The Art Colony

by Jesse La Tour

 

    

Hibbleton Gallery first opened in 2008 at 112 W. Wilshire Ave. in downtown Fullerton, next to Mulberry St. Ristorante. Photo by Chuck Oldfield.

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Art opening at Hibbleton Gallery entitled, "Instant Gratification: A Polaroid Party." Photo by Chuck Oldfield.

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Visitors enjoy an interactive exhibit at Hibbleton (inside the Magoski Arts Colony) in 2015. Photo by Jesse La Tour.

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Hibbleton Gallery first opened in 2008 at 112 W. Wilshire Ave. in downtown Fullerton, next to Mulberry St. Ristorante. Photo by Chuck Oldfield.

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Preface

 

As I write these words in a notebook, sitting at the bar in Mulberry Street Ristorante in Downtown Fullerton, a friend walks in and asks what I’m writing. 

 

“A history of the Art Colony,” I tell her.

 

She looks at me with disappointment and says, “It seems like it was too short-lived.”

 

“It was eight years,” I say, and to me this longevity is actually a kind of little miracle.

 

I can tell this topic is kind of sad for her. She loved the Art Colony and the associated Downtown Fullerton Art Walk. and she is not the first person I’ve run into who has asked what happened to the Art Colony and the Art Walk.

 

I tell these friends the truth as best I know it. The Art Colony was closed down by the City due to code violations.  The Art Walk was killed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

If I’m honest, I feel a sense of responsibility, of guilt. I was instrumental in getting these things started. I devoted nearly a decade of my life to keep them going. And although they ended due to forces beyond my control, people still look to me to bring them back, perhaps not fully understanding the enormity of effort and sacrifice it takes to create such things.

I. Hibbleton

 

Do you remember 2008? The world felt different then. Barack Obama was elected president. And although the global economy was falling apart, for a few bright shining years it felt to me and my friends like we could do anything. We were all in our 20s and we were going to build new and creative lives.

 

I was 28 years old, a newly minted adjunct English professor, blissfully unaware of the relative poverty I was consigning myself to, happy to be doing something I cared about.

The apartment I’d been living in since 2004 was a gem of a two-bedroom place that sat atop an Italian restaurant/bar in downtown Fullerton called Mulberry St. Ristorante.

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Hibbleton Gallery first opened in 2008 at 112 W. Wilshire Ave. in downtown Fullerton, next to Mulberry St. Ristorante. Photo by Chuck Oldfield.

Our little apartment had, somewhat to the dismay of our landlord, become a gathering place for local creative types–musicians, artists, filmmakers, writers (like me). These kinds of places are rare, and often hidden, in Orange County.

 

Our biggest claim to fame at that time was the fact that the band Cold War Kids had gotten their start in the storage room behind our apartment, which was filled with restaurant equipment, random other shit, and paintings by me and my friends. 

 

One of my roommates was Jonnie, the guitar player. In 2004, they would practice in that storage room while I made dinner or graded papers or smoked cigarettes with my friends. I remember thinking, at first: These guys aren’t very good.

 

And then they were.

 

In 2005, their debut record Robbers and Cowards was a breakthrough indie hit. Before that, however, they self-released The Mulberry St. EP.

 

Our apartment became a place for the band and their friends to hang out, along with lots of local folks who might be described as “hipsters.”

 

Back then (as it is today), Downtown Fullerton was dominated by way too many bars for its own good. There wasn’t much in the way of an art scene.

 

Some time in 2008, the storefront below our apartment, next to Mulberry St. Ristorante, came up for rent. One of my roommates at the time, Tony Bach, suggested that we rent it out as some kind of creative space. We floated the idea with my other roommate Landon Lewis and our friends Chuck Oldfield, Ben Pham, and RJ Ciccaglione. Over boozy nights on our rooftop patio, we brainstormed what we might do with this small 600-square foot space.

