Articulations: What’s to Come for the Tannery Arts Center

Residents say the best is yet to come for the Tannery Arts Center.  Plus: A look at the center’s funding and the hurdles ahead.

One year ago, on a cold and drizzly November day, more than 100 artists and their families camped outside of the soon-to-be Tannery Arts Center with hopes of securing a residence. Today, nearly 230 people live in the 100 Tannery live/work units, where the household artists work on everything from painting to poetry, piano to ballet, and pottery to hip-hop.

The center, a long time in the making, began as a mere dream of Santa Cruz arts organizations that hoped for a day when local artists and nonprofits could have an affordable home. The Santa Cruz Cultural Council had completed a Cultural Action Plan in 1999 that assessed local arts, concluding that it was a $32 million per year industry that employed 750 full-time equivalents and paid $3 million in taxes, according to Tannery Arts Center Director George Newell. The hitch was the high cost of living that was sending local talent over the hill. “You need affordable housing, you need an affordable studio, and you need some venues in which to present your art,” says Newell, describing the findings of the study.

The plan for an artist live/work development in Santa Cruz remained a debated idea until the Salz Tannery closed in 2001. Ceil Cirillo, executive director of the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) at the time and current co-vice chair of the Tannery Arts Center Board, saw the empty eight-and-a-half acre Tannery property as the perfect canvas on which to realize the dream. “I saw a vision for this to be a campus for the arts, for the artists to live and have work space, for studio space, and to bring all the nonprofit arts organizations together in one facility where they could have certainty of office space and secure, not-exorbitant rent,” she says.

cover03Not long after, the city council voted unanimously for the project, the RDA purchased the property, the national agency Artspace was brought in to execute the plan and the Tannery Arts Center nonprofit was formed to “make sure the community got what it wanted out of the whole thing,” says Newell. The completed live/work space is only the first of three planned stages; construction on Phase 2, commercial studios for non-resident local artists, will begin in the next few months and be completed by February 2011. Phase 3 is a Performing Arts Center, complete with a black box theater, a permanent home for the Santa Cruz Ballet and a café, is set to be done by July 2012, thereby completing the vision of a true community arts hub.

“Once we get those studios up and people are coming over and taking classes, the ballet moves in and moms and dads are bringing their kids over for ballet school and hanging out in the café, having a cup of coffee and watching outdoor performances in the courtyard, then it will be the center for this community,” says Newell as he sits on the perimeter of the Tannery’s empty playground, in the middle of what is, for now, a very quiet and peaceful campus.

In addition to the activity that the working studios and Performing Arts Center will bring, there are several other projects on the horizon that will increase its visibility and bridge the gap between it and the rest of the community. In a literal sense, an in-progress bike and pedestrian path will link the Tannery to downtown via the San Lorenzo River.  Tannery leaders are also backing plans to widen and improve the intersection of Highways 1 and 9 (where the Tannery is located), which will make the center more accessible. An extensive history exhibit is underway that will tell the 145-year old story of the property as a leather tannery, and showcase five historical buildings that have been renovated and reused for the new arts center.

Cirillo says the live/work portion has exceeded her expectations and predicts more satisfaction when the center is complete. “It will put Santa Cruz on the map, in a broader sense, as a cultural destination,” she says. “This is really a statement about Santa Cruz’s commitment to its cultural needs.”

Artspace Regional Director Cathryn Vanderbrink says that the Tannery—one of 19 artist live/work spaces the company has built around the country—is the first full “arts campus” Artspace has done. This fact alone has already garnered Santa Cruz some national attention.

“It’s very unusual to have this amount of space dedicated to the arts in a community,” she says. “We are getting great interest from other communities who want to come visit the Tannery and see what they can do in their cities.”

In addition to creating a buzz amongst national arts scenes and tourists, Newell foresees more Santa Cruz residents participating in the center as it progresses. “This is the biggest thing that has happened on the arts scene here as long as I can remember, and we’ve only just begun,” he says. “This is who is here now, but it’s only a sample of what it’s going to be like three years from now when the whole thing is up and running.”

In the meantime, an army of artists are creating and growing their crafts and shaping the local arts scene—all within the walls of the Tannery Arts Center. Good Times caught up with a handful of these local talents to hear about their artistic journey that led them to the Tannery.

Dave Frost, Painter

Perhaps better known around town as “The Bird Painter,” 29-year old Dave Frost has had more than 30 shows in Santa Cruz featuring his uniquely recognizable paintings of birds. Sure, there is the occasional psychedelic octopus or pair of dueling kangaroos thrown in the mix, but, for the most part, it’s birds: plovers, hummingbirds, warblers, towhees, parrots, redwings, egrets, wrens—you name it, he’s painted them.

