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An artistic haven on the Eastside

East L.A. gallery features artwork with a distinctly local flavor in its current Dia de los Muertos exhibit.

October 13, 2008|Catherine Ho | Times Staff Writer

Outside, strains of Spanish radio flitted through the quiet neighborhood where residents walked their dogs and practiced skateboarding tricks.

But inside ChimMaya, a small corner boutique and rising art gallery nestled along the border of East Los Angeles, Montebello and Monterey Park, more than 60 artists and self-professed "art fans" chatted, shopped and snacked against a backdrop of purple and green walls, lively salsa music and paintings of dancing skeletons.

The Sunday opening of ChimMaya's third annual Dia de los Muertos exhibit drew artists and patrons from across the Southwest, to an area far from the more established art scenes of Pasadena and Santa Monica.

ChimMaya -- a literary hybrid of Chimayo, a holy area in New Mexico, and Maya, the surname of co-owner Steven Acevedo's niece and nephew -- opened in 2004 as a purse-and-jewelry boutique, and quickly became a spot frequented by local artists and art patrons. The store recently added two rooms and a patio.

The expansion of art space in East L.A. is helping to dispel the myth that businesses and galleries can't survive on the Eastside, Acevedo said.

"We're trying to bring the level of artwork, merchandise and atmosphere up in this side of town," he said. "I grew up three miles away, and I know what it's like to have to go outside the community when you want to see art. If you were an artist who lived a block from here and you wanted to have your work seen, you'd have to take it outside the community -- Pasadena, Orange County, Santa Monica. . . . I wanted to bring it to my community."

Sunday marked the kickoff of the three-week-long Dia de los Muertos exhibit, which features about 75 pieces from 31 artists. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday honoring family and friends who have died, usually celebrated Nov. 1 or Nov. 2. At the heart of the exhibit stands an altar of tissue-paper marigolds, ceramic doves and statues of the Virgin Mary, created by local artist Ofelia Esparza.

Having art space in East L.A. is attracting wealthier art collectors, as well as locals thirsty for a place to explore what's new on the art scene, said George Yepes, a veteran artist who has been showing his work at ChimMaya for two months.

"A lot of families that grew up here moved to Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights. They're not going to drive to Santa Monica. They can come to East L.A., hit the restaurants and have somewhere to stop by and look at what's new, what's hot in art."

Yepes, an East L.A. native, has worked as an artist for 35 years, often painting abroad. For him, coming to ChimMaya is "like coming home again. I've painted in Barcelona, Madrid, London, Paris, and now I get to come back and bring my art back to the Eastside.

"Our community really deserves to have a space like this," said Monica Lugo, 49, a doctor who grew up in East L.A. "It's validating to see artwork with characters who look like my family. You see someone who could be your grandma," she said, gesturing to a painting of an elderly woman holding a candle, her head draped in blue cloth.

"It depicts a lot of our culture, so we can relate," said Paulina Palomino, 43, who also grew up in East L.A. "There was a time, when I was growing up, that you couldn't find something like this in a gallery."

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catherine.ho@latimes.com

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