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Home Is Where The Art Is At New East Village Commune

Above: The airy interior of Space 4 Art, a new commune for local artists.

Before artists and entrepreneurs Cheryl Nickel and Bob Leathers could break ground on Space 4 Art, San Diego’s newest creative commune, they challenged over 300 artists to answer one question:

What would they desire most in a work space?

The response was overwhelming. No, they didn’t pine for a built-in kitchen and on-site wood shop, 18,000 square feet of space, or frequent gallery nights – though the place has those, too.

“The number one thing they found that all the artists wanted was a connection to community,” says Ruby Cougler, Space 4 Art’s assistant director. “Artists know what it’s like to be forced out by gentrification. It’s not about fixing things. It’s about thriving and reaching out.”

Perched on the edge of downtown’s East Village, it’s easy to see why the lofty warehouse, once home to an architecture firm, is an idyllic home base for the 40 artists who muse away inside. Its 15th street location is borderline bohemian bourgeoisie. A few blocks to the south, Petco Park and luxury condos that blind in the sun hover like sentinels over an area where the sidewalk quite literally ends. In other words, it’s perfect.

“It’s something San Diego has needed for a long time,” says Cougler, guiding me through the commune’s 30-plus studios, which are separated by thick walls and heavy doors. She raps on one cheerfully and yells, “Tanya, you home?”

We enter the studio of Tanya Young, a painter based in Del Mar who commutes daily to the space. She breaks from her work to let us survey her world of sunny gargantuan canvasses. We pop out and head upstairs to the “catacombs,” where May-Ling Martinez, whose work is currently on display in MCASD’s “Here Not There,” is hard at work. She invites us in, even offering a few snacks, and we chat about Tijuana’s emerging art scene and the recent shortage of art coverage in the local media (yes, even the artists have noticed).

The work – and the artists- inside Space 4 Art may be interesting, but equally impressive is the time it took for Space 4 Art to go from a hazy "what-if" to reality.

The idea for the commune first came about in 2008. Two years worth of research ensued. By January 2010, Leathers and Nickel, along with co-founder Chris Warr, had secured the spot. A few months later, it was celebrating its first public art opening.

“(Leathers) would host community builds,” explains Cougler. “It took two years to identify the need for Space 4 Art, and three months to build it.”

And build it they did, some using power tools for the first time. Each artist who'd signed up for the space was required to participate.

“(Leathers) is a genius,” laughs Nickel. “He would organize people who barely knew how to hammer, and soon they were putting together panels for a wall.”

The project was aided in part by Synergy Art Foundation, as well as hundreds of hours of volunteer work. Thanks to a 5-year lease backed by its founders, space ranges from $200 to $850, supplemented by 8 hours of self-designated housekeeping duties.

And though the East Village has become a magnet for creatives lately, don’t lament over gentrification just yet, Cougler says. “Artists know what it’s like to be forced out by gentrification,” says Cougler. “It’s not about fixing things – it’s about thriving and reaching out.”

In line with this outreach, possible future projects include community beautification, and an exhibit featuring art by the homeless, says Nickel. And resident Isaias Crow and other artists are organizing a class that will train students from low-income neighborhoods in San Diego to paint, commencing in a group mural painted on the side of a local bookstore. A high-profile partnership as a satellite for the upcoming San Diego Art Fair is also set for September.

“No one from the outside was going to make this happen,” says Martinez. “We’re going to make it happen.”

Coulger and I are in the back of the space now, which unbelievably almost touches the other side of the block (it is 18,000 square feet, after all). She tells me she wants to show me the wood shop, and as we head up the stairs, points out the miniature painted trashcans-turned-planters that decorate the porch, and asks me a question of her own.

“Can you tell that artists live here?”

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