Painter Len Poteshman has placed a plastic-covered couch and a shabby-chic coffee table he constructed out of an old board and four mismatched table legs in his large studio. Over the couch hangs one of his textured works: a three-dimensional circus performer leading throngs of curious, two-dimensional spectators. As Poteshman presents a wall-long system of shelves, filled to near capacity with framed samples of his work, he admits, “When I took some out, I didn’t even remember doing them.”
That’s because, up until a few weeks ago, Poteshman was working in a bedroom in his home, with much of his work in storage. His new studio space gives him the freedom not only to store and display his art, but to experiment with the exciting possibilities of multimedia painting: some of his work incorporates plastic fruit, epoxy and masks. The former portrait painter even goes so far as to say that, “Portraits are nothing to me now when I have the opportunity to work with other mediums,” explaining that dimensional art is enjoying a relatively new acceptance.
Poteshman shares his studio with his wife, a retired psychotherapist and now ceramicist, Linda Carson. The couple joins dozens that have found relief in an artist’s haven: an old mattress factory on Ventura Avenue. If you don’t yet associate that area with Ventura’s art community, brace yourself. The Avenue appears to be following that great American revitalization trend: the “industrial” being revamped as “artistic.”
The Bell Mattress Factory — such as it was, until closing in May of 2004 — is a one-story, 20,000-square-foot structure about four blocks up from Main. Established in 1936, the factory was purchased by Robert and Janet Addison in 1952, sold to employees in the ’70s, and might have become the foundation for condos had the Addison’s grandson Josh not seen an opportunity for community revival.
“The idea to do this came out organically,” Josh explains, “through a process of engagement [with the community] that addressed what direction the city and community was moving in.”
As Josh set out to make a veritable artists’ colony out of a factory, the project hit a few bumps. “In order to do adaptive reuse, you must deal with all sorts of issues,” he explains, “like governmental entitlements, permits, sign offs. Old patterns of use versus new. Fire, parking issues — making sure everyone’s 100 percent happy.” He lists all this without a hint of exhaustion in his voice. (Artist Susan Cook later remarks, “Talk about somebody with energy and charisma!”)
And the building itself? “We completely changed it,” Josh says brightly. “We gutted the building. All of the infrastructure is redone, but we did as much recycling and salvaging as we could.” He points to a metallic restaurant sink that was bought on eBay.
In the “artists’ commons,” an elegant kitchen is bedecked in sandstone tile and does in fact seem to welcome interaction between residents. Indeed, the building has what architect Nick Deitch categorized as “raw elegance.” Perhaps modern tastes in interior design are moving toward industrial chic, because with a stainless steel fridge, chrome fixtures, and exposed ceiling, the Bell Arts Factory might just as easily house fashionable, converted apartments.
In spite of the logistical nightmares so characteristic of this kind of project, Josh says that the city has been very cooperative and points out that this project “fits in with the city’s plan of being a new arts city,” combining “cultural revolution and education.” What Josh describes as the “cynergy” that has happened in forging ahead with the new center, extends to local business, too: he estimates that the project has brought a lot of business to Avenue Hardware across the street, and enthusiastically recommends his and the crew’s favorite eatery: family-owned Taqueria Tepatitlan just down the street.
The project also fits with Josh’s personal background in redevelopment, working “within an existing urban area, [to] build within new urbanism” — in essence, expanding Ventura’s resources while avoiding sprawl. If that’s his mission, it is coming to pass with the completion of the Bell Arts Factory.
Artists are offered reasonable rent for studio space — about $1 per square foot on average – and as of last week, all studio spaces were leased, according to Josh. But the mission of the Factory is not to facilitate an isolated creation process: most studio spaces feature doors with glass panels, seemingly to encourage look-ins. In fact, open-studio days will be held regularly to encourage the public to view the work of on-site artists. By the looks of it, it’s not only the produced art that will be on display.
While giving a tour of the facilities, Josh points out a large studio with an 8-foot-tall cubist horse appearing to gallop, in blacks and grays, off the white-washed studio wall.
“I have every expectation that an artist will come and customize the space,” he says proudly, “that they’ll transform the space with color and material.”
Across the hall, a ceramicist has painted the studio a warm apple green, setting off clean white sets of pottery scattered around the room.
The Factory makes efficient use of its roots: the window-walled showroom, facing onto the street, is one of the final frontiers in adapting the location, and also one of the central features. In this room — the Janet Addison Community room, in honor of his grandmother — art classes will be offered after school, as well as on Thursdays and Saturdays. There will also be a kids’ art program in Spanish. Some of the classes will even be taught by resident artists.
Cook calls the Factory “an answer to our prayers.” She marvels, “All this wall space! I can paint right on my wall.” Like Poteshman, she wants to experiment and broaden her work, and plans to do larger paintings.
As she tells it, the Bell Arts project has been a fateful one from the beginning.
Cook was driving much farther from her home to work out of Studio Channel Islands, and feeling somewhat left out of the loop. “I wanted to be a part of what’s happening in Ventura,” she says.
Gesturing to the factory, she remembers, “When I met Josh almost two years ago, this was nothing but an open space.” She and other artists wrote their names on the floor, reserving their spaces before renovations began. Although some of those friends did not go on to claim studio space, Cook went so far as to join the nonprofit Bell Arts Factory board.
There’s an almost celestial element to the way Cook chose her workspace, which so far seems a perfect fit. She was walking through the hall with Josh when she noticed light streaming out from the studio, and immediately she knew where she wanted to set up canvas.
So far, her urge to base herself in Ventura is proving intuitive: she cites at least one prominent artist who moved to the area from out of state after hearing widespread buzz about the city’s up-and-coming arts culture.
Says Cook, “The generosity of the Addison family is a tremendous gift to the city. Ventura owes them a lot of gratitude and thanks.” But the pressure is on once Josh finishes his renovation, she admits. “He is passing the baton to the artists.”