Crear Studio hopes to give O.C. artists of color a home in Santa Ana

Albert Lopez Jr. is an exhibiting artist at Crear Studio with his exhibition "The Dollar Dance I Never Had."
Albert Lopez Jr. is an exhibiting artist at Crear Studio with his exhibition “¡El baile del dólar que nunca tuve!” (The dollar dance that I never had). Lopez stands for a portrait in front of his piece “Dr. Bruce Banner.”
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

A new gallery awaited people strolling the streets of downtown Santa Ana in August as the city’s monthly art walk reawakened from its long, pandemic slumber. Around the corner from the Artists Village, Crear Studio gave those passing by a glimpse into its ambitious vision.

Sarah Rafael Garcia, the studio’s gallery director, pulled a drawstring and slowly raised a curtain from inside its quarters. Neon green lights affixed to an installation wall beamed through the window and revealed a sneak peek of Santa Ana artist Albert Lopez Jr.’s upcoming exhibition “¡El baile del dólar que nunca tuve!” (The dollar dance that I never had).

After a few hours, the curtain drew back down by art walk’s end, but the work of Crear Studio’s grander reintroduction to the Orange County art scene had only just began.

Sarah Rafael Garcia is the founder of Crear Studio in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“We are local artists who want an opportunity to do art,” said Garcia from a desk inside the studio’s humble space. “In Orange County, in general, local artists are definitely overlooked. On top of that, people of color are overlooked even though we are the majority. For this space, what brought us together is art, what keeps us together is community and now we are a gallery.”

Garcia, an author and founder of the downtown Santa Ana LibroMobile bookstore, first envisioned the need for such a space when returning home from Austin, Texas in 2016 to commence a stay as an artist-in-residence at Grand Central Art Center.

“Knowing the history of that space as a catalyst for gentrification, I had a very guilty feeling,” Garcia admitted about her residency. “Why do I get this privilege and not everybody else in the community?”

Together with local artist Dino Perez, Garcia founded Crear Studio in 2017 with the hopes of providing opportunities for other artists and writers in the community. Its first incarnation began in Grand Central Art Center’s basement. Artists taught workshops and an art collective sprung forth from the effort, but Crear Studio never hosted exhibitions despite asking to. That was a privilege reserved for spaces above the basement.

“Literally and metaphorically, the biggest dilemma was holding the door open,” said Garcia. “We didn’t actually provide efficient access to the community we were trying to serve.”

And then the pandemic shut Crear Studio’s doors — but not for good.

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The economic hardships brought by stay-at-home orders hollowed out several downtown Santa Ana store fronts. Garcia started searching for the studio’s new, independent home this year and found a space along Fifth Street and Broadway. Her husband and father-in-law helped transform the brick building with arched wood ceilings into a bona fide art gallery ready for its first exhibit.

Given Crear Studio’s mission of being space for local artists of color, Lopez, a painter, sculptor and installation artist, came immediately to mind as a way to emphatically set the tone.

“I never planned to ask Lopez for an exhibition because I knew I couldn’t afford him,” said Garcia, “but when I saw the walls being constructed, he was the only person I thought deserved to be recognized and set a precedent for those who’ll come after him.”

The two have known each other for years and traded ideas about the arts in their hometown. Lopez pointed Garcia to the Underground Museum in South Los Angeles for inspiration about what she hoped to accomplish in Santa Ana. Now that Crear Studio is a gallery primed for exhibits, he’s inaugurating the space with his artwork.

A showing of past and present pieces, “¡El baile del dólar que nunca tuve!” is an homage to Santa Ana, a city where Lopez grew up working-class to immigrant parents but has rarely had the opportunity to exhibit in.

“I haven’t had a survey show in the past 25 years in my own town,” he said. “I’ve done projects in Santa Ana, but they’ve never been in the context of a gallery that’s been here. I was being more supported in Los Angeles.”

The Crear Studio in Santa Ana.
The Crear Studio in Santa Ana is set to open a show called “¡El baile del dólar que nunca tuve!” (The dollar dance that I never had) on Sept. 4.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

For opening night, the exhibit will feature a performance art piece with a twist on the dollar dance that was popular at family weddings that Lopez attended during his upbringing. “Instead of people giving me money, I want them to take money off my tuxedo,” he said. “We want people to engage in this cultural experience within the context of a gallery.”

As for those neon green lights that served as sneak peek?

The arrangement seems simplistic but speaks to the depth of a future art project Lopez is working on. “The lights are set up in the formation of the Santa Ana Jail window lights,” he said. “I was always so fascinated with the directness of that style of brutalist architecture. As I got older, I found myself being repulsed by the actual building itself, not with the individuals but what it represents to me in the city that I live in.”

Deemed “Dr. Bruce Banner,” the installation glows green in metaphoric honor of the Incredible Hulk — and Santa Ana. “Society sees him as a monster,” Lopez explained. “It’s like looking at my own community and the profiling that has occurred here.”

Another piece from a past show features a colorful encased piñata stick. A fixture of children’s parties, piñata bashing came to be described in violent terms in some media outlets when the likeness being whacked was former president Donald Trump during protests. It’s another stereotype in need of an artistic elixir.

In both the walls and the art within it, Crear Studio exalts Santa Ana as its muse in that effort. After Lopez’s exhibit, the next show, “La Maestra,” is slated to be dedicated to teachers who’ve shaped local artists and writers. Future programs plan to be in Spanish as much as possible. Garcia’s gallery also hopes to sound a clarion call to O.C.’s other, bigger art institutions.

“I don’t know who the artists 20 years ago were in Santa Ana,” she said. “They weren’t being shown at Bowers Museum, Grand Central Art Center, Orange County Museum of Art, Muzeo or at Muckenthaler. Let’s change our potential by reflecting what we want to see more of!”

¡El baile del dólar que nunca tuve! opens Sept. 4 at Crear Studio, 222 W. 5th Street, Santa Ana. 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and runs through Oct. 7. An artist talk and reception is slated for Sept. 23 at 6 p.m.

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