Sometimes depicted in realistic, natural settings and sometimes set against wildly colorful and geometric backgrounds, Frost’s birds are a study in movement and the complex beauty of a species we can admire but never fully understand. “I’ve been fascinated by birds my whole life,” he says, standing in the hallway outside his Tannery loft, its walls lined with his paintings in preparation for the encore weekend of Open Studios. Birds run on higher vibrations, he says, and are an insight into the world of “things we can’t see that are all around us.” Much of his work explores this idea by depicting the energy and spiritual fields surrounding the feathered subjects.

His trademark birds are not a passing phase, but rather an over-arching theme in his work; a home base that he always returns to after ephemerally straying to another subject. “My paintings of people actually end up being really good,” he muses, “but it’ll always be birds—and why not? They are aesthetically beautiful. I like thinking about them.”

Born and raised in Texas, Frost moved to California for school—he studied music at five different colleges—and has been in Santa Cruz for almost 10 years.

Since moving into the Tannery, Frost says he has “been able to work bigger than ever before” because of the space, but has slowed down on painting to concentrate on his part-time job and making other crafts, like clothes, which prove more lucrative. The center’s connections allowed him to officially participate in Open Studios for the first time—an exciting opportunity that makes him anxious for the Tannery to do more events.

“Right now [the Tannery] doesn’t seem connected enough with the outside community,” he says. “We aren’t having shows with other artists, we aren’t inviting other artists in. I want our shows to be big here. I want it to be a big, happening place.

“I’m really excited about the future of it, more than I am about the present,” he adds. “It’s all in the making.”

He looks forward to watching the Tannery Arts Center unfold into an axis of networking, collaboration, creation and inspiration. “That liveliness is essential to making art,” he says. “I think I will paint more when I have more of that interaction.” So he plans to stick around the Tannery to find out?

“Who knows, I’m the kind of guy who changes what I do every three years,” he says, pausing, and then looking up with a slight smile, adds, “But not the birds. The birds have always stayed.”

Visit galacticbirds.com to view Frost’s body of work.

cover_rlarsonRobert Larson, Mixed-medium Artist

I unexpectedly drop in on Robert Larson—an unfamiliar reporter knocking on his door and interrupting him amidst Open Studios preparations. His artwork displayed in the hallway of the 1030 building of the Tannery had caught my eye, but it was a remark made by Frost, a neighbor of Larson’s, that really intrigued me. “I might not be interested in his art normally,” Frost told me, “but the more I know him and the more I see the things he does, the more impressed I am by it.”

“There was evidence of human activity all round me: sounds, smells, litter, that made it a very human-made landscape environment, but counter to that, I could walk for miles along the tracks and never see a single person. Just the evidence.” — Robert Larson, Mixed-medium Artist

And he was right: one minute into my conversation with Larson, who warmly welcomes me into his bright and immaculate loft, and I’m hooked. His pieces, which he deems “patterned minimalist abstractions,” become much more than geometrical designs and rows of Marlboro labels—they are about the creation and context, not just the image.

Larson began this artistic endeavor in the late ’80s while attending California College of the Arts for painting and living in an artist live/work warehouse in East Oakland. The Santa Cruz native began taking walks on the train tracks that ran behind the old Dutch Boy paint warehouse he and a group of other artists now called home. “I was walking in the landscape, observing and being, as I described then, in the eye of the storm,” he says. “There was evidence of human activity all round me: sounds, smells, litter, that made it a very human-made landscape environment, but counter to that, I could walk for miles along the tracks and never see a single person. Just the evidence.”

He started collecting this “evidence” (mostly scrap metal at first) and making art with it. About three years into this process, he took notice of a discarded Marlboro package, the object that would prove to be his most loyal and motivating muse. His work has centered on the iconic packages—in the various states of decay in which he finds them—ever since. He has spent vast expanses of time (nearly all of 1996 through 1999, he says) visiting dense urban areas to collect discarded materials. Marlboro packages led to matchbooks, which led to gum wrappers, which led to lottery tickets, and so on—all seemingly worthless waste that, once picked up and redisplayed, makes a valuable statement on consumer culture, wastefulness, the historical significances of said objects and the urban landscapes in which they were found. “I wouldn’t necessarily be interested in any one aspect of it,” says Larson. “It’s about how they come together.”

Since returning home to Santa Cruz in 1989, Larson has been making a name for himself as an artist with shows across the country, from Santa Cruz’s Museum of Art & History to the SF MOMA, and in galleries as far as New York. Like Frost, he feels that the best is yet to come for the Tannery. “There are a ton of people I still need to meet,” he says. “It’s been a busy year between moving in, getting settled, continuing to make a living, and all of the art shows and Open Studios that have been in my schedule. I think it is natural that it will unfold at a natural pace.”

