WorkWell, a co-working space that opened July 2018, is one street over from Irvine’s Diamond Jamboree plaza. In front is a luxury apartment complex, and behind is a plot of dirt next to the San Diego Creek that the city is debating turning into a park walkway.
The building used to house the Orange County Medical Assn., but after the organization vacated, the family that owned the property — cousins Jason House, Clifton Huang, Brandon Huang and Chris Huang — took it over with the dream of turning it into a modern co-working space that would eventually become a hub for locals to collaborate and champion each other’s work.
“The four cousins were each others’ best friends growing up,” explains Michael Ambrose, who is WorkWell’s community director. “And even now, everyone in their family works with each other; they’re very familial, and I think that carries over into the model for WorkWell.”
They had inherited appealing design elements from the tenant prior to the medical association, a Vongari jewelry store that had rooms with glass walls, modern ceiling fixtures, a full-service kitchen and a gym/sauna area (turned into a wellness room for prayer, meditation and napping).
They removed some walls inside to open up the space, refurbished the floors and added indoor ponds and plants to give their members the feeling of working in an outdoor patio.
Jasmin Pannier, a longtime friend of the cousins, said she visited while they were still preparing the space to congratulate them on their new venture. Knowing she was an art history major at UC Irvine, they asked if she would help them decorate the place.
“I said no,” Pannier remembers. “They were like, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘Let’s make it a gallery. Let’s put art in here. Let’s get it rotating so there’s life [beyond a picture of] a nice ocean scene with a sunset.’ ”
She knew her friends were trying to challenge the idea of what people expect from an office space in Irvine. She challenged them to push what people expect of art in Irvine as well.
The first exhibit Pannier ever curated was a week-long art show in Aldrich Park, UC Irvine’s botanical garden, called “Altered Perceptions.” She remembers having to look for outdoor walls that wouldn’t blow over from the wind. She had to book 24-hour security for the exhibition. It was a showcase of UCI’s Art History Undergraduate Assn. for the school’s annual Festival of Discovery, and it attracted an estimated 10,000 visitors.
“For me, it set in motion the idea of: where else can I put art in unexpected ways that also do it justice?” said Pannier. “Does it have to be in white-walled galleries of museums, or can we find it in pop-up areas in our lives?”
Pannier, who grew up in Irvine, remembers calling her hometown “the bubble” and “the beige city,” feeling like there wasn’t any room for creativity.
It wasn’t until she became sick during her third year of university and was “encased in a glass room in isolation for three months” recovering from a bone marrow transplant, that she began to discover, through Instagram and other social media, all the art going on in Orange County she didn’t know about.
“It was something that I wasn’t exposed to, even as an art history major at UCI,” said Pannier. “And so many residents in Irvine are probably not aware of it.”
Pannier wants to change the perception that one must make special excursions to metropolises to see art. She wants people to see art as accessible and easily integrated into daily lives.
“Irvine is so corporate-friendly and master-planned, everything is done in a certain way for a reason,” she said. “So, in order to create an art scene and an art culture, it has to be in these spaces where you wouldn’t necessarily expect art. It has to be operate in these margins.”
“Now Entering Irvine” is Gallery @ WorkWell’s second quarterly show, and it features artists like Laguna College of Art and Design alumni Shane McClatchy and Cory Jimenez; Laguna Beach-based illustrator and painter Ali Rybczyk; and Irvine-based artist Ashley Lukes.
On view until March 15, the art lines the walls throughout the co-working space, including the wellness room, currently displaying a towering waterfall and stream bed crocheted by the Threadwinners and photography by Joshua Ross.
Ambrose sees the gallery and its public events as a natural extension of the “lifestyle embedded with work” that they hope to provide for their members.
He also wants WorkWell to become a platform for all types of local businesses — whether they’re introducing members to restaurants that could benefit from more publicity, start-ups that could use mentorship or artists in need of patrons.
“It seems like a way to merge different types of worlds,” said Pannier.
Now WorkWell’s gallery director, a job she created for herself, Pannier wants to make some waves in Irvine’s art scene.
“Small waves,” she said. “But waves get bigger.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Now Entering Irvine”
Where: Gallery @ WorkWell, 17322 Murphy Ave., Irvine
When: Open gallery hours are weekends from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; the first and third Wednesday of the month or by appointment. Through March 15.
Cost: Free, a portion of sales will benefit Friends of Hart History and mural art programs in the city of Irvine