 

Tony was an artist, Chuck a filmmaker. Ben was well-steeped in new art movements like pop surrealism, street art, low brow, and other stuff that filled the pages of cool magazines like Juxtapoz. I was a writer. Landon had a business degree and a deep knowledge of good music (he’d hosted a college radio program at Chapman University). RJ knew about this relatively new thing on the internet called “social media.”

 

Ultimately, we decided on the idea of an art gallery. We would curate shows by artists we liked, and maybe also host events like film screenings (Chuck’s idea), author readings (my idea), and other cool cultural stuff that didn’t really have much of a home downtown at that time.

 

We approached the landlord. The rent was $1,500 a month. We were all barely starting our careers. None of us could afford that individually. But collectively? With six of us, $1,500 worked out to $250 each. That was, like, the price of car insurance. Collectively, we could do it.

 

And, given the miracle that people actually bought the art that we put on display, that would be even better.

 

We told our landlord, “We’ll take it.”

 

We called our gallery Hibbleton, after a fictional barbershop quartet from the TV show “Scrubs.” On the web site urbandictionary.com, Hibbleton now means, “A small group of people who exhibit great amounts of awesomeness, but only when necessary.”

 

That was us.

 

We opened Hibbleton Gallery in late May of 2008 with an art show called “To the Fifth Dimension!” featuring art by Timber!, Metasaurus, and Japanland.

 

The opening reception was packed. We created a space for local artists to see some art that was new and different, to gather and hang out, and people came out of the woodwork, like they were hungry for something like this.

 

Amazingly, our first show actually sold well, meaning enough to cover our rent. Thus, we continued with several more art shows, about one a month, featuring artists local, obscure, and interesting to us.

 

We got some good press by local media like OC Weekly (remember OC Weekly?) and were able to attract some higher-profile artists like Mark Mothersbaugh and Tom Waits’ daughter, Kellisimone Waits.

 

Our art openings became little cultural gatherings in downtown Fullerton, an alternative space for creative types to meet and gather and feel less alone.

 

We teamed up with Mulberry St. Ristorante to host “after parties” featuring local DJs.

 

It was the beginning of something new and exciting. 

 

The real test of Hibbleton’s long-term viability came about six months after we had hosted a number of art shows that brought a lot of people out, and often got good press, but sometimes sold few or no artworks.

 

It became painfully clear that the gallery was not going to be a money-maker for us. But it was around this time that I began to see the work we were doing as being about something much more than making money. Our art shows, film screenings, open mic nights, poetry readings, and other events were about something much more interesting and important. It was, to me, community-building.

II. The Art Walk

 

Sometime in late 2009 or early 2010 some of the other small businesses near us decided to join our monthly art openings and host their own art exhibits concurrently with ours. There was a sneaker shop called BTNC that started showing street artists, and an alternative clothing store called Buffalo Exchange that wanted to show work by local artists.

 

Around this time I befriended a guy named Brian Prince who, along with his wife Kristy, had opened a small art gallery on Harbor Blvd. called PAS Gallery. Brian was a graphic designer by trade and shared our passion for making Downtown Fullerton a destination for more than just an over-concentration of bars–for building a legitimate art scene.

 

 

I also met another gem of history and art named Mike Atta.  He and his wife Pam owned a vintage furniture/music/clothing/art store called Out of Vogue. The name of the store was also the name of a hit song by Mike’s band Middle Class, who were one of the first punk and then post-punk bands in Orange County.

Through Mike, I learned about the rich history of Fullerton’s punk scene of the late 1970s/early 80s. Out of this seemingly sleepy suburban town emerged some of the most aggressive and creative bands of California’s first wave of punk.

 

Bands like Social Distortion, The Adolescents, Agent Orange, and Eddie and the Subtitles broke onto the scene and often played shows in LA with bands like Black Flag, The Germs, The Descendants, and The Vandals.

 

Mike shared with me flyers from punk shows he’s played at now-defunct venues like Ichabod’s (now a Burger King) and The Galaxy (a former roller rink). Mike’s store Out of Vogue was already a unique place of culture and history, and he joined forces with our small but growing group of venue owners who eventually started what became the Downtown Fullerton Art Walk.