For more information about Robert Larson, visit his website at urbanexposure.com.

cover_Owen1Owen Commons, Wood and Metalworker

“I’m filthy.” This is my greeting from Owen Commons, who has come straight from his metal and woodworking studio in Aptos to meet me at the Tannery, where he lives with his girlfriend Sushila Conrey.

Commons and Conrey are young, spirited and prone to sprinkling their intellectual speech with curse words. They also happen to be abundantly creative. Their loft is individualized down to every nook and cranny, from small artistic touches to a collection of furniture almost entirely made by Commons (all except the Ikea couch). Conrey makes jewelry and clothes and has published a book, but according to Commons, “she’s too modest to tell you any of that.” And indeed she shies away from speaking about herself and urges the spotlight back onto her boyfriend, the “real artist” of the house.

“You have all these expectations moving in. I think most people thought they were moving in to some art utopia where it is going to be everyone having art parties and sharing paint and whatever.” — Owen Commons, metal and woodworker

Commons began welding while the two were on an extended vacation in Nicaragua, and brought his craft back home to Santa Cruz, where both he and Conrey grew up. After a short stint as gallery owners in 2008, the couple lined up for a spot at the Tannery where Commons would begin focusing on his own work—which includes “anything practical” like furniture, as well as decorative lamps, tables and cactus-stands made from 100 percent recycled metals.

Although Commons says his craft has grown “leaps and bounds” since moving in to the Tannery, he admits that the Arts Center has yet to live up to its potential.

“You have all these expectations moving in,” he says, swirling a White Russian in his hand. “I think most people thought they were moving in to some art utopia where it is going to be everyone having art parties and sharing paint and whatever.”

But for Commons and Conrey, this vision is already being realized—Commons has begun collaborating with other Tannery metalworkers, and the pair is “reliving the dorms,” which is to say they are surrounded by friends—old and new—and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

“It’s been really positive,” says Commons. “Even if I moved out tomorrow I’d be like, ‘That was such a great experience.’”

Conrey agrees, adding that they are grateful to be a part of the burgeoning Santa Cruz arts movement. “[The Tannery] represents the resurgence of a young persons art movement that lacked visibility for a long time,” she says. “The act of intentionally and actively promoting the arts wasn’t really happening at all unless it was self-promotion. This is a big push for that.”

Owen Commons work is sold on greenspace.com. Visit owencommons.com for more information about the artist.

coverSalifSalif Kone, Musician

Seated on a large white couch in his Tannery apartment, Salif Kone surveys the things that surround him: “Look at me, I have an apartment, a bed, food in the fridge, a laptop, a TV, a guitar. But I’m always looking for something more, that’s just human. But there are people who don’t even have half of what I have, and what would those people say [about life]?”

Having grown up in Burkina Faso, Africa, Kone finds himself weaving the stories of the less fortunate into his music, often singing of orphans, refugees or global injustices when not singing of his own life experiences and memories of his homeland. He was born into a griot family, a traditional family of oral historians who keep the stories of generations past alive through music and song. The curious claws of destiny brought him here after a Santa Cruz filmmaker made a documentary about his family, entitled Great Great Great Grandparents’ Music, and asked Kone’s sister to move to California to help him translate it. Kone followed in 2001, and has been developing his music career in Santa Cruz ever since—a feat that hasn’t always been easy.

“Since I’ve been living here I’ve had more freedom and space and inspiration for my music because there are a lot of things I don’t have to worry about anymore—like paying big bills.”   — Salif Kone, musician

“Before coming to America, I had my own life in Africa,” he says. “And sometimes I don’t feel understood by this community because of the color of my skin, because of my culture, because of the way I think—but I’m not going to change [who I am] to fit in.”

Instead, Kone hopes that his music—even if sung in Bambara or French as his songs often are—will bridge that gap. “Music is universal,” he says. “My music is who I am, so it helps people understand where I come from, how I grew up and how I see the world.”

Playing from San Francisco to Los Angeles and at local venues like the Cypress Lounge, Moe’s Alley, the Catalyst and Don Quixote’s, Kone and his band are exposing more Californians to his unique style of world music and the many messages it carries. He accredits the Tannery with allowing him the opportunity to advance his career and grow as a musician.

“Sometimes people have to give up on their art and go find a job, but the Tannery gives us more time and energy to focus on our art,” he says. “Since I’ve been living here I’ve had more freedom and space and inspiration for my music because there are a lot of things I don’t have to worry about anymore—like paying big bills.”

He adds that the benefits of the Tannery are only just beginning to show, and many residents are still figuring out what they want from the experience. “I think the Tannery is going to be a big place in Santa Cruz, but it’s going to take time. It is a loving place, it is a beautiful place, but it’s going to be even more beautiful.”

