Every Wednesday evening for the past six months, about two dozen artists gather in a former furniture store on a quiet street roughly 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. With pads, pencils, charcoal, and tablets, they take their seats before a nude model, whom they observe and sketch for the next three hours. This weekly life drawing class is the foundation of the SELA Art Center, a new community arts space located in Bell, California, a town that straddles the Los Angeles River in Southeast Los Angeles County. The Center helps fill a void in the predominantly Latino region, which is underserved in terms of access to and support for the arts, according to community members who spoke with Hyperallergic.
“I’ve always craved being part of a community of creatives, but I had this idea that the art world would reject a Latina artist from South Los Angeles. I always felt out of place in most spaces,” Josie Vasquez, who has been taking life drawing classes at the SELA Art Center since it opened in March, said in an email. “I never imagined I’d find a space of artists in my neighborhood, that looked like me, that shared similar struggles and experiences; that I related to.”
The SELA Art Center was founded by Hector “Tetris” Arias, a street artist and muralist who was born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, but raised in Southeast LA. “My love of art started in Michoacán with murals, Mesoamerican, Indigenous stuff. When I came here, I related to gang writing in the streets.” Arias told Hyperallergic. “I began learning gang letter structure, typography, got introduced to break dancing, the four elements [of hip-hop] … It gave me something to do. There wasn’t a lot of access to art schools.”
Alongside working on his own artwork, public commissions, and projects like the Dodgers and Lakers Houses, Arias has organized youth mural workshops around LA County. He says it was always a dream of his to open an art center in his community. “I wanted something for the neighborhood, to come in and build culture,” he says. The pieces fell into place earlier this year when he saw a “For Lease” sign on a furniture store located a few blocks from his old high school in Bell.
Despite his street art pedigree, he knew he wanted to start with a life drawing class: “That’s one of the really great classes for artists, the fundamentals.” Arias reached out to a figure model he knew and held the first life drawing workshop on March 30. “It was a big success,” he beams. “Everything was really emotional. I saw tears, and a lot of excitement.”
Encouraged by that initial enthusiasm, the SELA Art Center has expanded to offer breakdancing classes and is collaborating with the Latino Equality Alliance on a mural workshop this fall, combining the history of muralism with the creation of an artwork on SELA Art Center’s facade. Ambitious plans to branch out into additional creative arenas are driven by a commitment to serve the community. “Tetris and our team could have gone any number of places, but our roots are in Bell,” Hilda Estrada, SELA Art Center’s cultural and events director, told Hyperallergic.
The cities of Southeast LA — Bell, Huntington Park, South Gate, Lynwood, Downey, Vernon, and Commerce, to name a few — are also called the Gateway Cities, extending south from just below Downtown LA to the port of Long Beach and from the South Bay cities of Inglewood and Torrance in the west to the border of Orange County. Although the region is now overwhelmingly Latino, it was developed a century ago as a “whites only” industrial and manufacturing hub, with redlining and racist housing covenants in place to keep it that way. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the area hit an economic downturn, as factories shut down or moved away, leaving behind unemployment and contaminated land. “White flight” opened the door to Latino families and workers who had been excluded for decades.
The arts infrastructure of Southeast Los Angeles County may appear sparse compared to the museums, schools, and studios just a few miles north in the city of LA, but there is no lack of creative and cultural expression amongst residents. Artist Felix Quintana was born and raised in Lynwood, and cites the 1984 Olympic mural by Frank Romero along the Hollywood Freeway, glimpsed on trips to Encino where his mother worked, as his early exposure to art. “Resources were always pretty limited in terms of making art,” he says. “It felt like there wasn’t much in Lynwood.”
After receiving his BA in photography from California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt in 2014, Quintana returned home and encountered a grassroots movement of punk shows, open mic events, and DIY exhibitions held in garages and at venues like the Lynwood Union, a converted railroad depot.
Quintana’s recent show at Residency Gallery, Cruising Below Sunset, featured assemblages of cyanotype prints and found objects, composite reflections of sites with personal significance in SELA, San Jose, and his parents’ home country of El Salvador. In his Los Angeles Blueprints series, he appropriates Google Street View images that feature pedestrians, highlighting street life over cold cartographic documentation. The blue-tinged works are in direct conversation with Ed Ruscha’s 1996 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, honoring the myriad streets and populations that exist beyond his slim geographical slice.
Just north of Lynwood, the South Gate Museum is working to preserve local histories while showcasing the work of area artists. For five decades, South Gate was the site of a massive Firestone Tire and Rubber Plant, which provided thousands of jobs until it closed in 1980. Amelia Earhart learned to fly on a dirt field nearby, now part of the GM Plant. South Gate has also spawned notable artists and musicians, like members of seminal thrash metal band Slayer and Sen Dog of rap group Cypress Hill, who all attended South Gate High School, as well as the Perez Brothers, whose hyperrealistic paintings celebrate lowrider culture.
Housed in the city’s former library, the South Gate Museum is divided into a historical archive and a contemporary gallery. Earlier this year the gallery was relaunched with Cuídate – Take Care of Yourself, a group show organized by Marissa Gonzalez-Kucheck that focused around self-care and healing, themes that have taken on increased significance in light of the toll the pandemic has taken in SELA. “Cuídate was a step up,” Jennifer Mejia, South Gate’s cultural arts coordinator, told Hyperallergic. “We’re trying to tell the story.” The next exhibition, Mi Barrio – My Neighborhood, will open on October 15 in conjunction with the South Gate Art Walk. “[SELA] cities are so small. We’re all so proud of where we come from, but also interested in bridging communities,” Mejia says.
In addition to its exhibition spaces, the South Gate Museum also holds classes and workshops. Quintana was invited to lead their pilot virtual youth art program in summer 2021, working with 14 teens over the course of two months to create a zine exploring themes of place and community, reflecting their lived experience through image and text.
These more grassroots art spaces are growing in the the shadow of the forthcoming SELA Cultural Center, a massive, $150 million project planned for a site along the LA River where it meets the Rio Hondo on the Lynwood/South Gate border. Designed by Frank Gehry, the Center will feature spaces for dance, ceramics, printmaking, screenprinting, and film and music production, with an open plan that connects it to the surrounding landscape. “The cultural center is designed to be community-oriented as a series of buildings of various sizes that are organized along a central pedestrian street,” said Joe Gonzalez, a project development analyst with the San Gabriel and Lower LA Rivers and Mountains (RMC), the leading the administration behind the Center. “The Working Art Street or ‘Paseo Cívico’ is envisioned as an active part of the campus’ program to allow for artistic creations and performances to spill out from the campus buildings onto the street, and where the street can also serve as a space for festivals and events for the community.” More than half of the budget has been secured through state funding, with an estimated groundbreaking anticipated for late 2026.
The Center has undergone an “an 18-month process that involved robust community outreach,” says Gonzalez. In a video produced by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, local arts leaders including Arias and Lourdes Pérez of the Latinas Arts Foundation express their support for the project and its potential to empower the community. “There are two positions you can take: reject everything because of gentrification, or say, ‘Let’s be invited, have a seat at the table,'” says Hilda Estrada of the SELA Art Center. “That’s how we can really shape things.”
However, there are still concerns about whether a colossal civic arts project of this sort will lead to gentrification, pushing out the very residents it purports to serve. “The potential for a tragic backfire is huge,” wrote South Gate scholar Becky Nicolaides and UCLA professor Jon Christensen in a recent op-ed. “We could pour millions of public dollars into a plan that looks impressive but drives out its target audience — communities that have found it hard just to survive in recent decades.”