 

What I learned from befriending people like Mike Atta was that what we were doing wasn’t 100% new. We were participating in a tradition of creative alternative communities and people who’d been doing cool shit in Fullerton long before we arrived. And hopefully, someday, people would discover the things we were doing and find inspiration–like I was inspired by the early Fullerton punks.

 

Through the Art Walk, I met Dorian Hunter and Marjorie Kerr, who were instrumental in starting an annual cultural event called "A Night in Fullerton" way back in the 1960s, partly to convince Norton Simon (whose Hunt Foods was located in Fullerton) that our town would be a good place for him to build his art museum (but that’s another story).

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Fullerton has these hidden histories of art and culture that we were, unknowingly, building upon or continuing in some way.

 

We got a core group of venues on board with the Art Walk idea: Brian and Kristy of PAS Gallery, Mike and Pam of Out of Vogue, Florencio of Blaquel Popular Art, Julie of Roadkill, Gary of Graves Gallery, and increasingly more.

 

Often, I think, small businesses are pushed to compete with one another. The Art Walk sort of flipped this model on its head. We were encouraging local businesses to, at least once a month collaborate with one another. I walked around downtown Fullerton with a clipboard and a pen, meeting local business owners. and asking if they’d like to put art on their walls once a month and participate in this new thing called the Art Walk.

 

And then, Mike and Candace Magoski.

 

I’d met these two unique individuals back in 2006, when I attended a birthday party for my friend Colleen. The party was in a warehouse on the edge of downtown, across the street from the long-defunct Donald Duck Juice Factory.

 

I’ll never forget walking into Mike and Candace’s studio, called Violet Hour. I felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole into something utterly unique and amazing. How to describe it? Large artworks, strangely dressed mannequins, a pink golf cart with a giant rabbit head, a stripper pole, a disco ball, the music of Brian Eno.

 

The whole night, as I danced with friends, I kept telling myself, “I can’t believe this exists in downtown Fullerton.”

 

At that time, Violet Hour was an underground gem that you had to know people to know about.

 

Once we’d accumulated enough interested venues, we began meeting to figure out how to organize and actually launch this thing.

 

We created a web site, a Facebook page, a map of participating venues, posters to put on store front windows, and finally launched the thing in 2010.

 

With the strength of several venues, each helping to spread the word about their individual art shows and the Art Walk, people showed up in large numbers.

 

On a Friday night in Downtown Fullerton, there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of people walking around to enjoy art. It was families, people of all ages and walks of life. That first night, I walked around with my camera taking pictures and thinking, “For me, this his heaven.”

 

Together, we had done this. The Downtown Fullerton Art Walk had an ambitious goal–to host a multi-venue art experience on the first Friday of every month. We had no funding from the City, except for the fact that the Fullerton Museum Center was a part of it. We all pooled our money to pay for flyers and maps of the venues.

 

The longer we existed, the more venues got involved. At our peak, I believe we had over 30 venues. That meant over 30 little free art shows every month in Downtown Fullerton. That, to me, was indeed a miracle.

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Art opening at Hibbleton Gallery entitled "Instant Gratification: A Polaroid Party." Photo by Chuck Oldfield.

III. The Warehouse on the Edge of Downtown 

 

Scene: We are together in this old warehouse on the edge of downtown. The walls are pretty beat-up, and the back is cluttered with junk—old cars, washing machines, tires, microwaves, scrap metal and wood, tools, records. It looks like a particularly intense episode of Hoarders.

 

“This is it,” Mike says.

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Panoramic view of the Magoski Arts Colony on Santa Fe Ave. in Fullerton, which opened in 2010 featuring Violethour Studio, Hibbleton Gallery, and PAS Gallery. Photo by Brian Prince.

“This is awesome,” I say, “It’s enormous.”

 

This is the future home of our new gallery. Landon, Tony, Chuck, Steve, Brian and I look around.

