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By Nicole Block

If you find Orange County to be culturally starved of anything more meaningful than perfectly manicured lawns, nails and lap-dogs, the colorful Artists Village in downtown Santa Ana will prove you wrong; the Village presents an art scene of substantial diversity that isn’t just ocean landscapes and beach scenes. Amidst trees wrapped in twinkle lights and the lure of live music, the many galleries between First and Fourth Street stay open to the public with the artists themselves present (and even offering cookies and snacks) for the Art Walk on the first Saturday of each month.

Quiet, white spaces with softly-treading spectators do not fit in here. Instead, large crowds of hipsters, families and trendy couples visit the galleries to peruse, speak with the artists, talk among themselves,chase their baby down when she bolts across the room endangering an installation. None of the usual stuffy and silent gallery-goers; the diverse crowds were talkative, intrigued and blocking the way to get through the exhibit, busily admiring the art.

 This refreshingly welcoming attitude towards the audience did not distract from production value, as each exhibit remains professional and planned to a tee. Some of the artists here are trying to sell their work, often students at nearby schools like Coastline Community College, Laguna College of Art and Design, the Art Institute and Cal State Fullerton. In the Santa Ana College art gallery, photos of Los Angeles “stoner spots,” camera film set afire, migrant laborers and close-ups of hair lost from extreme insomnia occupy the space — and that’s only a mildly varied gallery. The Orange County Center for Contemporary Art opened the ‘Chaos Theory²’ exhibit, boasting a “nonjuried, noncensored call for art,” with as many pieces as possible collaged on the walls. Imaginary creatures, Kurt Cobain, abstracted forms, spilled paint cans, cityscapes and thick globs of paints offer no central focus except highlighting the artists’ skills and diversity.

But “without the pressure of having to sell,” artists like Cynthia Sitton of CJ Sitton Studio are comfortable transforming their studio in the Artists Village into a temporary gallery for the night, as she has done for the past year in her Santa Ana space. In a wicker basket on the floor swept to the side of the room, one can find the subject of several of her paintings: the lifelike toy baby that in one work is abandoned in the woods and in another being whisked through a field of wheat by a young girl. Paintbrushes jammed into jars, dirty palettes with oils smeared and sketched studies all lay askew in this personal space, in case you doubted the artist’s role in the final product.

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PICTURE PERFECT Artist Julio Labras, an instructor at Coastline Community College, sits beside his display at the art walk, ready to answer questions and converse with patrons of the Artists Village. Photo courtesy of Nicole Block.

Artists are eager to greet new faces and even draw them if you’re willing to talk for a minute. Julio Labras, currently an instructor at Coastline Community College, jotted down his Instagram tag for me and, on second thought, began to sketch a quick portrait of me. A one-minute sketch and a five minute conversation led to an invitation to paint with him.

“There’s a funny story behind that one,” Labras said when I admired his almost-finished piece of a man on a motorcycle riding alongside running horses and other beasts, but we were drawn to the window to look down at the Mexican folkloric dancing happening on the Second Street Promenade below before I could hear it. Leaning out the window with the other three artists who occupy the studio to see what the music was inducing, the flashes of bright red fabric and clapping crowds called single-minded attention in the way that street performers do.

Down below, along a row of restaurants and even more galleries, vendors and artists outlined the crowds, selling $1 records, handmade jewelry, pins and buttons and, yes, we are still in Southern California, a sampling of organic vegan pickles and nut bars. A band of middle-aged dudes with long hair started strumming, giving annoyed glances towards the DJ at the record booth mixing a loud set but none of that detracts from the audience’s willingness to dance and bounce along to either music as they browse the shops and restaurants that stay open late with extra business from the Art Walk.

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FAMILIAR FACES – Artist David Peterson captures compelling images of the homeless community in “Faces of Santa Ana”. Photo courtesy of Nicole Block.

If an artist’s mission is attracting viewers, the many featured at the Art Walk certainly succeeded, but those interested in making a larger impact were also present.  

Brian Peterson, the creator of “Faces of Santa Ana,” in a one-upping of Humans of New York, met and spoke with homeless people in the streets of Santa Ana, took their photo and painted beautiful, vibrant, close-up portraits of them. Many of them are already sold and the proceeds go back to his subjects to help them take care of themselves and feel cared about, a deprivation often overlooked.

Seeing this eclectic range of art in Santa Ana, I am motivated to come back to this area more often to explore, and also inspired to not let other commitments and stress prevent me from doing my own artistic work. I decide this as I take a picture of the mysterious, fully intact boom box that was seemingly abandoned in the parking spot that we pulled into, just too perfectly placed.

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