This piece was originally published in San Diego CityBeat
San Diego – In downtown El Cajon, empty storefronts stare out at the street. Despite massive public and private investment in the city’s urban development during the past 20 years, growth on Main Street is creeping too slowly for some. Yet others see opportunity. Artists and gallery owners have taken advantage of vacant spaces and started work on what’s quickly becoming a burgeoning art scene.
About a year ago, Esther Beish returned to photography after 18 years of work and travel. After showing in coffeehouses and regional art shows, Beish was determined to create a space where she and others could show their work. In January, she opened Main Street 5 Gallery at 124 E. Main St. in El Cajon.
San Diego artists Silvia Valentino and Carlos Castrejón were also drawn to East Main Street. In January, they moved into an expansive, 4,000-square-foot commercial building and, in June, opened Studio C Contemporary (140 E. Main St.), the first El Cajon and East County studio and gallery to focus on contemporary art. Valentino says the owner was pleased to see the vacant space put to good use.
“I think the owner saw the sincerity of our vision after a couple of shows we put together there in his empty warehouse,” Valentino says.
A few months later, artist Denise Rich followed suit and opened her working studio and gallery,The Rich Artist, on East Main. And when another space became available, gallery owner George Pullen said, he was encouraged to join in.
“You must get this space,” Pullen recalls Rich telling him.
On June 18, this budding arts community staged its first monthly “Third Friday Art Walk,” turning a once-quiet East Main Street into bustling hub, with eight galleries on a single block. And on Saturday, Sept. 10, El Cajon will host its first international exhibition, featuring the sculpture of renowned artists from Mexico, the U.S. and Bulgaria.
The El Cajon Arts District has come a long way in a short time. But this new activity didn’t come out of the blue. Back in 2006, the El Cajon Community Development Corporation joined forces with the East County Art Association, St. Madeline Sophie’s Center, Silver Creek Fine Art and a handful of other merchants to start Alley Cat Art Walk, a community event staged in the alley between East Main and Rea Avenue. Yet with a critical mass of gallery spaces opening, what was once an annual event is now monthly. At the Third Friday Art Walk events on June 17 and July 15, the community showed interest. More than 100 people crowded into the galleries on both nights, admiring the wide variety of work on exhibit.
What’s unique about the El Cajon art scene now, Beish says, is the regional focus and the role it plays as an alternative to the downtown San Diego art scene.
“My whole thing is that I’m trying to promote regional artists and community involvement,” she says. “The people that are coming here—some of them have never been to an art gallery. We have Alpine and Julian and Ramona…. You don’t have to drive all the way downtown.”
Castrejón shares Beish’s vision of community involvement.
“Art is all about giving,” Castrejón says. “This is going be our studio, and, yes, we hope to sell a piece of art, but this is going to be a place where people can come and connect with something different.”
What will be interesting to watch is how this scene negotiates the often-contested notions of regional art and community.
Rich, best known as the artist of the California dairy industry’s Happy Cows campaign, offers one perhaps stereotypical example of “regional art” in East County. Yet while Rich’s fine-art paintings of cows might be dismissed as cliché or commercial, a closer look reveals ways in which she uses the portrait tradition to engage more deeply with the animals as individuals. As she notes, the expressiveness in the faces of the animals challenged her own preconceptions.
“That’s what grabbed me—they came right up to me eye-to-eye,” Rich says. “I always thought of cows as a big herd.”
The upcoming group show Des-Hechos at Studio C Contemporary offers another definition of the region, one that speaks to the longstanding binational cultural interdependence and exchange between Baja California and San Diego.
Opening from 7 to 9 p.m. on Sept 10 and running through Oct 7, Des-Hechos is a traveling international exhibit featuring those Mexican, American and Bulgarian artists. Consisting of sculptures and installation pieces made out of discarded, re-appropriated and re-contextualized “trash”—metal and other materials—the artists explore issues of transience and migration in the border region.
The idea for the show developed when two artists from Baja came to the opening of Studio C Contemporary for the June 17 Art Walk. On the recommendation of a colleague in Ensenada, Tijuana artists Luis Alderete and Antonio Oceguera-Figueroa traveled to El Cajon and ended up inviting Valentino and Castrejón to submit sculptures to an exhibition at the Centro Estatal de las Artes in Ensenada. In August, after a bit of negotiation, Alderete got permission from the primary Mexican sponsor of the exhibit, the Institute of Culture of Baja California, to move the show to El Cajon.
While an international show of this stature and scope would be exciting in any context, the fact that it features artists from across Baja California and San Diego is important.
“The real significance of this exchange is the idea and belief that cultures can unite and co-exist, in spite of the existence of the border,” Castrejón says.
Baja artist Oceguera-Figueroa hopes this exchange may challenge the prevailing image of Tijuana as the “backyard ghetto” of San Diego.
“I always think of the region we live in, and what comes to mind is the memory of Warsaw during the Second World War,” he says. “A closed space where the powers that be—always with a racist perspective—could decide who would be allowed outside of the space. The searchlights, guards and guns have taken the place of the lively interchange that once existed in better times between Tijuana and San Diego.”
It remains to be seen what will come of the art scene in El Cajon. But as Valentino explains, the excitement is there.
“I still can’t believe the people who walk in from the street and the conversations that we have,” she says, “the spark of understanding, of sharing—it’s amazing.”