 

These beat-up walls with holes, this grungy concrete floor stained with decades of oil and paint and rust?  Beautiful! This is a start.

 

We stand outside on Santa Fe, looking across the street at the old Donald Duck juice factory, long abandoned.

 

“Man, imagine if that was an art colony, like The Brewery in LA.”

 

“We can start here,” Mike says.

 

Mike’s dad, an aerospace engineer who worked on Apollo missions, who designs spacecraft, owns these warehouses. He has for years. I have no idea why. Developers have for years tried to buy these old buildings to build condos or apartments, but Pete never sold. So here we are. We have stumbled onto this treasure. A blank canvas.

 

I once read a book called Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City, about how artists and musicians in Chicago took old industrial warehouses and re-purposed them into studios and galleries and music venues. From the ashes of old school manufacturing, we will make things again. New things. Andy Warhol called his studio “The Factory.” They didn’t make tires or washing machines—they made art.

 

When we started the gallery two years ago on a corner downtown, people thought we were crazy. An art gallery in Downtown Fullerton? And not just an art gallery—but a contemporary art gallery—a lowbrow/skate/punk/outsider gallery. We showed weird shit we thought was cool. And people came. From sleepy suburban neighborhoods, people came into something new, something different.

 

At the time, parents and friends asked, “What do you know about running an art gallery?”

 

Nothing really. We just like art.

 

I think conventional wisdom is that you need grants and funding and bureaucratic blessing to do something like that. You need some big museum to say, “You can do this.” But I have seen what bureaucracy can do. I have seen the City of Fullerton talk about renovating an old movie theater for years, and nothing happen. 

 

Our ethos is DIY—do it yourself. That’s how this shit gets done. So we will do it ourselves. We will patch the holes in this old warehouse. We will do the drywall and painting. We are not contractors. We are people who figure things out and do them.

 

We will bust our asses. We will get home from a full day of work, and then do some drywalling.

 

We don’t get paid. We don’t have grants or bureaucratic blessing. We have only our hearts and hands. We will have help from friends who share our dream. John says, “I know how to patch a wall,” and he does it. Chuck says, “I know how to do moldings” and does it. That’s how this shit gets done.

 

In one month, we accomplish more than any redevelopment agency or historic foundation can do in a year. We create the beginning of an art colony. It is human beings coming together, doing things with their hands, each according to their abilities and knowledge.

 

Mike walks through with a big Polaroid camera, taking pictures. We have to document this. This feels important. It is something bigger than any of us individually. I wander through with my camera. Landon cleaning old windows, Chuck nailing wood, Tony sanding a wall.

 

Vince, my friend, the formerly homeless guy who lives out back, pushes a mop around. Vince talks to himself, but his conversation is very down to earth. He is narrating his thoughts aloud.

 

“I gotta clean this floor. It’s filthy. That place hasn’t been cleaned for years. I gotta clean this floor. I better change the water. This mop is pretty old...”

 

Vince looks a little beaten down by life, but his eyes reflect a sincerity. You never have to wonder what he is thinking—he says it all the time.

 

Part of me wishes everyone was like this—that I could wander around with my video camera, filming Chuck hammering nails, Tony sanding the wall, Landon cleaning the window—each saying aloud exactly what is on their minds.

 

If I had the courage of Vince, I would say something like this:

 

“I am filming this. I am tired. This is amazing. We are tired. But this will be amazing. Mike, I can’t believe you made this happen for us. Landon, I know you get sad about the fact that we don’t make money, but trust me, we can do this. Tony, you are a little irresponsible, but you are one of the coolest artists I know. Chuck, you can’t spell very well, but you are good at making things, and you have an eye for beauty. You have a vision with your molding. Steve, I hope you understand what you got yourself into. Prepare to lose money with us, and to be okay with that. Fuck money! Fuck business plans and all that capitalist bullshit. This is real! This is real! We are doing this! I’m sorry we don’t make money, I’m sorry about that, but do you know how rare and beautiful this is?”

