Up a flight of stairs, down a narrow alley or behind a closed door, sandwiched between Venice's funky stores or inside cold-looking warehouses sit the studios and homes of some of Los Angeles' leading artists.
Nearly hidden in deceptively nondescript settings, these workplaces in Venice and Santa Monica usually are closed to the public.
But on May 22, about 60 painters, sculptors and other artists will open their doors to visitors for the ninth annual Venice Art Walk.
The art walk, a walking tour of studios and galleries, is staged annually to benefit the Venice Family Clinic, a facility on Rose Avenue that offers free medical care to the poor and homeless.
In its first year, the art walk raised $35,000. Last year it netted $500,000, according to the clinic's executive director, Fern Seizer. Organizers expect more than 5,000 people to join the tour this year.
Supporters of the art walk say it combines Venice's long tradition of artistic creativity with public service while raising money for a worthwhile cause.
The clinic, which is about to undergo a $2-million expansion, has operated in Venice since 1970. Last year, 250 volunteer doctors handled almost 25,000 patient visits. Nearly 90% of the patients have incomes below the poverty level, and 25% are homeless, Seizer said.
"We are here for people who have no other access to medical care," she said.
The art walk starts at noon at Westminster School, 1010 W. Washington Blvd. Tickets, which are $35, can be ordered by calling (213) 392-8630. Participants are given maps and can walk or take special buses to the galleries and studios.
Guided docent tours, which begin at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and cost $75, also are available. Today is the last day to order tickets for the docent tours. There is no deadline for the regular tour.
The daylong event also includes an auction of 300 pieces of art and an ethnic food fair on Westminster's soccer field. A catered dinner in a hangar at Santa Monica Airport will be included for people who buy $200 tickets.
Robbie Conal is one of the artists on the tour.
Conal's familiar "guerrilla posters" have started popping up all over the Westside, pasted onto the sides of buildings and other public spots. One shows caricatures of fallen evangelist Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy, labeled "False" and "Profit"; another features President Reagan with the slogan "Contra-diction."
"I try to use a deadpan humor, a little irony, to give a surprise to people (who see the posters) on their way to work," said Conal, 42. "I've always been political. . . . The idea is to make art out of what is most meaningful to you."
Conal first paints the caricatures in oils on canvas, and the paintings are displayed in galleries. From the paintings, he makes the posters. Conal said he and friends have put up the posters in several cities, reaching a broader audience than he could in a gallery.
Laura Russell works and lives in a high-ceilinged studio, tucked away above a row of storefronts near the Venice boardwalk. She molds pieces of plywood into geometrically abstract sculptures of all sizes, then applies varied paints.
"I consider them paintings; they just happen to be three-dimensional," she said.
Russell, 39, hangs several of the pieces on the white walls of her studio, included in the art walk this year for the first time.
Susan Venable, using a background in textiles and pre-Columbian art, has adapted the ancient Peruvian technique of twining to twist copper wire through layers of steel grids. The result is what she calls "reductivist" sculpture, the use of a minimum of materials to convey her message.
"A lot of ancient culture feeds back into my (work), even if the look is very high-tech," said Venable, who chairs the Los Angeles Ethnic Arts Council. Her studio will be part of the docent tour.
By touring studios, art admirers can get a feel for how the artist achieves his or her effect, said Sheila Goldberg, chairwoman of the Venice Art Walk.
"People like to see the materials, the work in progress and the finished project," she said. "They see the artist in the very space where he's thinking about it, where the work is evolving."
The art walk has managed to survive the ups and downs of life in Venice, the sometimes spotty trend toward gentrification, the influx of the homeless, the backlash against the homeless, and the factious politics of the seaside community.
"For a long time, everyone was saying people were going to move out of Venice; I thought the art walk was going to collapse," Goldberg said. "But people stayed, or they came back. . . . The artist population is not diminishing; in fact, it's growing.
"The explosion of interest in art has played right into our hands. We are in the right time and place historically," she said. "The . . . public has taken on a great interest in art; we make art very accessible to people."