With a small backyard barbecue the Pacific Felt Factory, the Mission’s most recently activated arts space, celebrated its first birthday on Sunday night. It was a modest celebration for a determined little studio in a city and neighborhood where its larger, weightier cousins are being swallowed whole.
“Three or four years ago, you had Guerrero Gallery across the street, Steven Wolf across the street from that, CellSpace was open, and Million Fishes,” said Pacific Felt Factory artist Rodney Ewing. “You could walk around this neighborhood and there was a lot of art, and there was a diverse body of art being made. And now that’s kind of, you know, gone.”
While art studios around the Mission were disappearing, Ewing’s partner, Spike Kahn, was busy trying to figure out how to bring the Pacific Felt Factory back into the scene. She and Ewing lived nearby and passed through the empty building’s rear courtyard once in a while to collect mail. She’d heard it was an arts space.
“I was walking past this empty building every day and was like, what the hell is this?” she said. “There was no art being done here.”
She set out to find the owner, which, it turned out, was the Art Space Development Corporation, the real estate arm of the organization California Lawyers for the Arts. The space had been grudgingly given to the nonprofit by a developer of a nearby market rate project as a community benefit mandated by the Planning Commission. But still, it was arts space – with no art. Kahn encountered the head of the Lawyers for the Arts by chance, who told her the place sat empty due to a lack of building expertise and funds to spruce it up.
“I’m like, ‘I’m a builder, I got money, I’ll do it for you,’ ” Kahn remembered telling the lawyers.
That focused drive to ensure that arts space continues to exist in the neighborhood is how several artists who now have their studios at the Pacific Felt Factory believe the city will hold on to its remaining artists.
“The Bay Area is very much one-sided, focused on technology – computer technology,” said Constantine Zlatev, a sculpture artist at the Felt Factory. “It’s becoming a matter of having the few people who are willing to put the work in, to put their time into creating something like that.”
It takes, Ewing said, “Somebody in the community like Spike, who saw the need and saw the resource sitting there…acting upon it.”
Then it takes community. Cindy Shih, who started with watercolors but works in multiple media now that she has the space to do so, credited her studio neighbors with the Pacific Felt Factory’s success.
“The fact that everyone is sort of community minded makes a big difference,” she said. “Everyone sort of knows how much the community matters and how much we should really be giving back.”
Sometimes the community of 14 can seem like a bit of a cobbled-together family – Kahn metaphorically referred to Zlatev as “Dad,” the fix-it man who can hang doors and weld things, and painter Sandra Yagi as “Mom,” who protested that she was not domestic at all while cleaning up potluck dishes. Kahn even hinted at a past sibling rivalry.
But the studio complex was founded as, and remains, a professional community nonetheless. Hopeful tenants were screened, selecting for serious artists building a career rather than fine arts students. Most hold no MFA but have at least a decade of experience under their belts – Ewing was an artist in residence at the DeYoung museum and currently has work on display at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Yagi is displaying work as far away as Auckland and can claim Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses as one of her most frequent customers.
Everyone is expected to put in 10 hours of work a month. There is no bureaucracy – Kahn is the sole administrator.
“We’re not a bunch of kids around here,” she said. “Things get done.”
Things like turning the bare drywall rooms of the building into studios. Things like organizing exhibitions, community events, campaigns. Things like giving artists space to do what they do.
Yagi had been booted out of three studio spaces prior to arriving at the Pacific Felt Factory. When she got there, she saw the wheelchair-accessible ramp and decided she could stay there well into her senior days.
“Having a space that’s stable and I don’t have to worry about this turning into a tech office, I’m not fretting while I’m working”
Shih started her working life in tech, and spent seven years at Google before she took the leap into teaching and making art full time. At the beginning, she shared space (for a time, with Yagi), but having her own has broadened her horizons.
“When I was doing watercolor on my drafting table I was doing watercolor like this big,” she said, marking out with her hands a space roughly the size of a piece of printer paper. “Now I’m working on panels, sculpture…all this stuff would not have been possible even when I was sharing with [Yagi].”
“My studio is the place where I create. it’s just as important as my work,” said Zlatev.