Exile on Vernon
Those displaced from a historic art space in Venice may not be able to return
By Christina Campodonico
“What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit,” wrote John Updike.
But what happens when the space that has come to define your art is no longer yours?
That’s a question more than a dozen Venice artists have had to grapple with after being forced to vacate their longtime creative studios at 361 Vernon Ave., a former industrial building with corrugated steel siding that lies right in the bullseye of the area’s real estate boom.
In recent years, 361 Vernon (once known as The Distillery) had become a central gathering space for the grassroots Venice ARTBLOCK open studios tour. But it’s history as an affordable home for Venice artists dates back to at least the early 1990s.
After receiving notice to vacate the 1957 building, leaseholders and subletters scrambled for weeks to remove years of accumulated art and supplies by a July 15 move-out deadline. Several said they were told the property would be undergoing renovations to bring it up to code. Property owners Sunset Studios LLC declined to comment, and Los Angeles Planning Department officials were unable to locate any construction permit documents on file as of late July.
The space will continue to house art studios after renovations are complete, but some who left in July won’t return. Several said they were given the option to renew their leases at rates below market value but higher than before — in some cases almost double the monthly rent.
Some, like MB Boissonnault, fought to stay. Others, like Jim Budman, have already signed up to return in November. Others just walked away.
Venice photographer Debbie Zeitman was not a tenant of 361 Vernon Ave., but their exit and the ongoing displacement of artists from Venice due largely to rising real estate values has inspired her to document artists in their studios before many of them inevitably disappear.
She’s titled her project “Before They Go” and posted some of her photos and artist profiles on her Instagram account: @beforetheygo.
Zeitman started taking pictures at 361 Vernon less than two weeks before tenants started moving out.
“Time was of the essence,” says Zeitman. “I just quickly said, ‘I’d like to photograph all of you in your spaces before you have to leave — if nothing else just to preserve a little slice of the memory here.’”
“The building will die tomorrow when everybody’s gone,” artist MB Boissonnault says as she removes the last objects from her studio at 361 Vernon. It’s Saturday, July 16 — one day past the official deadline for tenants to move out of the building, but she’s held out to the bitter end.
“I’ve watched too many people walking around here like post-apocalyptic,” she says. “Their studios are empty. They’re bringing their last boxes out. They’re getting in their car, leaving. They come back here, even though they have no studio. They’re hanging out. Their stuff is still in the hallway. It’s really bizarre. And they’re just like deer in the headlights. It’s tragic. It’s really tragic.”
Whether placed there by accident or design, a copy of “The Raft of Medusa”— a 19th-century French painting depicting survivors of a shipwreck vainly flagging down a rescue boat — leans against a painting of a roiling sea. No matter how hard the sailors fight they cannot overcome the force of elements greater than themselves.
“It’s been like rats jumping off a sinking ship,” says Boissonnault of the weeks since lease termination notices went out in May.
But she didn’t go down without a fight. Boissonnault organized a postcard campaign that led to a meeting with a field deputy for L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, and she raised funds for the cause by selling T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Gjentrified” and “Gjenocide” — the Gj spelling a reference to Gjelina and Gjusta, the two restaurants most frequently associated with New Venice.
Boissonnault says she cannot afford to return to 361 Vernon at nearly double the previous rent.
“The new rent here was to be $4k plus utilities plus deposit,” she says. “It’s completely untenable.”
Instead, she’s found space at a new design house on the border of Santa Monica and Venice.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “Is Venice going to be okay?”
Roland Coate Jr.
As movers carry out canvases from his studio, 86-year-old Roland Coate Jr. reflects on his life’s work.
There was his bathing beauty period, when he painted whimsical nudes of women cavorting around the Venice Boardwalk. There is his architectural period, when he painted houses, both real and imagined, against blue seas and red mountains. Recently it’s been abstract paintings — bold zig-zags of color that waffle across canvases like rings on a geological map.
Each represents a chapter in Coate’s life as a Venice artist, a path he embarked upon when he decided to wind down his architectural practice in the early 1970s and rent a 2,400-square-foot studio off Lincoln Boulevard for $300 a month.
“I just decided that I was more interested in painting and I wanted to evolve through a painting experience. I stopped doing architecture. I turned down a couple of jobs and got this big space and started painting,” says Coate, who found his creative passion after years of working in the profession set out for him by his father, famed Southern California architect Roland Coate Sr.
When Coate moved to 361 Vernon in 1993, the monthly rent was $900. He transformed the spot into not only a personalized workspace for making and storing his paintings, but also his home, outfitting it with custom shelving for his canvasses, a kitchen on the ground floor and a sleeping loft upstairs.
Coate lived in the studio until 2012, after a series of falls forced him into medical rehab to recuperate. He now lives in an assisted living facility in Santa Monica, where he’ll paint from now on because he can’t afford to come back to 361 Vernon. If he returned, his rent would rise from $2,550 per month to $4,990 per month.
“You couldn’t ask for a more perfect example of artists getting pushed out by gentrification,” Coate says.
