Every Wednesday evening for the past six months, around 20 artists have gathered in a former furniture store on a quiet street about 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. With blocks, pencils, charcoal and tablets, they take their place in front of a naked model, which they observe and sketch for the next three hours. This weekly life drawing class is the basis of the SELA Art Center, a new community art space located in Bell, California, a town that straddles the Los Angeles River in southeastern Los Angeles County. The Center helps fill a void in the predominantly Latino region, which is underserved in terms of access to and support for the arts, according to community members who spoke with Hyperallergic.
“I always dreamed of being part of a creative community, but I had this idea that the art world would reject a Latino artist from South Los Angeles. I still felt out of place. in most spaces,” Josie Vasquez, who has been taking drawing classes at SELA Art Center since it opened in March, said in an email. “I never imagined finding an artists’ space in my neighborhood , who looks like me, who shares similar struggles and experiences; to whom I have bonded.
The SELA Art Center was founded by Hector “Tetris” Arias, a street artist and muralist born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, but raised in southeast Los Angeles. “My love of art started in Michoacán with murals, Mesoamerican and indigenous stuff. When I got here, I told about gang writing in the streets. Arias told Hyperallergic. “I started learning gang letter structure, typography, was introduced to break dancing, the four elements [of hip-hop] … It gave me something to do. There wasn’t much access to art schools.
In addition to working on her own artwork, public commissions, and projects like the Dodgers and Lakers Houses, Arias has hosted mural workshops for youth around LA County. He says he has always dreamed of opening an art center in his community. “I wanted something for the neighborhood, to go in and build a culture,” he says. The pieces fell into place earlier this year when he saw a ‘For Rent’ sign on a furniture store a few blocks from his old high school in Bell.
Despite his street art pedigree, he knew he wanted to start with a life drawing course: “It’s one of the really great courses for artists, the fundamentals. Arias contacted an action figure model he knew and held the first life drawing workshop on March 30. “It was a great success,” he beams. “Everything was really moving. I saw tears and a lot of excitement.
Encouraged by this initial enthusiasm, the SELA Art Center has expanded to offer breakdancing classes and is collaborating this fall with the Latino Equality Alliance on a mural workshop, combining the history of muralism with the creation of a work of art. on the facade of the SELA Art Center. Ambitious plans to branch out into other creative arenas are driven by a commitment to serving the community. “Tetris and our team could have gone anywhere, but our roots are in Bell,” Hilda Estrada, director of culture and events at the SELA Art Center, told Hyperallergic.
Southeast LA’s towns – Bell, Huntington Park, South Gate, Lynwood, Downey, Vernon and Commerce, to name a few – are also called the Gateway Cities, stretching south just below from downtown LA to the port of Long Beach and from the southern cities of Inglewood Bay and Torrance west to the Orange County border. Although the area is now predominantly Latino, it was developed a century ago as a “whites-only” industrial and manufacturing hub, with red lines and racist housing covenants in place to keep it that way. From the 1960s, however, the region experienced an economic downturn as factories closed or moved, leaving behind unemployment and contaminated land. The “White Volley” opened the door for Latino families and workers who had been excluded for decades.
Southeast Los Angeles County’s arts infrastructure may seem sparse compared to the museums, schools, and studios a few miles north of the city of LA, but there’s no shortage of creative and cultural expression among residents. Artist Felix Quintana was born and raised in Lynwood and cites Frank Romero’s 1984 Olympic mural along the Hollywood Freeway, spotted on trips to Encino where his mother worked, as his first exhibition at the ‘art. “Resources have always been quite limited in terms of creating art,” he says. “I felt like there wasn’t much to Lynwood.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in photography from California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt in 2014, Quintana returned home and encountered a grassroots movement of punk shows, open-mic events, and DIY shows held in garages and in places like the Lynwood Union, a former railroad depot. .
