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A Community Alive

CSUF Grand Central Art Center Is A Cultural Hub for Santa Ana and Beyond


When John Spiak began his job as director and chief curator of Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, it was like coming home.

Picture of John Spiak

John Spiak is leading Grand Central Art Center into a new era.

Spiak – born and raised in Orange County – spent the past 17 years curating art projects at Arizona State University, becoming known for exciting social practice endeavors. One of them focused on incarceration, involving controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio and inviting inmates to campus to participate in creating art. In the months Spiak has been directing Grand Central, he has worked to attract nationally known artists who plan to exhibit their work in the downtown Santa Ana facility and beyond.

"This is home for me," Spiak said in a recent interview. "My philosophy is very much focused on community, looking at art in society and the conversations that can be addressed through the institution of art. I believe we should look at art from all different perspectives, making it a mutual territory where difficult conversations can be had.

"We want to present multiple perspectives, things we agree with and don't agree with, letting visitors make up their own minds."

Spiak's efforts make the center a hub for social practice, a genre that involves engagement with communities and incorporates social goals, networks and cultural practices. Social practice art often blurs the distinction between artist and subject, and can include activist art, social work, protest performance, community art, and other activities that can represent social and political thought.

As part of his mission, Spiak has invited various artists to work and live at Grand Central in pursuit of their art. Tony de los Reyes, a Los Angeles artist, is featured this fall, displaying paintings that examine the U.S.-Mexican border and its influence on Southern California.

"I'm interested in the border as an abstraction – a space that has become defined through color and line," de los Reyes said. "I'm working in an area where culture and politics intersect. America is always on a march to claim new territory; I look at the border as a division of space that defines cultures."

Picture of Grand Central

Grand Central Art Center is at the heart of Santa Ana's vibrant art community.

Setting Grand Central Art Center apart from other gallery spaces in Southern California, Spiak believes, is the philosophy of art as a crucial part of the community, a philosophy that keeps with the center's history of community involvement and its birth as a cornerstone for Santa Ana's Artists Village.

As a critical part of the village – known for creating a vibrant arts district from a formerly blighted downtown neighborhood – Grand Central is a block-long edifice that includes several exhibition spaces, the Black Box Theatre, a shop and 28 apartments, 26 of which are reserved for Titan students pursuing their master's degrees in the College of the Arts and two of which house artists in residence. Each student artist has studio space in which to create art. Also included in the center is a future classroom to be dedicated to offering free computer access to Santa Ana high school students; a flamenco dance studio; and The Road Less Traveled, a locally owned store dedicated to modern natural living and community education, offering workshops on everything from fiber arts to food crafting and do-it-yourself technology.

The Artists Village takes a front seat during First Saturdays. On the first Saturday of each month, the neighborhood comes alive. A multitude of visitors attend the area's galleries, restaurants and shops, and street vendors, public performances and musical acts add to the atmosphere. Grand Central hosts more than 4,000 visitors during First Saturday events.

"I've always loved this place," Spiak said of Grand Central, "with the residency component and storefront space that makes it open to interaction. I love nearby Fourth Street's energy and culture, and we aim to extend that energy to our visitors.

"My vision is that the center doesn't consider its walls as barriers, but is an institution that exists through all of Orange County, Southern California, the West and beyond."

It all came together in 1999, when the Grand Central Art Center was dedicated. It was the culmination of years of work by artists, government agencies and the University to create a satellite campus in the heart of the Santa Ana arts community. Originally a redevelopment project, Grand Central was championed by mayor and CSUF alumnus Miguel Pulido '80. The University partnered with the city in large part because of the living/working environment it provides graduate students.

Today, Spiak's vision embraces artists from throughout the country who want to work with him at Grand Central. He is also working with a variety of community-based organizations on plans to incorporate art throughout Santa Ana and other Orange County communities.

One of the artists he has asked to work at Grand Central is Lisa Bielawa, a New York-based artist best known for creating art in public spaces that incorporates music, performance and visual art. Her upcoming works feature a sound piece with 600 musicians at Tempelhof airfield in Berlin and Crissy Field in San Francisco, both now public parks.

A Yale literature graduate, Bielawa believes, like Spiak, that art can create new relationships and bring the community together. "A place like this can reach out to other existing organizations and groups involved in community missions," she said. "It'sall about leadership – how the center sees itself in the community. 19 What's unique about this place is its position as a collaborator whose work complements the community."

Bielawa, a composer and vocalist, was at Grand Central in 2013. Another artist, Saskia Jorda, began her residency at the center in January 2013, working together with the city's more than 20 quinceañera shops on a project emphasizing the quinceañera as a coming-of-age ceremony affecting not only the girl celebrating her newfound womanhood, but on the community at large.

Picture of artist, Saskia Jorda.

Artist Saskia Jorda, seated, began her residency at Grand Central Art Center focusing on the quinceañera in her native Venezuela, examines the traditions behind this rite of passage, study family values, and view body images as perceived by the teenagers themselves. Joining Jorda at Grand Central are, from left, Paula Martella, Isela Vasquez and Jocelyn Mendieta.

