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Painting a Bright Future : Arts: St. Elmo Village offers a creative refuge for children in Mid-City despite funding setbacks.

March 02, 1995|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

St. Elmo Village is a kaleidoscope, Oz in Mid-City: multihued, mural cinder-block walls. Remnants recycled into sculptures scattered through the back yard. A fishpond created by children. Towering paintings haphazardly hung.

In a transitory neighborhood marred by gangs, drugs and occasional violence, the resident artists in this one-acre enclave near La Brea Avenue and Venice Boulevard have maintained a haven of creativity for young people for a quarter-century.

"The village gives people the feeling that they can do anything. The people here reach out and pull people in and really help them believe in themselves," said Elisa Torres, 21, who has attended painting workshops at St. Elmo since she was 8 and now works as an assistant painting instructor. "This is the only place to go for some kids."

St. Elmo Village is marked by a distinctive architectural layout--10 turn-of-the-century wood-frame bungalows with a large garage and small courtyard in the back. The village is home to eight residents as well as a community arts space, set amid a carpet of cacti, conifers and succulents in the predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood in the 4800 block of St. Elmo Drive.

To followers and friends, the essence and spirit of St. Elmo Village is a passion to unleash people's best through art--exemplified by its founders Rozzell and Roderick Sykes. They pushed the simple motto: "If you live in a shoe box, make it the best shoe box it can be."

Said Diane Lazarus, a first-grade teacher at the neighboring Alta Loma School and an avid volunteer during the village's first decade: "During some of the neighborhood's hard times, when it was at its weakest points, the village was the one place that held strong and worked with neighbors to pull things together."

But now the village has hit a weak point, struggling to pay bills and secure funding to run its free art workshops.

"Right now we're in a crisis," said Roderick Sykes, 48. "We need funding. If we go, the community has nothing."

Since its birth in the mid-1960s, St. Elmo Village has operated with limited funding. It relies heavily on volunteers who have helped stage free art workshops, staff the office and organize its annual Festival of the Art of Creative Survival. The Memorial Day weekend event, featuring artwork, dance and music, has given the village its greatest exposure and profit. But it has not been held for three years because of a major renovation of the village set for completion next month.

Most of the village's funding comes from city grants that pay for the free workshops and allow village leaders to hire aspiring artists. Private grants have helped pay for occasional office help, but the administrative burden falls on Sykes and his wife, Jacqueline Alexander-Sykes, who juggle earning their livelihood as artists with running the village and writing grant proposals. The village has no full-time paid staff.

In its heyday during the mid-1970s, St. Elmo Village became a tourist attraction and was featured in national guidebooks. Over time, things changed and the artists of St. Elmo have had to master the art of survival in a neighborhood swirling with changes and problems.

But the children do keep coming, even if in fewer numbers.

On a dreary, drizzly afternoon, a collection of youngsters ranging in age from 3 to 15 gathered in the painting workshop to learn about working on a canvas.

At 9, Maria Garcia is a village regular. Her latest artwork: a pink cross sitting atop a royal blue hill with a rose in the middle, two hearts on either side and stars around it.

"This is the most fun thing I do because I like to draw and paint; that's what I learned when I started coming here," said Maria, who has been attending workshops for two years.

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