"I love Pomona," said artist Rebecca Hamm, 28. "Just listen to it."
Sirens pierced the air. A freight train rumbled along the Southern Pacific tracks at 1st Street.
"We call Pomona the frontier-fringe-border-desert town of Los Angeles County. The art tradition comes from the streets," said Chris Toovey, 37, whose strong hands tell you he's an artist as well as someone who makes his living pruning trees.
Empty storefronts, low rents and a lack of artistic affectation have lured several dozen artists to the city in recent years. They have congregated in a loose-knit community of lofts and studios spread out through several blocks in the downtown business district.
There is a second-floor art gallery, located above a pawn shop and a Chinese restaurant. Toovey, one of the DA Gallery's founders, obligingly gave a tour of the place, water-stained ceilings and all. On exhibit were works by Berlin artists who recently helped Pomona artists construct a colorful, mock Berlin wall as street corner art.
In the hazy light of a recent Saturday morning, Toovey and his colleagues told stories of the nighttime, downtown ambience. Rowdy patrons spill out of low-rent bars. Prostitutes set up shop in dimly lighted municipal parking lots where the homeless sleep. Gunshots sometimes shatter the late-night concentration of artists-at-work.
Rent is cheap, space abundant. Thrift shops and flea markets provide bountiful artifacts that can be turned into art. Storefront churches boom with bands and choirs on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. For only a few dollars, you can fill your plate and buy a Pacifico beer at a Mexican eatery where M&M;'s are featured in the glass-covered dessert display.
Pomona, the artists say, inspires. "I've turned out so much work in the last six months. Not just productivity, but growth," said Stephanie Baylus, a 27-year-old art graduate student at Cal State Fullerton and a part-time assistant to internationally known Santa Monica artist Sam Francis.
It isn't Los Angeles or New York's Soho, or even Claremont, although the neighboring city, with its Claremont Graduate School art department, helps fuel the creative scene in Pomona.
Baylus says: "This is a much friendlier place compared to L.A. There's a sense of community. There's more competition, more slickness there."
Karl Benjamin, a Pomona College art professor and noted painter, lauded the emergence of the local art scene. Because of rising rents, the newcomers have had little choice but to migrate, he said. "It used to be artists would go to Pasadena, Venice or downtown. Now the only place left to go is east," Benjamin said.
The local artists say that their distance from more established artistic communities leaves them free to create in an uncritical environment.
"This is much more diverse, even naive," said Baylus, a painter. "I like that freshness. That feeds the art. In Santa Monica, it feels like there are facades. My work is very much about stripping away facades."
Nonetheless, there are drawbacks to artistic life in this city of 120,000. Patrons, critics and friends often are unwilling to venture to Pomona, about 31 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the artists say.
"This is like Tibet to people in L.A.," said Toovey, a painter, as he made his way up the stairwell of a third-floor walk-up where artists have studios above a drapery company.
Expressionist-ceramicist-muralist Joy McAllister, 40, said she has thrived for 6 1/2 years in the Drape-Rite building, despite the inconvenience of having restrooms located only on the floor below. "When people say, 'What are you doing in Pomona?' I say I've got 900 square feet for $150."
A wall of semi-opaque windows provides southern light in her studio. The 1975 Otis/Parsons Art Institute graduate shares her space with her boyfriend, self-taught sculptor Steve Van Cleave, 34.
On shelves, cacti grow in McAllister's ceramic pots with desert motifs. She sells them to pay the bills, thus allowing her the freedom to create more experimental work. To make money, she said, she once painted a mural on the Calabasas bedroom wall of Motley Crue's bassist Nikki Sixx.
Books on Gauguin, classical Greece, artistic anatomy and wildflowers of the world fill cramped shelves surrounded by Van Cleave's life-size figures, best described as humanoid.
Two months ago, Phillip Graffham, 27, moved his studio here from his West Covina home. During the day, he works in the corporate world of fine arts publishing. His life's priority, though, is creating assemblage--odds and ends fashioned into art.
As a child, he carried around a box of junk instead of a teddy bear. "A lot of people believe my art is an extension of that," he said, standing before a piece called "Mockmagic." It's a shrine of sorts, made from a dresser and table painted bright red, and laden with beads, bottles, antlers, bones, fur and earth, topped by a big, naked baby doll with a skeleton's skull for a head.
"I can interact with the other artists here, learn something from them. They can learn from me," he said.
In an adjacent studio, Toovey slid a Gipsy Kings tape in the cassette player. As Saturday morning slipped into afternoon, photographer Len Paccione danced in mock flamenco-style. The sound of his clicking soles echoed through the cavernous space.