A Venezuelan artist now based in Arizona, Jorda believes the rite of passage can engage the community in dialog. "I'm happy about this opportunity to bring my work to a larger, broader audience – it's larger than just working in a gallery space. The new framework that goes beyond the walls of Grand Central is really special."

Paul Ramirez Jonas, a renowned New York-based artist, lived and worked at Grand Central in summer 2014 on a project based on transportation involving travel from the East Coast to the West Coast via a series of volunteer passengers and chauffeurs. He is impressed by the center and its director.

"John's enthusiasm and the convergence of his track record and the exhibit space brings long-lasting believability and the willingness to experiment," Jonas said.

One of the artists now involved in reaching out to the Santa Ana community is Jules Rochielle, a Los Angeles artist and consultant who is pursuing a $10,000 California Humanities grant in support of a Santa Ana oral history project. Rochielle is working with the Santa Ana Public Library, El Centro, Sacred and other groups in support of creating local histories about Santa Ana residents who've experienced violence in the Townsend/ Raitt neighborhood. The stories would be collected by college and high school students who live in the neighborhood themselves.

"This is social practice with an interest in the community," Rochielle said. "When I began coming to Santa Ana and learning about it, listening to where the community is, I began to believe that it will support socially engaged work with the artist becoming embedded in the community. The art will be visible to the community but not necessarily the art world."

The surrounding arts community is one reason why Stephen Howell chose to live at Grand Central. An M.F.A. candidate in acting, Howell is interested in the politics surrounding theater. Originally from Arlington, Texas, Howell selected Cal State Fullerton based on its programs, but has found living at Grand Central an added attraction.

"What could be better than living here, with the Black Box Theatre below, in such a diverse neighborhood, in an acting program?" Howell asked. Grand Central is close enough to the campus that he can ride his bike to classes in Fullerton along the Santa Ana River trail.

Another graduate student pursuing an M.F.A. in acting is Julie Cardia, who said living at Grand Central provides "kind of an instant family," with students pursuing graduate degrees and living and working at the center. "We're all going through the same things and we're neighbors," Cardia said.

Downtown Santa Ana is a special place, agreed graduate student Bonnie Massey, who is pursuing her Master in Social Work degree and creates prints, etches and linocuts. "Santa Ana has a rich history and a very interesting mix with lots of different groups of people living respectfully with one another," Massey said. "I'm intrigued by that, and by what John is doing with social practice and artists engaging in the community."

"It's a wonderful location," noted Patrick Faulk, a graduate student in drawing and painting whose recent installations have featured sound and distractions. "The community is wonderful. It's very colorful, very beautiful and it helps promote the creative spirit."


Lisa Bielawa Manuel Cortez Tony de la Reyes
First Saturdays Howell Pose John Spiak and Loretta Sanchez Opening exhibition on First Saturdays
 Grand Central Art Center apartment for artists in residence. Patrons mingle around Grand Central Art Center open courtyard

1 Artist, musician and vocalist Lisa Bielawa in residence at the center in 2013.

2 First Saturdays attract a multitude of visitors to the Santa Ana Artists Village.

3 Graduate student Stephen Howell and his girlfriend Britney Hudgins enjoy a quiet moment inside their apartment at Grand Central Art Center.

4 Manuel Cortez shows off some of his artwork in the center’s Second Street Promenade during a recent First Saturday.

5 Howell acts in the center’s Black Box Theatre.

6 Artist Tony de los Reyes at his “Border Theory” exhibit.

7 John Spiak guides Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-47) on a tour of Grand Central Art Center.

8 Looking toward Broadway Boulevard from the roof of Grand Central Art Center, patrons are seen pouring out of Memphis at the Santora restaurant and into the Second Street Promenade.

9 First Saturday openings of exhibition and program schedule draw large crowds to the center and surrounding Artists Village.

Picture of upward bound staff

CSUF Reaches Out to Underserved Communities

Grand Central Art Center is just one example of Cal State Fullerton’s outreach to Orange County’s diverse communities. CSUF’s partnership with Santa Ana College and the Santa Ana Unified School District, ¡Adelante!, offers qualifying students an opportunity to be first in line on the path to college and provides expert guidance along the way. The program guarantees priority registration at Santa Ana College and transfers to attend CSUF. In another program, 30 Santa Ana high school students, including nine incoming freshmen, moved into CSUF student housing last summer to experience what their future could be like. The students – from Century, Saddleback, Santa Ana and Valley high schools – participated in CSUF’s Upward Bound, a program designed to assist eligible high school students with preparation for admission to a university and success in earning a college degree. At left, Leo Cota ’04, director, and Eileen Jimenez, academic adviser, both in the back row, welcome Upward Bound students living and attending courses on campus last summer, including incoming freshman Edith Mendoza of Century High School and Saddleback High School students Raeleen Perez and Brian Avila.