As I roll up to the security guard at the gate, a man hired for the weekend Artwalk, he is prepared to tell me to turn back. It is with satisfaction that I lean over to the window and explain that I work here. All over the city this question of access is played out among the principals and the attendants, there is magic to gaining access when it is controlled, and a clean sense of entitlement washes over me. I do work here, and get through with honesty on several levels. The Brewery Art Colony is where my job is located, and for the present it also contains no small part of my personal and communal purpose.
The place I work is a small gallery at the foot of the flagship structure in this sprawling community, a massive brick building that towers over the crossroads of the Golden State and Santa Monica freeways. The gallery is entered through a tiny door centered in the face of masterful brick laying, placed symmetrically in its foot like a mysterious hollow at the root-base of an old tree. In the Spring its facing erupts with a curtain of ivy that walks its surface like a river delta. Birds nest in the portholes high along its wind-vent spine, red-tailed hawks scan the freeway berm’s brush from its hand-chiseled granite capstones. Standing before it, perhaps near a group of photographers or a movie crew painting it into the backdrop of their recordings, the soft shower of white noise from the steady traffic above is interspersed with the thunder and rumble of coupling boxcars in the hidden rail yard beside it.
The structure was the first power plant ‘west of the Mississippi’, a nearly hollow phrase today that still manages to impress for a moment, though I reflect at that every instant that the bricklayers may well have been expert old-world Italian immigrants that built a community in what is now the surrounding neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. An attached structure, now a cavernous empty building, sports a smokestack that rises stories above the area and heralds “The Brewery”. In this power plant coal hoppers delivered by train would fuel a constant fire that fed high-pressure boilers, forcing steam through masonry conduits to spin epic turbines and light the first downtown of Los Angeles.
Not so much musealized as it is repurposed, the building nevertheless draws strangers driving by to loop back and pull off the freeway, find a way into the complex, and come to our gallery door asking what the place is for. I have spent a number of hours standing in the sun with curious old-timers and adventuring couples trying to satisfy them with tales of the area. Most typically these talks end with the visitor saying they had not realized that the center of the city was so beautiful.
Locals with a long memory recall the stack never ceased its plume of smoke, a point on the horizon that served as a sort of beacon of modernity, a lighthouse at the heart of the approaching world which is now our past. This folding together of past and future makes the structure a curious sort of temple to the perception of time, both as the icon of the Arts Colony, and in my personal life…
* * *
The best way to begin would be to say that once upon a time, the great smokestack used to read just five simple letters, BINGO.
This was my first encounter with the place, on a rare trip in the back of the family’s powder blue Dodge Dart, hurtling along the freeway. I distinctly recall the oddness of that stack – that word BINGO. It wasn’t an advertisement (although to be sure it was the name of an establishment) nor was it an instruction of any kind. It was an affirmative statement, a matter of fact that led the rise of questions that belonged solely to the one doing the seeing and the asking. BINGO was in and of itself complete, the rest was left up to the traveler that passed it by.
Fast forward to the consciousness of a teenager, one raised on a public education, just a pebble in the dry creek of LA’s urban center in the early 90’s. In my schooling art was a non-subject, a textbook inset with a caption, no more and no less. No taste of its discipline, and certainly not of its way of life had crossed my path at that age. Like many urban youth my reality was limited to the impositions of outer authority and the introspections of a youth culture that did its best to insulate something manageable in all that noise. It was an angry and frustrated slice of perspective I inherited, and the limited view I milked was more blue water than cream, which kept me skinny with hunger and quick to fight or flight.
About 20 years ago a friend reared with a somewhat broader slice of culture had caught wind that the place was full of artists who were going to open their doors to the public for an immense party the likes of which, I was promised, I had never seen. What did that mean? Free booze he explained, but before I could light up he asked, with my tender learners permit in hand and in return for his driving lessons in the Rose Bowl parking lot, if I would drive him home afterwards. It seemed like a fair deal, keeping in mind that to my level of awareness at the time a party meant a garage, parents out of town, and a punk band or a stack of psychedelic records. I would soon be edified, in every meaning of the term, by what is today the Brewery Art Colony.
Behavioral scientists say that viewing a truly masterful work of art fires the same chemicals in the brain that an individual experiences when they are falling in love, and taken as a whole the encounter with this place in its full bloom, with its doors flung open to a rarefied and unionized view did, it all did form such a masterpiece. What I experienced that night could only be described as an awakening, and through my life I have been blessed with no shortage of called-for recollections to the moment.
