When I think of art galleries, I usually envision large, empty rooms, dramatically simple décor and a pretentious vibe that never fails to make me feel a little less cool than I felt before walking in. Luckily, Ventura galleries have a reputation for being more varied and more inviting than this stereotype. And, last Friday, I believe I discovered the art space as far on the other end of the gallery stereotype spectrum as possible: Sea Breeze Gallery.
This warehouse-turned-multi-use art gallery is nestled among the long, low buildings on Laurel Street, between Front and Thompson and right across from the vast parking lot that belongs to an auto body shop and the music practice studios many local bands use. It’s an area artists are starting to affectionately call “LauHo,” which is also home to Upfront Gallery and a funky clothing store. And though it has a burgeoning arts community, the street still looks every bit the industrial area it used to be — which made Sea Breeze even more surprising.
Inside, the scene was more like a college dorm on move-in day than an art gallery. Sea Breeze founder Sandra McCullough was in the gallery part of the warehouse, dabbing white paint around paintings and photos onto already immaculately white walls. An artist in paint-spattered denim overalls watched her, snacking on spicy microwave popcorn and discussing the placement of the works on the walls.
On the other side of the entryway, photographers Linda Jordan and Christina Altfeld chatted about the specifics of their work. While they talked, they organized their studio spaces: Altfeld, a smiling blonde, moved framed photos from a small bookshelf onto easels and walls; Jordan sorted through prints of pregnant women and happy couples posing with their kids, all in front of her blue and grey photo backdrop.
The mood was calm and easy — not intimidating at all. And that’s exactly how the artists like it. In fact, said McCullough, that’s exactly how she meant Sea Breeze to be when she opened it last year.
“It isn’t scary,” said McCullough, a redhead with an infectious smile and an intrinsic softness that makes you want to hug her. “Art isn’t scary.”
With that in mind, McCullough rented the warehouse, which was formerly used to finish antique furniture for Portobello Antiques, with the intention of creating a community not only for the artists who rented space, but for other people in Ventura County as well.
She’s since gotten her wish. She’s assembled a variety of artists as renters, including Janat Dundas, who is also curator for the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai; Beatrix Rohlsen, a four-star chef for the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara; acclaimed painter and sculptor Lynn LeTourneau, and artist/framemaker Ken Wise. All have individual, open studio spaces spread throughout the warehouse, divided by squares of carpet or carefully placed bookshelves or walls made of easels. If this were a college dorm, it would be as though everyone on this floor had their bedroom doors open all the time.
“What makes it work is them,” said McCullough. “They have a community consciousness.”
And through them, the gallery has reached out to the community in a variety of ways: from exhibits open to the public to special events — such as the Dec. 2 show of Lincoln Elementary School student work — to juried open art shows such as the Angel exhibit showing through December.
“It really is a ‘we’ thing,” said McCullough.
But there’s no denying that, although McCullough credits the success of the gallery to the whole group of artists involved, it wouldn’t exist without her sole vision and sacrifice.
The Santa Monica native hadn’t even meant to open a gallery when she returned from New Mexico after a 10-year post-parenthood stint “having her own adventure.” She happened to end up in Ventura because it was near the ocean and artsy, but not as exhaustingly busy as L.A. And she saw the “For Rent” sign on the building at 155 South Laurel only because she was touring neighborhoods with a friend.
Before that, she’d fully intended to go into real estate. But when she saw the sign on the door, “In a heartbeat, I saw a gallery art space.” She describes it as a gift or a calling, and jokes that she’s glad she wasn’t given the vision to build an ark.
Still, the idea of establishing a gallery seemed almost as insurmountable as Noah’s famous task. She didn’t have the money for first and last month’s rent. The place was filthy and empty, and she was too old for do-it-yourself construction. She didn’t have a single person to rent space from her. But she decided that, if she could find the money, she would try to make it happen. That was on a Friday. By Monday, a friend had loaned her the money.
Two weeks later, Altfeld saw an ad in the paper and signed on to rent space. Jordan came next. McCullough discovered she wasn’t too old to paint walls after all. And things like that kept happening, events born of serendipity. During one exhibit opening, said McCullough, people were so moved by the space that they would go home, get their friends and come back.
“There’s just such heart here,” McCullough explained.
It was a hard statement to deny, watching McCullough in her purply velvet coat, happily dabbing paint over the three-foot-high footprints last week’s Lincoln students left behind.
There’s also now a waiting list for art space at Sea Breeze, a fact that current artists attribute to the environment.
“It works for me really well,” said Altfeld, who admits that working in an open environment can be a challenge for artists, who are notoriously a solitary breed. “It’s nice for camaraderie and inspiration, for getting immediate feedback.”
The set-up also gives artists a chance to do together what they may not be able to do alone. For example, each artist gets a solo show on the front wall of the gallery, which is reserved for a rotating exhibit of resident artists.
And the official gallery space, set in a nook in the western part of the building and flooded with light from front and side windows, can be used for whatever events the resident artists can come up with and agree on at their regular meetings. Last month’s Dia De los Muertos exhibit, for example, was Stacie Logue’s idea. And this month’s Angel show is Altfeld’s brainchild.
The affect has been greater than anyone could have imagined. Resident artists are having fun and selling their work. The community is taking note — so much so that some of McCullough’s paintings were featured in the recent Ventura College dance production Soul2Sole. “It was the highlight of my life,” said McCullough about the show, during which dancer Kristen Littlefield interpreted McCullough’s paintings. “She really got where I paint from.”
And it draws other artists in, even if they’re not renting space. One artist submitted a duet of pen and ink drawings for the Angel show, not even sure if the circular mandalas he made were considered art. But he so sincerely believed that they were a representation of his idea of angels and “his heart was so clear,” said McCullough, that she had the pieces framed and put them in the show.
Another artist made two large pieces just for the Angel exhibit, working for two weeks straight on the multi-media works that anchor one corner of the show: one featuring a palm frond over a painting of an angel and another using a dried, twisted, painted tree branch as an angel wing.
It’s the community that has made all the work worth it for McCullough, who has consistently done whatever it’s taken to keep the doors open: from answering phones at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa to getting her car repossessed.
“If you’re around art, talking art, being art, your art gets better in quantum leaps,” she said. “And I love art, and I love artists. I’m having the time of my life.”