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SANDY BANKS

An underground renaissance in Inglewood

A gallery tour shows a thriving art community hidden in a gritty, industrial area.

November 21, 2009|Sandy Banks
  • Kenneth Ober and Renee Fox show some of their artwork. Inglewood officials are trying to adapt the city's zoning code to allow artists to live in industrial areas.
Kenneth Ober and Renee Fox show some of their artwork. Inglewood officials… (Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles…)

I was tired of staring at that blank space on my hallway wall. For years, I'd been searching for just the right artistic statement for the spot at the bottom of my stairs -- something to brighten my mood when I stumbled down bleary-eyed in the morning, and calm me as I headed upstairs to bed at night.

The Inglewood Open Studios art walk last weekend sounded like the perfect marketplace. With 16 local artists showing paintings, photos and tapestries, surely I could find something colorful, culturally resonant and -- forgive me -- cheap.

I expected African masks, watercolor images of children at play and paintings of rural women balancing baskets on their heads -- images that might speak to me.

What I found were creations that went beyond my pedestrian sensibilities -- sculptures fashioned from junkyard finds; canvases dotted with chunks of paint, molded into giant geometric designs.

And artists whose passions just might spark a beleaguered city's cultural renaissance.

::

I thought I'd landed in the wrong spot when I pulled up to the East Hyde Park Boulevard address for the start of the art walk. It was a brick storefront with bars on the door. Across the street, the sidewalk was piled with clothes and toys, tended by two women straight out of a Frida Kahlo painting.

The art gallery was airy and bright, the guest book only had names on a few lines and the hors d'oeuvres looked untouched. I grabbed a map and began the tour. The next hours would take me through studios hidden behind auto repair shops, tucked between dry cleaners and beauty salons; into giant, light-filled salons and cluttered alcoves that looked like college dorms.

The art walk was a coming-out party for the eclectic, loose-knit confederation of artists -- aging hippies and college professors, a professional architect, a self-styled urban griot, muralists and photographers -- turning Inglewood into an unlikely haven for avant-garde art.

Consider Gale McCall a pioneer. Two decades ago, she moved into a former storefront church with "a stage, some confessionals and a big old space" where she could store equipment for her sculptures. It was on a rough stretch of gang-plagued West Boulevard. But it was cheap: 1,000 square feet for $450 a month.

She set up a studio, carved out a little living space and figured she'd move on after she got the art gig up and running. "Twenty years later, I'm still here," she told me, wedged into a tiny gap next to her bed, hovering over visitors viewing images of murals she's done. "Can you believe it? I can't."

I can. Artists need flexible, inexpensive spaces. Inglewood has an ever-growing stock of empty, often dilapidated commercial buildings. Landlords are willing to cut deals in an economy with few takers.

But the desperation on both sides has made Inglewood's artists a sort of outlaw nation. The city's zoning code forbids residential use in industrial areas.

Now the art walks are forcing them into the open. "The artists have been hesitant to let people know they were here because they were living in spaces that weren't legal," said tour organizer Renee Fox, a painter living legally in a storefront on East Hyde Park.

"Some have already been priced out of Venice and downtown lofts. They're thinking, 'If we hang out and don't make any noise, we won't get pushed out.' But how can we survive without an audience?"

The audience last weekend was small -- a few hundred people, many of them other artists. But I ran into Inglewood Councilman Daniel Tabor. Tabor is a patron of the arts -- his wife and daughter are artists -- and lives blocks away from the art walk route. But he only recently learned of the artists' enclave. "I've been driving by for 20 years what I thought was just old commercial space," he said.

Now he's trying to raise their profile, and help them comply with the law. "The question is how do we enforce health and safety standards and the building code in a way that doesn't run them off. . . . The neighbors and the artists are comfortable where they are. They're not going to block parties, but they're doing great stuff and making a living. . . . They're an asset to Inglewood, and we have to figure out how to protect them."

::

When I sat down to write this column, I reached reflexively for a stereotype. A trendy artists' enclave. In Inglewood? How odd.

But why not Inglewood? Not so long ago, it would have seemed ridiculous to suggest that hip young people would line up for hours outside upscale bars in downtown Los Angeles.

Struggling communities are where struggling artists make their mark. That's what happened years ago in Venice, then in North Hollywood, Culver City and downtown lofts.

That process creates casualties. An energized art scene boosts a neighborhood's popularity. Rents go up, and priced-out artists are forced to seek cheaper streets. Many of Inglewood's new artists are downtown's refugees.

That's the challenge, Tabor knows, as he re-imagines Inglewood -- the artists' creations adorning city buildings and public parks; downtown's run-down Market Street lined with art galleries, restaurants and shops.

The risk is that the cycle will repeat, "that once we make them proper and popularize this, landlords will get wind and overprice them."

And they'll be on the move again.

"It's inevitable that the rents will go up," acknowledged muralist McCall, mulling the mixed blessings of it all. "But I hear San Pedro is up and coming."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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