 

I wander around filming, with these thoughts in my head. My head a little cloudy from fatigue. I think I will sleep well tonight.

 

I walk home and make some soup and watch Where the Wild Things Are. Max and his Wild Things build a fort together, and for some reason it really moves me. This idea of people creating something together. Making things as we want them. Not accepting things as they are--making them new. I feel like that's what the gallery is all about, and this whole new Magoski Arts Colony. It's like we're a bunch of kids building a fort together. Making something in this world that we want to make, not because we have to or because anyone is telling us to, or because it's gonna make us lots of money or anything stupid like that. We are doing it because it's fun, and we want to.

 

Maybe that sounds cheesy, but it sounds good to me.

IV. For me, this is heaven

 

It’s one pm on a Friday afternoon. I’ve just finished teaching an English 101 class at Cal State Fullerton. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the number of papers I must grade over the weekend. But I have more immediate concerns.

 

I stop at Ralphs to buy sugar and flour to make wheat paste, which I will use to put up a big poster outside our gallery. We have an opening tonight, and there is a lot to be done. I text Chuck to ask him to pick up a couple cases of wine. Now I’m in line at Kinko’s, waiting to have the big poster printed. When I pay for the poster, I have this familiar internal debate: should I use the gallery credit card or my own credit card? Technically, I know, I should use the gallery card. That would be the fair thing to do. But, as usual, I use my own credit card because I know our financial situation. I know that we can’t really afford this, but I can.

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Hibbleton Gallery co-owner Chuck Oldfield hangs art work in preparation for an exhibit. Photo by Jesse La Tour.

Back at home, I make the wheat paste and send out a Facebook message about our show.

 

I zoom over to the gallery, where Brian and a few artists are installing the show at PAS Gallery, our neighbors. We hung our show last night, but there’s still lots to be done, like the labels. Shit. I gotta make the labels. But first things first...the wheat paste poster.

 

Putting up wheat paste posters is actually one of my favorite things to do. There is a rich history of street artists who have used the medium of wheat paste posters. Normally, wheat pasting would be a felony, like any other type of “graffiti.” But this is MY business, and so I can wheat paste the hell out of it.

 

While the poster dries, I start typing up the labels. Dammit. One of the artists forgot to give us prices, so I call her and for the eighty-fourth time I have the semi-awkward conversation about pricing artwork. I ask her to price it as low as possible because our patrons, in general, are not wealthy. Our patrons are other artists, students, families, neighbors. In this economy, not many people have a thousand dollars lying around to buy a painting.

 

Nick arrives, eager to help. Trying to sound as un-bossy as possible, I ask him to set up the DJ station.

 

Steve arrives. I ask him to fold t-shirts.

 

On art opening days, I usually have a mental checklist scrolling through my head all day, a checklist that usually doesn’t get completed until around six pm, when the opening begins. Wheat paste poster? Check. Labels? Check. Wine? Check. Facebook? Check. Sweeping? Damn. Still gotta sweep. I bet Landon will do that.

 

Tony cruises in on his skateboard, wanders around taking pictures.

 

Five o’clock. Crunch time. Oh, shit. The vinyl sticker. The show title for the front wall. I feel bad calling Casey, our vinyl sticker guy, because every month we give him the design super last minute and we’re like, “We need this in two hours!” As I’m texting Casey, he walks in with the vinyl sticker. Phew. I give him forty dollars, and then Tony and I put it up. Alright. The show is ready.

 

As I drive home for a quick shower and an even quicker dinner of cold pizza, I start thinking about a playlist for tonight. What do I want the vibe to be? Punk? Dance? Everything! We will improvise, like we always do.

 

As I’m finishing my pizza, I get a text from my dad, “We’re here. Where r u?”

 

I head back over, a little tired and anxious, but ready. What I really want is a cup of Candace’s sangria and a cigarette. After the stress of the day’s preparation, it usually takes me about three sangrias before I can actually start enjoying myself.

