On a recent August morning, a swarm of visitors streamed into the studio at First Street Gallery Art Center in Claremont. A gentle ripple of excitement spread throughout the tightly packed space. Many of the artists, seated around tables loaded with supplies looked up from their work. A few of them ventured a wave of hello, others beckoned visitors over to their desks to look at what they were making. A handful got up from their seats and began explaining their latest projects.
Touring the space were a group of Getty interns who were making stops at the various Pomona Valley arts organizations they have been working at over the past several weeks. Floating in with the tide was photographer Ramak Fazel with his young son, Felix, and friends of theirs from Italy.
First Street Gallery Art Center occupies a ground-floor storefront at 250 W. 1st St. Its exhibition space is visible from the street, and passers-by can see the current show through floor-to-ceiling windows. In the studio tucked behind the gallery, the artists -- individuals with developmental disabilities -- work with instructors and produce their own unique works of art.
According to First Street’s director, Rebecca Hamm, the Tierra del Sol Foundation opened the studio space and gallery in 1989 as one of its many innovative programs for adults with disabilities. It has since become one of the top three programs of its kind in the county and a model for progressive practices. The center aims to provide its artists with a sense of purpose, agency, expertise and initiative, and encourages them to pursue their own ideas. Its tradition of community engagement provides its artists opportunities to give back, particularly as volunteers, teaching classes and community workshops for a variety of age groups.
Seth Pringle, First Street’s gallery manager, said that while the most common clinical diagnoses for artists here are Cerebral Palsy, Down syndrome or Autism, the center strives not to define individuals by what is defined clinically as “disability.” While only some of the artists at First Street are non-verbal, most of the artists “develop alternate methods of communicating,” Hamm said, which requires the instructors, staff and volunteers to adjust and learn from the individual artists in response.
Many First Street artists have been active at the center for years. Recently, the space has received a flurry of attention: Helen Rae’s second solo show at The Good Luck Gallery in Chinatown opened earlier this year to rave reviews -- David Pagel from the L.A. Times and Artillery staff writer Ezrha Jean Black have praised her work. Another First Street artist, Joe Zaldivar, whose work is on view in Good Luck’s group show, “Mapping Fictions,” through August 27, makes pieces based on Google street views, as well as traditional grid maps, in a way that bridges social media, traditional art making and the notion that one can compass the entire world with a microchip.
Good Luck’s Paige Wery first visited the center last year after learning of it by word of mouth. “I went with the idea that I would do a group show with First Street artists and bring awareness for their program,” she said in a phone interview. Wery was then taken by Rae’s work. Realizing that Rae, who was 76 at the time, had never received a solo show, she decided she would be the one to give Rae her solo debut. “Since then, my respect for the center has increased,” Wery said. “I’m getting to know them more and more and [seeing] how wonderful their program is.”
A hallmark of that program has been the collaborative projects that pair First Street artists with artists, writers and curators from the surrounding community. Hamm and Pringle have continued to cultivate opportunities by inviting local artists in, and more and more people are approaching First Street to pitch an idea for a project. Last year, when Fazel was invited to contribute a piece to the annual benefit exhibition for the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, he immediately thought of Zaldivar. “I’ve noticed now for some time, a number of artists working with Google maps. Joe’s approach was very enticing and different than other work I had seen,” Fazel said. The auction’s theme, a celebration of architect Thom Mayne, the founder of the architectural firm Morphosis, and Korean sculptor and installation artist Do Ho Suh, seemed suited to Zaldivar’s spatial confections.
Fazel presented Zaldivar with a conceptual framework for the piece. “I thought that this would be a way to meld architecture and geography across space and time in an interesting way.” Zaldivar ran with the idea, “taking various Google street views of significant buildings that were part of each one of the artists’ [Mayne and Suh] practice and making a mash-up of that,” Fazel said. Fazel was overwhelmed by the depth of Zaldivar’s research and called it his way of “visioning a different geography through Google maps.”
Charles Long, who collaborated with a group of about 20 First Street artists for the 2013 exhibit, “Found in Translation,” first encountered the center about 10 years ago through one of its annual tile workshops. Not knowing much about First Street, Long and his son, who was 10 years old then, had dropped in to explore and ended up making ceramic tiles and getting to know some of the artists.
“We noticed a very interesting and unusual kind of energy in the studio that was both free form in some ways and guided in others,” Long said. “Some of the artists would come up to us and start talking,” he recalled, “and it was a little bit unusual, in fact, at first. We were greeted very enthusiastically. And so, sometimes the teachers would come over and explain to us who it was that was talking to us and what kind of art they made, and we would talk to them about their art.”
Long initially felt a little unsure about how to interact. “It was because of that uneasiness that I proposed to Rebecca and Seth that I collaborate, that I get to know everybody there and spend time and expand my horizons into the different ways that people make art -- I’ve done lots of collaborations,” he said, “and this was absolutely the most rewarding one.”
“There’s amazing art coming out of that program,” said Wery, who has been impressed with the level of encouragement the artists receive, but most importantly, she added, “First Street helps their artists find their own voice and develop the direction of their own work... And even though a lot of the artists there are non-verbal, here’s First Street encouraging them to find their voice. It’s really quite remarkable.”
Top image: Ramak Fazel and Joe Zaldivar, "Transit Across," 2015. Illustration markers, pen, colored pencils and watercolor on paper.