By Jess Winans
Change is in the air this fall for the Hillcrest art scene, starting with Hillcrest Town Council’s newly launched arts committee.
Committee chair Erik Benson said the group will focus on bringing more art to Hillcrest by way of painting murals, implementing 3D art installations or pop-ups, cleaning up the streets and welcoming new art spaces — like The Studio Door, who just moved to the area from North Park — in addition to holding an art walk-style event in Hillcrest.
While some Uptown neighborhoods, such as North Park, have a longstanding arts community, Benson said Hillcrest could use a hand in establishing the same kind of support.
“Our biggest goal is to just make this town pop,” Benson said, juxtaposing Hillcrest with its North Park neighbor. Benson said he hopes to implement similar strategies to North Park, which he said “has so many more murals than us [in Hillcrest] and so many artistic and creative foundations.”
As the arts committee chair, Benson said he intends to “work hand-in-hand with every other committee, association or activist in Hillcrest to create an art walk-like festival” for artists in the neighborhood.
“We would allow LGBTQ+ artists and allies alike to present their artwork within multiple days,” he continued. “I want to incorporate every local bar and business here, too, so it’s not only the art strip on Normal Street. I want it to be an art pub crawl as well or just include everybody as a town so that it brings income, creativity and hope.”
Long road home
For the past six years, Benson has been an advocate for the arts in Hillcrest. In 2014, after living in California for an internship while he was in college, Benson decided to move to the area permanently to be an event planner.
“I had a job at Stone Brewing where I interned as an event planner and did events, birthday parties, weddings, business dinners and stuff like that,” he said. “From there, I went to work in the nightlife scene here in Hillcrest.”
Benson — who referred to himself as “kind of a secret artist” at the time — hit the ground running in Hillcrest, hosting art nights at #1 Fifth Avenue, which he still does. His first show featured 25 of his own paintings; he sold all but three of them that night.
Benson continued trying to plan the art nights but was unable to keep them operating. He didn’t have the connections needed for the concept to thrive in the Hillcrest area and ended up moving to North County, where he worked as a wedding planner for nine months.
Benson said that after 126 weddings, he felt he had hit his glass ceiling of his wedding-planning career. His decreased passion combined with his yearning for Hillcrest prompted him to take a leap of faith and move back.
“I missed Hillcrest when I left — this is my home … I love everything about this town, even the crosswalk sounds at night,” he said. “When I moved [back to Hillcrest], I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I came back with no apartment and no plan.”
Benson doesn’t remember much from the two weeks he spent homeless, mostly wandering around town from place to place on foot, but also sleeping on the streets for four days. His experience with homelessness makes him sympathetic to the financial struggles of others, particularly artists. He provides materials to these individuals to sell their work for alongside his nonprofit B2 Creative Productions.
“I refuse to charge [artists] for their commissions for the art shows that [B2 Creative Productions] have because I’ve been there,” he said. “I’ve been in situations where money is tight. This [art show] may be the opportunity that changes someone’s life when they get recognized by a certain someone or realize that they have the potential. If I can put a smile on somebody’s face, I appreciate that smile that much more because I remember that feeling.”
Benson said he hopes to bring his expertise in wedding planning and experience in the Hillcrest arts community to help add more color to the streets of Hillcrest, alongside other artists and community members.
A door opens
Though the committee just launched this week, the arts community in Hillcrest is already starting to grow. Case in point: The Studio Door recently took over the vacant American Apparel retail space on Fourth Avenue.
The Studio Door, owned and operated by Patric Stillman, is an art center and studio space that hosts art classes, business classes and special events.
Back in July of this year, the gallery had to shut its doors in North Park after its landlord raised its monthly rent from $2,000 to $9,000.
“I was looking all over from La Mesa to Imperial Valley to North County and I just wasn’t finding the right spot for the new location,” Stillman said. “I was starting to feel disappointed that I couldn’t get anything happening. My partner encouraged me to go out one more time to places like [the American Apparel shop] that had been vacant for a long time and try to make a clear negotiation. I found somebody who was arts-sympathetic. This is a family-owned building and they were excited to have me take over the space.”
The space will feature a gallery, museum store and will host classes for not only artists, but art patrons on how to acquire art and support artists in the community. Stillman and the other Studio Door artists are planning a soft opening this December and a grand opening in January 2019.
First steps forward
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, Hillcrest Town Council’s arts committee held its inaugural meeting.
The committee has nine members including Erika Orr, producer of the “Artist Unmasked” podcast; Zack Renfro, member of the U.S. Navy and co-founder of B2 Creative Productions; Kristen Beck, a long time multimedia artist and co-founder of B2 Creative Productions; Eriel Carino, a graduate of music education from San Diego State University and co-founder of B2 Creative Productions and Stevan Dupus, an art teacher at California State Long Beach and artist, among others who were not in attendance for the first meeting.
Before the committee’s first meeting, Benson took to Facebook to ask Hillcrest residents what they wanted to see in their community.
Thirty-two individuals commented their visions. Some ideas voiced included adding a tribute mural of local LGBTQ icons and leaders, implementing an HIV monument or memorial, and painting crosswalks and the Georgia Street bridge in rainbow colors.
Community members also said that they want more lighting and cleaner streets. This brought up the question of whether the committee should focus on cleaning up Hillcrest streets first before implementing murals and beautifying the area.
“What I’m gathering from what everyone is talking about in Hillcrest is people are wanting to paint a mural, but we can start beautifying the town with just having clean streets,” Renfro said. “Walking down the street you see so much trash everywhere and making it beautiful can be just picking it [the trash] up.”
Carino piggybacked off of Renfro, suggesting the best way to clean up the streets and help homeless individuals is to find meaningful activities for them to do.
“There’s a number of homeless individuals, I can almost tell you where they are at certain times of the day, who are sitting down and drawing and doing art,” he said. “Getting them to get off the streets and do activities or getting the center to give them a time and space to do their art is needed. It seems like they really want to share it.”
On top of providing homeless individuals spaces to make and showcase their art, the committee also aims to volunteer and complete community service.
“The arts committee can gain a lot of participation and interaction just for a good cause by doing three to four hours of community service on a weekend and getting a lot of people together to take care of the community,” Renfro said.
The committee is still in its early stages and will be focusing on crafting its mission statement, developing an online and social media presence, and setting up a survey for community members to share their concerns.
“The town is only a two-mile stretch but the whole world is open,” Benson said. “We can do anything we want to do and we have complete freedom. When people ask for a defined comment on what the committee is: It’s a whole bunch of colors trying to make a bigger and brighter picture. That’s all.”
—Reach Jess Winans at firstname.lastname@example.org.