If Don Draper had a storage unit, it might have looked like Jim Budman’s studio at 361 Vernon.
The space was jam-packed with Mad Men-style pieces — a suave white conical fireplace, a flamboyant orange armchair, a sexy red television set, psychedelic door beads, and tons and tons of paintings and photographs that Budman has created or collected from artists over the years.
Budman moved into 361 Vernon in 1994 after working out of his apartment for 10 years. The new space allowed him to host other artists over the years — Takashi Murakami (“the Andy Warhol of Japan”), Neo-Pop cartoonist Nara, realist painter Kenny Harris, and ceramicists Brad Miller and Mollie Favour, to name a few.
“It’s always been a nice mix of creative energy within the space,” says Budman, who fosters the salon-style ambience with his eclectic aesthetic — a blend of odd finds and elegant statement pieces that he first honed as a design consultant.
One of his most eye-catching installations is a bank of doll heads in cubbyholes along the entrance to the studio.
“I went to a thrift store years ago and there was a box of doll heads. Each one had kind of a different expression. As soon as I put each doll head in one of those compartments, all of a sudden it became a piece,” says Budman. “They’ve been there at least 12 years. It’s one of those things that stands the test of time.”
If not quite the finality of a move-out date.
Budman has already signed a lease to return to 361 Vernon following renovations, and he’s looking forward to a fresh start.
“The silver lining is that after 22 years I’m able to go through stuff and really re-work it and reorganize it,” he says.
Budman’s favorite piece from his collection — a circular neon sign that hangs above the entrance to his studio — encapsulates that sentiment. It says, “Open.”
“I always try to keep that kind of philosophy — to be open,” he says. “I’m going to do everything I can to bring great creative energy into the new space.”
Kate Wolfgang Savage
For Kate Wolfgang Savage, her studio has been her sanctuary.
Perched above a set of steep stairs, it’s a uniquely Venice oasis where Old World elegance meets New Age vibes. A rusty red Persian rug covers the floor, and furry sheepskins sit draped over a small table or chair. Potted succulents surround a meditating Buddha — a Zen garden on a shelf. A crate turned on its side is ornamented with tiny golden figurines, star-shaped stones, a melted candle and a bone-white peacock feather, serving as a makeshift altar to an assortment of spiritual practices, from yogic to pagan.
Savage jokes that she’s a “yogi first, an artist second,” but here the artistic and the divine seem to commingle. Turkey wings hanging on the wall look like a pair of cherub wings; nude self-portraits, some rimmed with golden halos, have an angelic glow. Savage herself has an ethereal aspect. Dressed in a white cotton shift with a crystal amulet hanging around her neck, her palms often turn upward toward the sky, like hands in meditation.
“This is a space where I come to be myself,” says Savage. “It feeds my soul.”
And it has fed her creative practice for the past three years.
When Savage landed in Venice in 2010, it was the end of one journey and the beginning of the next. She had abandoned her successful ecommerce company, given up her well-appointed home, thrown a ring off her finger, taken up study with painter Nelson Shanks and had just spent the last six-months living out of her van, traveling cross-country to find herself.
At 361 Vernon she found an answer.
“Art’s a deep journey. You have to really, really be yourself,” says Savage. “This room, it is the way it is because it’s my frequency. It’s not a curated space. It’s me.”
Since move-out day, Savage has found another, albeit smaller Venice studio.
“It is a very humble space,” she says, “but I will make magic in it anyway.”
Before moving into 361 Vernon three years ago, painter Bisco Smith was following several creative pursuits, including deejaying and designing album covers. But being here helped him focus on becoming a fine artist.
“This building changed my life,” says Smith, sitting in his sparse second-floor studio, reminiscing about hosting his wedding reception here. The small space is a battleground between chaos and control. Black and white — and maybe flecks of gray — are the only colors in Smith’s limited palette.
“I’m a fan of contrast,” he says.
These stark shades run wild, covering the walls and floors with spray paint streaks and splashes that look as if they’ve willfully dashed over the edge of Smith’s canvases with reckless abandon. The stray marks look downright unwieldy against the artist’s meticulously placed grid of brushes and gloves, but there is method to the madness.
“The dirtier I get, the freer I become,” Smith says of blending the freedom of splatter painting with the tight, calligraphic style of street art graffiti.
Smith started doing graffiti on the streets of New York at age 12, a Connecticut kid drawn to the city’s urban art and music.
“Hip-hop led through the train lines my way,” Smith recalls of his initial inspiration to create raps and mix beats.
But when Smith got to Venice, the tunes in his head started changing. He began putting his songs on canvas, freestyling with paint just as he did with language and rhythm. He also discovered a cross-generational sense of bonding among artists like nowhere else.
“The community in Venice, there’s something about it,” he muses. “It has a lot of history. It’s definitely influenced my way of being.”
Smith’s not sure whether he’ll come back to the studio after it is renovated or venture elsewhere, but he’ll ride it out while his work shows through August at C.A.V.E. Gallery on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
“Maybe it will push me back to the street,” he says.