The Short Goodbye
Venice loses a piece of itself with the eviction of artist William Attaway
By Joe Piasecki
William Attaway built this studio with his own two hands, a labor of love that has spanned 35 years.
A letter that arrived six months ago is about to take it all away.
Once a roughhewn pocket of creativity in an industrial stretch of The Ghetto by the Sea, Attaway’s painting and ceramics studio at 334 Sunset Ave. is now prime property — and the future home of more tech-industry office space.
The adjacent intersection of Sunset and Third avenues reads like an abbreviated version of the Venice real estate Monopoly board. Two doors down on Sunset, nine-month-old Gjusta (which hired Attaway to sculpt its coffee cups) has turned a derelict warehouse into a destination restaurant. Up and down Third, dozens of homeless people spend their nights on the pavement behind mighty Gold’s Gym and Frank Gehry’s “binoculars building,” the local headquarters for Google.
A taste of the promise and hardships of Old Venice remain, but this isn’t the same place where 17-year-old Attaway dropped out of University High School to embark on an art career in 1980.
“When I got here I paid $100 a month for a small space. It was me and a bunch of old ladies, and they hated me because I played Bob Marley and Van Halen all the time,” Attaway says.
After the last of his colleagues chose to relocate, Attaway laid pipe, poured concrete and installed pottery equipment to craft an indoor/outdoor creative space of his own.
“I tell you, man, if I didn’t have this studio I don’t know what I would be. I think everybody should have the space around them to create, whether it’s physical space or inspirational space,” he says. “I think that’s what Venice is all about.”
Attaway, who lives nearby with his wife and four of his children, will say goodbye to his studio on Sunday with a public art party to celebrate a new series of mixed-media and ceramic pieces created in reaction to that eviction notice.
For these dark hours he chose an unlikely theme: Light.
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“When the letter finally hit me, I started working. It snapped me out of every funk and thought pattern that wasn’t dealing with what I had to do,” Attaway says. “I’ve created more work than I ever had [over any six-month span]. What came out of me was light.”
His optimism came with some encouragement.
It wasn’t long after the eviction notice arrived that Attaway met Leslie Heinze.
Heinze is an art promoter whose mission statement is to preserve Venice’s storied visual arts tradition within a landscape increasingly dominated by high-rolling tech firms attracted to the area by a more bohemian culture that gentrification now threatens.
These are the ideal customers, Heinze says, to keep Venice artists in business.
“If these companies are thriving, there’s no reason art can’t thrive too,” she says. “It’s a matter of thinking creatively and intelligently about how we can hone-in these relationships and make it work in a business sense.”
Heinze and business partner Jeremy Ryan, a software designer and art importer, call their enterprise Everything Changes.
Everything Changes launched 14 months ago with a pop-up exhibit on Washington Boulevard. Since then, Heinze and Ryan have tested their art-meets-tech networking model through an art party at online sales platform operators StackCommerce that kicked off a long-term art lease agreement. They’ve also found more permanent gallery walls at the Ocean Park offices of Dogtown Realty and have signed several artists, included Isabel Alfred-Lago — a standout among Venice’s new guard whose purple gorilla murals populate Venice interior and exterior walls.
Heinze has been pushing Attaway hard to prep for Sunday’s public exhibit of his “Light” series as well as an earlier private gathering of handpicked tech executives and other local business leaders who may be able to display some of his work. Gjusta, South End Pizza and other businesses are helping the first effort; Venice Ale House and Pizza of Venice are coming through for Sunday’s public event.
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In addition to community support, Attaway has other reasons to be optimistic: A local coffee shop is ordering more handmade dishware. He’s started talking with a local architecture firm about installing a large outdoor work of public art on the site of his soon-to-be-former studio. He’s also pursuing concepts for erecting a 30’-by-20’ art wall outside the former Venice Post Office at Windward Circle.
Attaway, 51, takes a balanced view of the economic forces at play around him.
“Artists, designers, thinkers and tinkerers — what they’re doing is the same thing painters have done, but they’re not working with the physical, their working with the ethereal. Once we get on the same page we can have a little of this and a little of that, a table that’s set, a full meal,” he says.
“Every person who’s ever moved here from somewhere else has gentrified this place in some way,” he continues. “I can blame myself. The minute I re-did the Venice boardwalk with my 25-foot sculpture and the mosaics, that was the beginning of the end of what we know was, but the beauty of that is everything changes. That’s where my ideas and Leslie’s linked up.”
After winning an MTA contract to design public art for the Pomona Metrolink Station and collaborating with Venice Arts Mecca (now the nonprofit Venice Arts) to run weekend youth art classes at his studio, Attaway left a permanent stamp on Venice in 1999 with the creation of his ceramic “Dream Come True” beach sculpture and the mosaic walls near the LAPD’s Venice Beach substation. He credits L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, then working for Bill Rosendahl, with helping him through the public art process.
Other Attaway projects have included art installations for a United Nations sustainability conference, set design work for the 2004 NAACP image awards, interior artwork for a Herbie Hancock record and a large art installation at Clear Channel’s Los Angeles headquarters.
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Attaway traces his success to parental support and free time spent in and around the now-defunct Marina del Rey Skate Park, where he made a friend who had a job at a local pottery studio.
Born in New York City, Attaway was two when his family moved to Barbados and stayed there until he was 13. It was in Barbados that creation became second nature.
“Where I grew up, if you needed a toy car you’d take wire and make wheels. There was no toy store. Here and now, everybody’s buying something from somebody else. There’s no creativity. It’s instant gratification,” Attaway says.
Attaway’s father, William Alexander Attaway, moved the family to Venice for practical reasons: He wrote Hollywood screenplays and movie music for a living, with some additional songwriting for Harry Belafonte that included “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”
Attaway’s mother was an artist who did work for Blue Note Records. When Attaway got caught skipping school, she made him put in a full day’s work making art at the kitchen table.
“There was always art. Whether we had money or not, I had art supplies,” he recalls.
Attaway’s parents initially balked at him ditching high school to produce art full-time, but after a disparaging meeting with the school’s principal the senior Attaway agreed to pay his son’s studio rent if he got his GED.
“Once I realized that I could make something from nothing and people would want it, that’s what did it for me,” Attaway says.
The next chapter of Attaway’s artistic life — and the fate of other visual artists in the New Venice — may not be easy, but it doesn’t have to be painful, Heinze says.
“Human beings have a hard time with change, but that’s how we grow,” she says. “You can take the conversation from negatives to positives without being detached from the reality of what’s happening in Venice.”
“There’s so much to see. There’s so much to say. There’s so much to do,” responds Attaway. “I can’t wait.”
Attaway he was; Attaway he goes.
William Attaway’s final studio party and public unveiling of his “Letting in the Light” series happens from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16, at 334 Sunset Ave., Venice. Call (310) 795-9160 or visit etcartgallery.com for more information.