This metaphor between a first love and an enlivening art was there in all facets. I was frightened, but couldn’t help to investigate. I was shocked, faced with parts of myself that I didn’t know existed, and relieved in the same breath to know that those places had a match outside myself. I ultimately ran away full to the brim with the experience, but it was terribly difficult to part from it.
In those days, just before the Carlson brothers purchased it and made it cohesive, the Colony was still raw and informal. Studios were interspersed amidst working industry while other buildings were vacant. The neighborhood was far wilder, even dangerous, and the artists who occupied the spaces braved as pioneers nightfalls that were more exposed and unpoliced than they are today. This meant rents were low, cars were asking to have their tender glass pierced, and roving bands of irritable youth ruled the night. To an artist, this of course meant tremendous freedom of space.
Because the principals were artists, because it was their most natural habitat and the timing fully ripe, the work at hand was the birth of new worlds in the shell of older ones.
The old boiler giant was filled to the brim in every corner with dimly lit installations, flickering cascades of candle wax dusted with cool passageway breezes, performance artists hidden in arched alcoves. The furnace was an intimate sitting room with a sprinkle of strung lights that felt like the comfort of a little cabin, with a circular skylight, whose opening to the sky one could feel, far, far above in the pipe of the stack. A grotto beneath the main building was a great sensory deprivation hall, an entrance into a gold mine, the path squeezed tight, lit by waist-high troughs filled with water that carried scant floating flowers of tea light, the dimensions of the space in each direction vanishing into total inky black. You looked into the softly lit flickering faces of the line that returned on the left, trying to guess at what you would soon see for yourself. Strangers touched the shoulders in front of them to help cross the uneven native earth floor. At the end of the pilgrimage one was rewarded with a simple secular altar of red light, on which visitors were gradually accumulating tokens they had carried with them unaware that these happenstance objects would become solemn offerings. I don’t remember what I left in that place, but I do remember that what meaningless thing I had with me became the best and most meaningful possession that I had.
Throughout the warrens, voices, strange sounds and music bent, cast and was muffled by the masonry and steel. Privacy and exposure was woven together into an uncertain fabric, coloring everything one saw with another dimension of context. The mind was helpless but to dilate wide as a pupil in a cave, sorting through the flavors. This spectacle, this sanctified participation confused solemn logic and slid aside the curtains between reason and imagination. I recall studying a dimly lit human shape made out of black of rubber I ran across in an alcove through one subterranean passage. It was a few feet away, so close, but one had to strain to get the full view. I followed the two tubes from containers on the floor, one containing a clear liquid, another more golden. The tubes led to the top of the sculpture, to where the mouth would be. That was when I noticed the eyes, the only part of the form not sealed in midnight, and they were living eyes. Alive, sealed, human eyes. I jumped a good foot in the air, resolved to look the person in the eye as a courtesy, and as quickly left with the curious response that I had been intruding like some voyeur.
Beyond the spectacle was the unforgettable diversity, warmth and human mirth that animated their hair colors and the sheer bravado of time spent fabricating these things which were solely built to be experienced. I recall a sparkling artist couple whose bedroom was a tremendous steel vault, its heavy combination door lying permanently ajar. Their smiles and open home so magical in its warmth I sometimes think of them as the pair one encounters in fables; the ones that make that medicine that heals the questor at precisely the moment they lie near death, their most alone and despairing. Life saving strangers one is conducted to by a true friend alone, that’s the memory I have of them as they stood beside each other waving their welcome.
Outside between the buildings people danced, some of them without clothes. It was as natural as young childhood on the summer lawn. Strange extrovert people spoke to me, an inexperienced nobody, as though I sat council with them on migration. They read me, gave me a drink of their water, and danced their pollen to the next flower. I could see my own friends who were with me were as drunk as I on the experience, and I was washed clean with pride that my people were there, that they were my people, that in our equal bearing we shared faculties and that night I was the furthest one could be from alone.
When it came time to leave, my friend was quite toasted, I had dutifully left the abundant wine alone, and he handed me the keys. I fired up his Karmann Ghia with the rusted floorboard, and recall the glory of the moon, and the eerie total emptiness of the Glendale freeway. It seemed relieving for a new driver, but I was not sober as I thought, the reverie I carried away was such that time seemed to fold on itself, and I managed, without being able to explain, to collide at full speed with the only other car on the freeway.