Quintana’s recent exhibition at the Residency Gallery, Cruise under the sunset, featured assemblages of cyanotype prints and found objects, composite reflections of sites with personal significance in SELA, San Jose, and his parents’ home country of El Salvador. In his Maps of Los Angeles series, he appropriates images from Google Street View which depict pedestrians, highlighting street life on cold cartographic documentation. The blue-tinted works are in direct conversation with Ed Ruscha’s 1996 book, Every building on the Sunset Striphonoring the myriad of streets and populations that exist beyond its thin geographic slice.
Just north of Lynwood, the South Gate Museum strives to preserve local history while showcasing the work of local artists. For five decades, South Gate was the site of a massive Firestone tire and rubber factory, which provided thousands of jobs until it closed in 1980. Amelia Earhart learned to fly on a dirt field at nearby, which is now part of the GM plant. South Gate has also spawned notable artists and musicians, such as members of seminal thrash metal band Slayer and Sen Dog of rap group Cypress Hill, who all attended South Gate High School, as well as the Perez Brothers, whose hyperrealistic paintings celebrate lowrider culture.
Housed in the old city library, the South Gate Museum is divided into a historical archive and a contemporary gallery. Earlier this year, the gallery was relaunched with Cuídate – Take care of yourself, a group show hosted by Marissa Gonzalez-Kucheck that focused on self-care and healing, themes that have taken on increased importance in light of the devastation the pandemic has wreaked on SELA. “Cuídate was a step up,” Jennifer Mejia, South Gate’s Cultural Arts Coordinator, told Hyperallergic. “We try to tell the story.” The next exhibition, Mi Barrio – My neighborhood, will open on October 15 at the same time as the South Gate Art Walk. “[SELA] the cities are so small. We are all so proud of where we come from, but also interested in gateway communities,” says Mejia.
In addition to its exhibition spaces, the South Gate Museum also organizes classes and workshops. Quintana was asked to lead its virtual youth art pilot program in the summer of 2021, working with 14 teens over two months to create a zine exploring themes of place and community, reflecting their lived experience through the image and text.
These more popular art spaces are growing in the shadow of the future SELA Cultural Center, a massive $150 million project planned for a site along the LA River where it meets the Rio Hondo at the Lynwood/South Gate border. . Designed by Frank Gehry, the Center will feature spaces for dance, ceramics, printmaking, screen printing, and film and music production, with an open plan that connects it to the surrounding landscape. “The cultural center is designed to be community-focused as a series of buildings of varying sizes that are organized along a central pedestrian street,” said Joe Gonzalez, project development analyst at San Gabriel and Lower LA Rivers. and Mountains (RMC). , the lead administration behind the Center. “The Street of Working Art or “Paseo Cívico” is envisioned as an active part of the campus program to allow artistic creations and performances to spill from campus buildings into the street, and where the street can also serve of space for festivals and community events More than half of the budget was obtained through state funding, with a first inauguration planned for the end of 2026.
The Center underwent “an 18-month process that involved strong community outreach,” Gonzalez says. In a video produced by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, local arts leaders, including Arias and Lourdes Pérez of the Latinas Arts Foundation, voice their support for the project and its potential to empower the community. “There are two positions you can adopt: reject everything because of gentrification, or say: ‘Let’s invite us, let’s sit down at the table,'” explains Hilda Estrada of the SELA Art Center. “That’s how we can really shape things.”
However, there are always concerns about whether a colossal civic arts project like this will lead to gentrification, pushing back the very residents it claims to serve. “The potential for a tragic blowback is enormous,” wrote South Gate researcher Becky Nicolaides and UCLA professor Jon Christensen in a recent op-ed. “We could pour millions of public dollars into a plan that sounds impressive but drives out its target audience – communities that have struggled to survive over the past few decades.”
The zine created by Quintana students layers photos of street scenes, markets, maps, protests, food and family with poetic lyrics. Its celebratory tone is tempered by unease at potential change on the horizon. In a black-and-white photo of a van carrying a sign that reads ‘NO $ELLOUTS IN SELA’, text in Spanish reads: ‘We always fight, resist and live as a community. Don’t let them sell this story.