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The Brewery Art Colony: From Craft Beers to Arts and Crafts

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There is a rush and excitement to the biannual Brewery Art Colony Artwalk that is not easily replicated outside the confines of a county fair or street festival. Twice a year, the artists who live and work at this collection of repurposed warehouses, breweries, and electric plants off the Golden State Freeway open their doors to the curious. There is music, and delicious foods, whose smells permeate the air. A herd mentality prevails as you glide from one artist's loft to the next. The main focus is usually the art on display -- mixed-media installations, canvases thick with oil paint, and inscrutable live performances. But I have always been most fascinated by the rumpled bed pushed to the side of the studio, the toothbrush lying on the industrial sink next to some paintbrushes, the off-limits upstairs loft where I can spy a computer and books and a half-finished glass of whisky.

One day last week, I decided to take a mid-week, mid-afternoon stroll around the Brewery Art Colony. It sits in the hushed, Rust Belt-reminiscent area of Lincoln Heights, where diminutive, run-down Victorian homes stand side-by-side to abandoned commercial brownstones and small hipster businesses. Though the buildings at the Brewery are rough and industrial, in every other way it felt like I had stepped into a sleepy, close-knit rural town. In one repurposed loading dock, a few workers were spraying down signs and carrying them into an awaiting flatbed truck. A little further on, two men were sitting on the curb. One man was eating a sandwich, the other smoking a cigarette. I walked down a quiet makeshift street where an old man with long flowing hair sat at a picnic table, eyeing me curiously. In front of many of the studios there were inventive outdoor "front yards" of potted plants, flowering vines, statuary and garden chairs.

Barbara's, the colony's friendly on-site bar and restaurant, was sparsely populated. Most of the clientele sat chatting easily on the deck, like close co-workers or old friends. A man and woman were in deep discussion on a bench near the gazebo in the tiny, mid-complex park. Further on, a squirrel scurried across a row of brightly colored storage crates. The area in front of the famous Brewery smokestack was empty, until a mail-truck drove slowly down the otherwise deserted street. I watched as the mailman stepped out of his truck and begin to deliver packages door to door. He and I nodded as we passed, and I waved at a man sanding at an angulating table outside his workspace. As I walked out of this self-contained, vibrant world, I thought of the amazing feats of creativity that were occurring in the silent grey and brown buildings that surrounded me. Creativity doesn't just thrive in chaos, it also thrives in peace.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Put Eastside Inside

Lincoln Heights started its life in the 1830s as "East Los Angeles" and is commonly held to be L.A.'s oldest suburb. Many prominent L.A. pioneers, including Albert Sidney Johnston and Dr. John Strother Griffin, built stately mansions in this neighborhood on the eastside bluffs of the L.A. River. The industrial boom of the 1880s and '90s transformed the area into a center of thriving blue collar commerce. It became the home to a large community of Italians, Irish, and Germans -- many of whom worked at the factories and warehouses in the neighborhood.

In 1897, a new employer came into Lincoln Heights. The Los Angeles Brewing Company (also called the Eastside Brewery) opened a plant at 1920 North Main Street on the shore of the L.A. River. Sales were good, and in 1903 it was reported that the Brewery had "broken ground on a five-story malt house at its plant." 2 That same year the Edison Electric company began building a "mammoth" new power plant, designed by legendary architect John Parkinson. Situated behind the brewery, it was heralded as "one of the most perfect electric plants outside Chicago." 3 It featured a "battery of eight boilers" and high-tech Curtiss turbine engines. Its 150 foot tall cement smoke stack soon towered over the neighborhood.

Edison Steam Plant No. 3, designed in 1903 by John Parkinson
Edison Steam Plant No. 3, designed in 1903 by John Parkinson

In 1907, longtime brewer George Zobelein bought the controlling interest in the Eastside Brewery from Max Kuehnrich. The Bavarian born Zobelein was a "straightforward, liberal and progressive citizen" who strongly supported the national brewers unions. 4 Jobs at the "quaint, Bavarian style" 20-acre Eastside plant were highly coveted by the residents of Lincoln Heights. According to the L.A. Times, brewery workers were "among the city's best-paid and had excellent working conditions... Lunch periods at Eastside were paid...and vacation benefits were among the most liberal available." 5 Workers also loved the hourly, seven minute "beer breaks" where they could help themselves to free, unlimited refreshment. Lincoln Heights native George Morrow was thrilled when he got a job at the Brewery. "They were the best paid and had the best working conditions," he recalled. "Everybody looked up to them." 6

Prohibition did not slow the brewery down. Instead of brewing beers like Old Mission Malt, Eastside, and Old Tap Lager, it switched to producing soft drinks and near-beer. At midnight on April 7, 1933, prohibition officially ended. The Eastside plant was at the center of the celebration. Actor Water Huston gave a congratulatory speech, and Jean Harlow broke a bottle over the first truck in thirteen years to roll out of the plant stocked with beer. The Zobelein family continued to run the brewery until 1948, when Pabst purchased the complex for $14 million dollars. After extensive renovations and expansion, the new Pabst plant was formally dedicated in 1953. Lt. Governor Harold J. Powers cut the "traditional Pabst Blue ribbon" 7 under an American flag raised in the courtyard. The 40-foot high "Pabst Blue Ribbon Sign" erected at the plant soon became a mile marker for those driving the busy Golden State Freeway.