For more information about Salif Kone and his upcoming performances, visit myspace.com/malimakone.

cover_sarahbiancoSarah Bianco, Painter

Sarah Bianco probably wouldn’t be doing fine art if it weren’t for the Tannery. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz with an art degree in 2002, painting was an on and off hobby that took the backseat to her day job as a house painter (not the boring outside kind, but rather faux finishes, murals and details). She had barely begun defining her style when she finished school, and stopped trying in the years to follow.

“It was ‘welcome to the real world’ [when I graduated],” she says. “I was thinking ‘Where am I going to paint? Renting a studio is a big deal, can I paint in my little apartment? I tried, but I stopped painting on a regular basis. It was like, ‘I need a job. What am I doing with my life and this art degree?’”

She’d had her eye on the Tannery Arts Center project for years and rushed to apply when she found out it was finally being built. Thanks to a looming Open Studios deadline, Bianco picked up her paint brush again soon after she and her husband Pasquale, a chef, moved in. “We were moving in, I wanted to decorate the apartment and make my nest here, but I had this deadline,” she remembers. “It pushed me to start working more and creating, which is really cool.”

Her approach and style contrasts the type of work she does through Painting By Bianco, the business she co-owns with her husband, which is “very meticulous” and aimed at pleasing the client. “I’m almost rebelling against my day job,” she says, laughing. “Just letting what happens happen—that’s how I came up with this style of painting. [It’s] very abstract.”

Bianco mainly paints on leftover sample boards (1-by-1 squares of masonite) and uses oils and occasionally watercolors. “There is no end result, no plan, you use the paint as a tool to explore whatever is going on in the moment,” she says of her process. “It can be seen as a meditation. Eventually you get to this sweet spot where it starts making sense, and things are coming to you rather than you putting it on there.”

Following a successful first Open Studios, Bianco’s work will be showcased in a solo exhibit at the Mill Gallery starting Nov. 6 and through the end of the month. She is excited to see how both she as an artist and the Tannery at large grow and evolve as time goes on. “I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for a long time and there have never been this many dynamic people living in one space,” she says. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something valuable, not only for myself but for the community as a whole.”

Visit paintingbybianco.com to contact the artist for private viewings of her work.

cover0endTHE NUMBERS

Phase 1, the completed artist live/work lofts, cost $36 million and was financed through large grants, bank loans and other financing approaches
Phase 2, the working studios, will run between $7 and $8 million and is primarily being financed through two major grants: a $4.7 million stimulus grant through the Economic Development Agency, and a $1.9 million state grant from the Cultural and Historic Endowment.
Phase 3, the Performing Arts Center, will cost between $8.5 and $9 million. The Tannery has already received a $2 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation and hopes to garner the rest through private donations. “We’ve brought in a lot of money from outside, and the community kind of needs to step up and match that to make this story complete, and also to let them feel like they own this place,” says Newell.


According to Newell, cultural tourists spend about 50 percent more than other tourists when visiting a town —a promising piece of information considering tourism is the city’s largest industry. “We want people to come over and enjoy our beaches and hiking trails, but we also want them to go the restaurants or spend an extra night in a hotel so they can catch a performance or a play that night at the Tannery Arts Center,” he says. “If we can create this as a destination for cultural tourism, that will help lift the tourism industry here in Santa Cruz. And that scratches everybody’s back.” According to Cirillo, Santa Cruz is in need of a year-round draw for cultural tourists. “We have Shakespeare Santa Cruz, we have the Cabrillo Music Festival, the Santa Cruz Ballet, those are all organizations that bring people into the community at specific times during the year,” she says. The long-term goal for the Santa Cruz arts industry is to create an “arts district” that stretches from the Tannery to the Boardwalk—a marketable destination for tourists that includes all galleries, studios, theaters, etc.


The making of the Tannery wasn’t exactly a fairytale—there were several hindrances and controversies along the way. Cirillo shared a few of these with GT, and how the ambitious vision-holders got past them.
Clean up: The first glitch for the project was that the previous tenants, the leather tannery, could not afford the extensive clean-up required. The new tenants took care of the contamination and the site is now certified for human occupancy.
Developing on a historical site: “I knew there would be a problem with doing anything really dramatic on that site that meant tearing down historic buildings,” says Cirillo. To preserve the legacy of the Tannery, the center reused five buildings of historical significance and is working on a History Exhibit.
Traffic: Before Cirillo retired, she was sure to jumpstart the process of upgrading the Highway 1 and 9 intersection.
Location: Many people thought it should be located in the downtown area, but the large River Street location allowed for an entire arts campus instead of a smaller live/work establishment as can be found in most urban areas.
Skeptics: Like any big plan for Santa Cruz, the Tannery had its critics. But according to Cirillo and Newell, skeptics are quickly becoming converts. “It’s been interesting to me since the project has been completed how many people have said that they were skeptical, then they visited and met artists and came away so impressed with the project and the quality of work  [of the artists],” says Newell.

To Top