which opened on May 26 and runs through September 16 features eight local artists exploring space art, as in outer space. It’s titled, A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes, and rather than starting with the first piece and following the art in a clockwise direction, I ask the woman at the desk if she’s had a chance to browse the art and if so, which is her favorite.
Her name is Janice Weston, and she has been a library aide here for about a year. She points me to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a multimedia installation piece by La Mesa artist, Jones Von Jonestein.
An old desktop computer sits on a wooden desk that’s set against a wall covered in documents describing UFO sightings, photographs of lights in the sky, and handwritten post-it notes that say things like, “Ghost rockets over planetary disk. Aerial psychic bombardment!” and “Too many lies! Lies! Lies!!!” Some of the documents and photos are linked by lengths of orange string. The desk is strewn with more papers, coffee cups, books, post-its, markers, an ET toy, and a skein of orange string. To the right of the desk stands a telescope facing an open window and a full moon.
“I came in and I saw that, and I was like, ‘What happened here?’” Weston says, laughing. “And the art director explained to me that it’s supposed to depict the desk of a person who believes in UFOs and thinks that the government knows about the UFOs and is hiding it from society.”
Other works include archival prints of handcut collage by Andrew McGranahan, imagined beings in mixed media by Cheryl Sorg, and “space junk” sculptures by Melissa Walter.
Laura Kyle, gallery assistant for this library and other local branches, tells me by email that Adam Belt’s Down the Rabit Hole (CMS Detector), which “uses mirrors to create an infinite reflection, drawing viewers in to consider alternate dimensions,” is an audience favorite.
Kyle also explains that the Central Gallery’s goal is to support mid-career and older professional artists in achieving wider recognition, while the free exhibitions at branch libraries feature the work of part-time and hobby artists. Twelve of the 36 public library branches hold regular free art exhibitions.
Weston tells me she sees between four and ten visitors during the hour of her desk duty here at the Central Gallery, depending on the day of the week. Overall, Kyle explains, each exhibit sees an average of 8500 visitors, and attendance fluctuates depending on what’s happening downtown and at the Convention Center. Baseball games and Comic-Con both increase traffic in the gallery.
I reserve a seat without feeling the need for any further research.
The Old Globe’s Hattox Hall isn’t easy to find, even after the woman at the box office window gives me directions. Fortunately, a woman posted outside the door recognizes me as lost, and asks if by any chance I’m looking for a play. She takes my ticket and ushers me up a carpeted staircase and into a 2000-square foot multipurpose room set with seven rows of 14 cushy conference-room chairs with an aisle up the middle. The wall behind the small stage and the adjacent wall of windows are covered with golden velvet floor-to-ceiling curtains. Approximately 75 percent of the chairs are filled with an audience of ranging from age six to 80. I’m here to see the play Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: From Slavery to Modiste. The Internet told me the Globe was offering two performances free to the public. All I know is that it’s about a woman who bought her own freedom after 30-plus years of slavery and went on to become a dressmaker in the Lincoln White House.
The small stage is set simply with a piano, a row of chairs, and a dress form. Around 12:45, a man comes out and sits at the piano, followed by eight actors in period costumes. They take their seats in the chairs. Andréa Agosto, the actress playing Elizabeth Hobbes Keckley, remains standing and begins telling her story. For most of the play, she narrates and the actors stand one or two at a time to act out brief moments with, around, or on her. At times, they remain frozen on stage while she speaks, and at other times they sit and sometimes discreetly change their clothes while others perform.
The lights in the room remain on. It’s a casual and accessible theater experience. Directed by Delicia Turner-Soddenberg, the former artistic director at MOXIE Theatre, the play was written by a retired San Diego psychiatrist, Claudia Thompson, a participant of the Globe’s Community Voices projet, a series of free workshops for adults ages 21 and up from underserved communities. Participants write plays and then get to see them performed by professional actors.
At the end of the reading, after the applause for the actors dies down, a Globe staffer stands up in front of the audience and gestures to the back of the room, where Thompson stands with her daughter. The applause rises again, and half the audience gets in line to congratulate the playwright.