Jean Harlow re-christens the brewery after the end of prohibition, 1933 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Jean Harlow re-christens the brewery after the end of prohibition, 1933 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Pabst's closure of the brewery in 1979 further depressed the already shaky infrastructure of Lincoln Heights. Starting in the 1940s, almost the entire Brewery workforce began to move out to the safer and more affordable Valley suburbs. Recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America moved into Lincoln Heights. The Pabst Brewery was purchased in 1979 by entrepreneur Arnold "Whitey" Carlson and his sons, Steven and Arnold (the former Edison Plant property was purchased later). According to Whitey's granddaughter (and current Brewery manager) Kristen Carlson:

But the combination of eager artists, forward thinking owners and the 1982 passage of the Artist-in-Residence code was about to ferment a community with output much more exciting than a useful broom.

A wage strike at Pabst Brewery, 1954 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
A wage strike at Pabst Brewery, 1954 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

A Blank Canvas

In 1982, the city of Los Angeles passed the Artist-in-Residence code, which mandated that artists could rent studios in industrial zoned buildings. The Carlsons decided to turn the 16-acre Brewery into an artist colony, and set about finding tenants. According to Kristen Carlson, "We placed an ad in the paper and received such an overwhelming response that we literally had to take the phone off the hook. And that's when we began the decade long process of turning the buildings on site into artist live/work spaces." The early decades in this "isolated enclave" were youthful and gritty. Long-time resident Ted Meyer remembers, "When I first moved in, there were more students. People moved in while finishing art school or just after graduation." Galleries, architects, metal foundries, and various artistically inclined businesses also moved in, standing side by side with artists' lofts. Members of the Carlson family lived on the property and became an integral part of the community.

Over the years rents have gone up, though the lofts that are occasionally available are still of the same basic mold. Many residents have lived at the colony for years, and new residents tend to be wealthier and more established than their predecessors, which bothers some in the arts community. According to Kristen Carlson, the coveted spaces are "a blank canvas, a raw space where artists can create the type of living environment they seek." Residents take great pride in transforming their living spaces. Kristine Schomaker, president of the Brewery Artwalk Association, relates what her home is like:

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During the bi-annual Brewery Artwalk | Photo: Ray Smith/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Brewery's fame grew exponentially with the increasing popularity of the biannual Artwalk. The Artwalk began in the '80s as an informal celebration of the community's output. It slowly grew into a major event, which now attracts over 10,000 people. The opportunity to show and sell your work to the greater L.A. community entices many artists to move to the property. It also serves as motivation for creation. "It puts pressure on me to have a new work every 6 months to show," Ted Meyer relates. "I might slack off otherwise." Much like Mardi Gras and other giant festivals, some residents are overwhelmed by the biannual onslaught and choose to go out of town on Artwalk weekend. Yet, according to former resident Phillip Horvath, interacting with Artwalk visitors is one of the most inspiring things about living at the Brewery:

There are few rules at the Brewery. "You have to be an artist to be a resident," Kristen Carlson says. "No dogs and no musical instruments. Really, every rule we have is about keeping neighbors happy. I tell residents all the time: if you're not bothering your neighbors, you're probably not bothering us." The most beloved resident, by far, seems to be L.A. artist, musician, and notorious curmudgeon with a heart-of-gold Llyn Foulkes, who has acted as mentor to many of his neighbors. Neighbors often borrow supplies from each other, and collaborate on projects. We have people of all different specialties here, Ted Meyer says, "and if you need help, an opinion, something fabricated- someone here can do it."

Of course, disputes do occur. "This many highly creative people living in one city block can also make for some interesting, and at times frustrating, neighbor disputes," Kristen explains, "like: my neighbor has been making noise until all hours of the night working on their art and it's keeping me up." However, sometimes these disruptions can lead to magical experiences. Bruce Dean remembers:

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The Most Neighborly Place I Have Lived

It is hard to define just what the Brewery experience is like. Kristine Schomaker says, "Some people compare the community to a college fraternity or sorority. Sometimes there is drama, sometimes wild parties, but most of the time it is about family and supporting each other." Bruce Dean calls it "an interesting combination of unforgiving urban industrial pragmatism and a kind of small-town naivety." Kristen Carlson compares it to "one living, breathing organism made up of 500 or so highly individual parts." Philip Horvath relates it to "a campus or an edgy art school with individual self-administration." At the end of the day, perhaps the best word for the Brewery Art Colony is simply this: Home.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares, by klxadm
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

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1 "Beer to flow this morning" Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1933
2 "The Eastside" Los Angles Times, August 24, 1903
3 "East Los Angeles, Good progress" Los Angles Times, Sept 7, 1903
4 James Miller Guinn, "A History of Southern California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and Environs" 1916
5 "L.A. brewery was the toast of its times" Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1997
6 "L.A. brewery closure illustrates pabsts waning fortunes" Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1979
7 "Pabst dedicates it la brewery" Los Angeles Times November 18, 1953
8 rseitz.com

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