 

I hug my parents and grandma, warning them that some of the pieces are, as usual, “a little risqué.” They don’t seem to mind. They smile and eat their cheese and crackers and look at the art.

 

The people are starting to come. When we first opened the gallery, our crowd (being mostly in their 20s, like us) wouldn’t really show up until 8 or 9. But now that we have a full-blown Downtown Fullerton Art Walk with over 25 venues, people come earlier, and the crowd is way more diverse—families, old people, middle-aged people, people of all ethnicities and socio-economic levels. A good cross-section of the Fullerton community. I like it better this way. The young people still come out later, ready to party, but this feels more like a community art event, which it is.

 

Nick is on the turntables (actually only one turntable—the other one broke), playing New Wave. He digs the New Wave. I’m more of a punk.

 

Lots of little conversations. Leah from the Chamber of Commerce. A super old artist describes his work as “magical seascapes.” He wants a show at Hibbleton, and I don’t have the heart to tell him that seascapes are more of a Laguna Beach thing. I take his card, which has a watercolor seascape on it.

 

A few sangrias in and I’m feeling good. I hop on the turntable and play some punk classics: Dead Kennedys, Toy Dolls, Stiff Little Fingers, TSOL. Setting the vibe.

 

Landon takes over. He plays more rock n’ roll—The Kinks, electric Dylan, Cash, Howlin’ Wolf.

 

I wander over to The Violet Hour, Mike and Candace’s studio. Mike is at his DJ station, playing ambient music with spoken word stuff layered over it. He kind of looks like Andy Warhol. Candace is at the bar, pouring sangria. She is wearing a big pink wig and a nurse’s hat.

 

“You need another one, Jesse?” she asks.

 

“Indeedy.”

 

More little conversations. City council member Pam Keller. The weird skinny dude who used to play at our open mic nights and make everyone feel uncomfortable.

 

“When you gonna bring back open mic nights?” he asks, a little aggressively.

 

“I dunno. We kind of stopped doing those. Have you checked out Max Bloom’s open mic nights?”

 

I wander over to the photo booth, where John Keller, one of my favorite people, is making buttons.

 

“Wazzup, JK?”

 

“Hello Mr. La Tour.”

 

“I’m like halfway through that Richard Feynman book you loaned me. It’s awesome!”

 

“I love the way his mind works.”

 

“Yeah, he’s this total physics genius, but he writes in a way that anyone can understand what he’s talking about.”

 

“Genius.”

 

I bump into Landon.

 

“Any sales?” I ask.

 

“I think we sold a t-shirt,” he says, a little bummed.

 

“That should cover the rent. One t-shirt.”

 

“We are rollin’.”

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Visitors enjoy an interactive exhibit at Hibbleton (inside the Magoski Arts Colony) in 2015. Photo by Jesse La Tour.

What can we do but make jokes about our utter financial failure? But this place is packed. An art gallery on a Friday night in downtown Fullerton is full of people. If you said that three years ago, people would have thought you were fucking insane. Maybe we are a little insane for doing this. But it feels good. It feels right. Money don’t make our world go ‘round. Music and art and people and love. That’s what makes our world go ‘round. And this place is full of those things. And it is beautiful. In this little warehouse in suburban America, we have found a kind of paradise.

I walk around, my head a little cloudy now from the sangria, drinking all this in:  the art on the walls, the faces familiar and unfamiliar, the music. Now that the checklist has faded from my head, I drink all this in, and all this is beautiful.

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Jesse La Tour is currently the editor of the Fullerton Observer newspaper, one of the last remaining independent local newspapers in Orange County. Prior to that, he was co-founder of Hibbleton Gallery, Bookmachine books + zines, The Magoski Arts Colony, and the Downtown Fullerton Art Walk (all of which are, sadly, on hiatus due to the pandemic). He has also taught English composition at Cal State University, Fullerton and Fullerton College. La Tour enjoys writing about local history, and is working on an in-depth history of Fullerton called The Town I Live In.