* * *
Everyone survived intact, but I have thought of the repercussions of that night from many angles ever since. The car crash was the sound of a paradigm shift in my life, I would shortly thereafter cut loose nearly every connection and leave the city for over a decade to ramble about looking for more. My departures would follow a pattern of exaltations discovered on bleak and risky night streets, aftermaths of reverie-driven collisions, and renewing the guise of a stranger. I would never lose the sense of a firsthand blurring between art and baptism, nor lose my surprise and vexation at how precious and not universal this sense is in the world that makes art its profession.
Among the places I visited that night, I bought a few postcards made with a photocopy machine. At that time printed goods had an aura of scarcity to them. Publication was still very much in the hands of an industry, with the new technology of the photocopy just starting to chisel cracks that would shortly shatter with the heat of the internet. Creatives had embraced the expense and potential of the technology and produced ‘zines, the first sparks of self-publication that were so temporary and for that reason entirely strong. Despite the cost (five to ten cents for a single side of paper) they frequently involved a hasty layout that strongly contradicted the slickness of industry, and their content was often just as raw and distinct from mainstream voice. As art objects they were completely avant-garde, and seemed to be fully self-aware that soon self-publication would be so abundant and costless it would be as so much white noise.
There were two postcards I kept from that night. They are off white and feature photographs of the South Avenue 21 approach to the Brewery. One is of the steel gate and guard booth I passed through when I entered that place for the first time, and the other the great smokestack reading BINGO that is the first thing you see entering that way, and looking up. Seeing it that way, that night, I realized at once where I was and it instantly took me back to my childhood: driving past in the car, my questions about the uncanny scintillation of an absolute statement in the noise of an aggressive and insistent cityscape. Never knowing their names, too young to fully grasp what was involved and how rare and free what I had witnessed truly was, I kept the cards as a memento to all that distinctiveness, they became a symbol for artistic meaning itself.
I carried the cards with me wherever I traveled, and in the beginning they were among my only first possessions, which I carried in a small bag that I initially slept on so it wouldn’t be stolen. Periodically on harder nights I would go through the things in the bag seeking comfort, and the picture of the gate and the stack were the only printed images I had. The link of that BINGO stack to my childhood, to the night of that artwalk explain the dimension of time that made the cards significant.
The cards also represented something good about the city of Los Angeles… somehow that experience, despite the grief that ejected me from its city limits and a vow to never return, kept me carrying the single grain of light that served as anodyne to my entire resolve. That was the significance of the cards in respect to place. Their lesson, the collective lesson I took from the colony, was to remember that no matter how bad something is, it has its gems. I have in my life come to find this lesson as the most revisited, profound, easiest to forget and hardest to teach. It is for lessons like this that places like the Brewery must go on.
* * *
Sometime while I was away the Brewery was purchased and consolidated by Carlson Industries into an Art Colony. Rooftop picnic tables, parks and gardens, a restaurant, passages and retrofits transformed the many industries into one. The Pabst brewery that had the lion’s share of the structures had its tanks removed and its tile floors partitioned, but the campus name remembers what the neon once proclaimed over Main Street.
You’d never be able to see the significance of the whole place, the Brewery Colony, a collective of disparate and fleeting artistic industries that privately and in every sense of the word independently does its work, unless you happened to catch one of its artwalks on the right day, on the right hour, or by some mysterious draw found yourself investigating, stepping down and knocking on that little door to ask what the place was all about.
Sometime while I was away, the Carlson Brothers approached a woman named Lydia Takeshita, native to Little Tokyo, who had turned her life into a nonstop dedication to making the lives and progress of earnest artists easier. Naturally she began as a teacher, which developed into a facilitator, and ultimately a gallerist. She’d published a magazine, Art Visions, at a time period when that was the only way to get word out in the art world, seeing to it that she would rope in growth and opportunities for art writers while she was at it. The magazine and work was as true to vision as the Carlsons had come to see in their own project, selfless facilitation for the benefit of other people’s endeavors. To successfully create a clear horizon, an empty space in which the artist is the centre, requires an abandonment of personal gain that is truly rare in this culture, and can be sympathetically understood by any nonprofit, and by extension countless devoted teachers and parents anywhere. Through some encounter, either personally or through the publication, the Carlsons chose Takeshita’s organization to serve as the dedicated nonprofit Brewery gallery and it became headquarters for the Art Visions magazine. They chose to give it a space, which is the centered entrance to the most grand building in the Colony, in many respects visibly making it a shrine, within enshrining the wordless mission for which the whole place is devoted.
