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Flights of Fancy : Vacant Hangars at the Airport Offer Artists Affordable Studios Where Creativity Can Take Wing

July 11, 1991|MACK POLHEMUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some of the most important centers of art, such as Montmartre in Paris and SoHo, were considered undesirable areas until artists looking for studio space discovered them.

What the public found offbeat and undesirable, artists found cheap and inspirational, a setting where conventions could be broken or ignored.

In those kinds of environments, Expressionism and abstract art were born.

About a year ago, artists' sixth sense for finding affordable work space began leading them to several long-abandoned hangars at the Santa Monica Airport. Now, parts of the airport are close to being an art mecca: About two dozen artists lease studios there, and 40 more are on a waiting list.

"When people think of airports, they think of avionics, traveling places and noise," said artist/designer Kenny Farrell, who leases a 4,000-square-foot hangar. "They think it's one of the least likely places to find art. But if you have a need, you seek out a place that is most conducive for fulfilling that need."

What Farrell needs is room enough to create large functional and nonfunctional furniture.

"I couldn't find a large studio space anywhere else. Here, I found a big affordable space that's centrally located," Farrell said.

"It doesn't hurt that the airport is situated on a little mesa, with great sunsets, historic airplanes and a breeze."

Although the rent is cheap compared to the rest of Santa Monica, there are cheaper areas in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, price--75 cents per square foot per month--is the primary draw for the artists. The market rate in other parts of Santa Monica ranges from $1.65 to $1.75, according to Highways, which rents art studio space in the city. The spacious, dreamlike atmosphere, the mixture of machinery and clouds, and the contrast of industry and art, keeps them there.

According to painter Laifun Chung, "being at the airport has a sort of fantasy quality. When you get up here and see blue sky, trees and airplanes crossing, you let go of your worldly worries."

Farrell says the noise actually adds to the unusual atmosphere. "I don't hear it except when the vintage planes take off. They make more noise, so I go out there and take a look at them. It's like watching a vintage car go by. You admire it, and you romanticize it."

Two years ago, the old hangars and buildings were designated for demolition and the site was to be developed into mall shops.

Neighbors complained that surrounding streets would not be able to handle the increased traffic from commercial development, and eventually the city dropped the plan.

"We had a bunch of abandoned buildings and hangars on our hands, and we were unable to finance any rehabilitation or restoration of them," airport director Jeff Mathieu said. "We sought tenants who could conduct business within the spaces as they were or to attract creative people to renovate them themselves."

Visual artist Joe Snyder, one of the first artists to lease a hangar, found the space by accident.

"I had been working in a studio in Santa Monica when I ran across an ad in the 'Car For Sale' slots that said, 'Store antique cars at the Santa Monica Airport,' " he said. "I drove out there. The place was a mess, but it had a lot of potential, a lot of light and a lot of atmosphere."

Snyder leased a 30-by-40-foot hangar, one of six in a row joined by common walls. A garage door on Airport Avenue serves as the front door and opens to an ocean breeze and a vista of blue sky.

Next to Snyder's studio, the Museum of Flying stores old airplane motors. Other hangar space is leased to people storing cars, doors, frames, church pews, restaurant equipment and manufacturing goods.

Snyder found the diversity of tenants and tenant space stimulating. Word spread throughout the artistic community. Chung, a friend of Snyder, leased the hangar next to his a year ago.

An added benefit of the airport is that other up-and-coming artists are nearby.

"Artists are very solitary people, because that's the nature of our work," Chung said. "Here there's a feeling of a family community. We have privacy, but when we need to, we can step out of our hangars and talk to each other."

"It's nice to have someone around to use as a sounding board," Snyder said.

As the number of artists has grown, the surrounding community has come to recognize the airport as a center of artistic activity.

Santa Monica College of Design, Art and Architecture established a program last fall to team students with recognized artists. Most of the classes are taught in an airport hangar.

Joan Abrahamson, director of the program, said she looked at other sites for the class before choosing the airport but was finally persuaded by the airport's ambience.

"We decided on the airport because it was central and an inspiring site to make art. It's got these huge abandoned hangars, a landscape of airplanes and white-washed buildings," she said.

Abrahamson likens the airport to other well-known art centers.

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