I spent four years working very close to the Brewery in a bronze foundry, slowly reacquainting myself with my return to Los Angeles. As though the outdoors were a whirling hurricane I stayed in the shelter of my work, pouring, gating and investing wax by day, working in my studio studying the metals by night. Through a family connection between the foundry and the gallery, I was invited to sell jewelry I had made during a functional art benefit there. It proved to be the first time in my life I had sold enough of my work to pay my rent. Not long after, I was asked by the founder to work there, as simply as that. I had never dreamed of returning to the place – carrying those pictures was for the memory, not the future – or of living or working there, and had never looked. It felt as though the place chose me.
The gallery I work for, LA Artcore, was established from the beginning of the Colony, as part of its beginning. It has been there so long that it has been nearly forgotten. Rarely does a resident of the Colony find it, or even discover that it is there. In this respect, like so many others, it is like a little grotto chanced upon by wanderers alone. Almost exclusively people who remember how it was initially blessed frequent it. It is like a little cave, hidden in the old stone of a lighthouse island that is surrounded by the rushing seas of modernity.
When I attended the first Town Hall for the Brewery residents, the apt metaphor of getting artists together in one place is to describe it as herding cats. Like so many things that I have learned thus far with the arts, there is a primal paradox that requires the true distinction of individuality that a discipline of creativity teaches, and a unifying force that its example can create. I sat there at the meeting, not saying anything but listening through a keyhole in time at the current residents describe the whole of a place they experience subjectively as a part. Listening to their dreams, I reflect on the fact that I am in some way, because of the gallery I work for, an ambassador of the dream that built the place. I listened to the meeting, and I left quietly, seeing the tender shoots and the wooden vines.
Yesterday I served to greet the crowds making their way through the artwalk. We spoke with anyone that wished to, offered refreshments to anyone that needed it. The place had changed in 20 years, there were no performances outside, much less music, no fire. The vast vacant spaces were not open to outside artists, but the individual studios at times had shared their space to make this possible. The freedom, wildness and intoxications that filled the night afterwards took place behind mostly closed doors in private.
But the industry of the place continues, and further, was safeguarded by the decisions and efforts of people whose names, if known, have a legacy that is decidedly unclear. This, my friends, is truly one of the main stories of art.
Just this time around I learned that paper 3D glasses split color into crisp dimensions of red, green and blue, and that red was always closest to the observer. I learned that carrying these glasses acts as a sort of first aid for viewing difficult exhibitions. I witnessed a Brewery native, perhaps the mayor, use her breathtaking eloquence to disarm, charm, and inform a group of rudeboys. Overcoming their bristles at the bartender’s boot, they not only complied, but realized in the process that they had a better part that wished to do so all along. I was taken on a tour of the place where I already was, was passed by a one-time lover who either did not acknowledge or recognize me, and it seemed to fit. I saw clever antiquarians, bleak and stumbling orgy, smeared glass hand printed with love, dens of fireplace-warm co-working, gear cutter’s workshops and inherited dreams rewired whether harvest or flood. All connected by a childhood’s dream of tunnels, bridges and halls.
In some curious folding of time, it is with no lack of humility that I can say I feel like the shrine keeper of the place. A few days ago, in a scene replayed in my heart often, I approach the same gates that are on that postcard I’ve kept. They are locked, and I reach into my pocket, I pull the key for that same gate, and open them wide for anyone that wants to pass through them. Then I walk to the entrance of the gallery, set in the face of the building that houses the BINGO stack, and I work to further the cause of art and creativity despite the engines of profit and prestige. As a visitor and a resident of the colony, having been born here and exiled, having returned as a stranger, I now see plain as day the value of the Brewery. I understand clear as spring water that it can’t be explained so easily.
The values of the Brewery community are the values of art itself. My sincerest luck in recording those firmly down, but I can tell you that if you wander around and look closely (and sometimes the doors are all open, which helps), you may see these values being lived. It is a place of rent and commerce and geography, it is Los Angeles, it is historical, but it’s not the place that is the significance. It is the place’s meaning, its place within time, the place within the place. As always, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
* * *
About the Author: At present Robert Seitz patiently sits at his desk at LA Artcore’s Brewery Annex waiting for people to drop by. He turns on the lights, answers any questions, and safeguards the art installations. He provides writing, photography and business services to artists and creatives on a voluntary basis, as much as time will allow, and never tires of looking at art in all its stages of development and maturity.