Visitors tour the studio space of artist and educator Gioia Fonda as part of the two-weekend Sac Open Studios event.

Where the Magic Happens

Artists invite the public into their workspaces at Sac Open Studios

Back Web Only Sep 22, 2022 By Vanessa Labi

Visiting a gallery — curated to let the art shine against stark white walls — is a stirring, if predictable, way to consume art. By contrast, entering an artist’s studio, with its paint-flecked floors, works in progress and supplies strewn about, is a thrill all its own. Sac Open Studios, the annual two-weekend event created by Verge Center for the Arts, invites artists to open up their workspaces to the public and share their processes as a way to create connections with art lovers.

The self-guided tour, now in its 17th year, has 270 participating artists who are split between two weekends depending on where their space is located in relation to I-80. Weekend 2 — Sept. 17-18 — takes place east of the highway. Breaking up the tour spatially gives it a localized feel, allowing visitors, which number an estimated 30,000 annually, to cover a breadth of artists within a concentrated area. Looking on the map in the 2022 Sac Open Studios Guide, it’s apparent the artists on display go well beyond the urban core. Although downtown Sacramento and south Sacramento appear dense with a cluster of dots, Arden-Arcade, Carmichael and Orangevale are home to many artists granting access to their studios, garages or backyards. 

“(It helps) to see art in person rather than just viewing things on social media,” says artist Haley Titus, who estimates she welcomed 40 people into her Midtown studio during Weekend 1. “I’ve had people come in and say ’Oh, I really liked X-Y-Z piece on your website. But then when I come here, stuff looks different and I’m drawn to different styles.” 

Haley Titus displayed miniature square abstract paintings at the event, which she says were a hit with kids.

Guests might also be surprised to see the spectrum of art Titus creates. In addition to the ethereal and floral paintings for which she’s known (she has many murals around the Capital Region), she also displays many textiles, such as pillowcases, wallpaper and iPhone cases. Pointing to a 10-foot, recently-painted canvas, she muses she may experiment with making it into a tablecloth. Titus says that oftentimes when she shares half-baked plans, visitors will offer ideas, providing insight into what her customers want. “I think of this event as a bonding experience between artists and their community,” she says.

Down the street in Verge’s second-story wing of studios, abstract painter Caiti Chan says she too feels connected to her community each time she makes her space accessible. Now in her fourth year participating, she says she enjoys seeing returning visitors. “It really touches me because I’m like, that means that something had an impact on them, whether it be the conversations we’ve had, or just something that the art said to them,” she says. 

Chan’s nails are painted a zingy mint blue, a shade she often pours onto her large-scale pieces. In addition to watered-down acrylics, she uses charcoal and colored pencil to create “chaotic marks” in specific areas she hopes will prompt viewers to “dive in and never stop looking.”

The work of veteran painter Laurelin Gilmore might have a similar arresting effect, but by different means. Her deeply human (yet surreal) portraits tell stories whose outline you may be able to make out by sight, but are made all the more absorbing when Gilmore shares firsthand the choices she made to convey them. 

Laurelin Gilmore chats with guests about her painting “Rolling Stone” (top center), the featured art on this year’s event guide. The red dots on the wall denote places where paintings have sold.

In “Rolling Stone,” the moody masterpiece printed on the cover of this year’s guide, she explains the subject is her late father. Using a 1974 photograph, she painted him as “a cowboy figure” surrounded by a fox to convey his affable personality and flowers to represent his geography. “The flowers are all the state flowers of the four different states where he spent the most of his heart energy. So, California, Oregon, Philadelphia and Georgia.” A raven soars above, symbolizing a connection between him and Gilmore in the living world as “the bird is a creature known to be able to send messages across the veil.” 

Amanda Cook poses with her dog Werner at her Verge studio. She jokes that wearing the “Artist” badge for the event made her embrace the label.

To entice passers-by, some artists adorn their studio’s exterior or bring their canine friends. Mixed media artist Amanda Cook brought hers for the occasion and outfitted him in a Parisian-style beret and striped shirt to coordinate with her own. Throughout her 10 years renting studio space at Verge, she’s made her way from photographer to multi-media artist. She applies a digital sensibility to the retro craft of embroidery, creating fabric collages layered with silhouettes of people using their iphones to take selfies or send a text. 

“I’m getting a lot of people into the flags,” she says, gesturing toward a line of banners stitched with pandemic-era self portraits. In March 2020, Cook began a practice in self documentation — one selfie per month — as a meditation on existing in a world that ceased to exist as we knew it. One flag renders Cook in profile staring off into the middle distance. In another she faces the viewer straight on, yawning. Or screaming. “It’s just nice to have something to show for that time,” she says. 

Cook says she finds it hard to market herself as an artist, making the Open Studios a good way to bridge the gap. Though prolific, she has a full-time job in a law office. Separating her livelihood from her art practice helps her see art as “just about expression.” 

Multimedia artist Tavarus Blackmonster shares the sentiment, as he works full-time as a professor in the art departments at Sacramento State and CSU Stanislaus. He balances the “powerful” and “awkward” in his work, which contains intersecting eyeballs, blobby fingers, intestinal oozes and neon drips. “I like thinking about musical instruments like an organ and then, like, a body organ. The words have different meanings and they have different functions, but they’re kind of related.” 

This is the third Open Studio Blackmonster has participated in, but only the second in-person event, as his first in 2020 took place on Zoom. “The last couple of years have been incredibly hard for everyone but especially challenging for our local artist community,” says Liv Moe, founding director of Verge Center for the Arts, in a press release for the tour. “Now is the time to reconnect and celebrate alongside the creatives who enrich our lives.” 

Ramona Garcia demonstrates how she works with the doll form before layering it with paint, fabric and glitter. She hosts papier-mache doll-making workshops as a form of art therapy.

Ramona Garcia is celebrating with strawberry-infused horchata. The sweet, milky beverage is a treat for visitors to sip on as they marvel at her intricately-painted papier-mache dolls, arranged in scenes equal parts whimsical (one doll clad in cobalt blue balances atop a crescent moon) and pop culture (a group of chola dolls surround and mount a lowrider car). 

Garcia crafts her dolls in the centuries-old Mexican tradition of papier-mache doll-making, which she learned 10 years ago through an apprenticeship with an artisan in Guanajuato, Mexico. She says the medium keeps her engaged and “has a really fun history” that she enjoys keeping alive. “It used to be the toys that children played with back in the day,” she says. “It was actually an industry that produced toys for the entire nation during the Mexican Revolution.” 

Kids enter her space wide-eyed. “I think my favorite has been children coming in because papier-mache really makes an impression on them. They’re also very honest in their commentary,” she laughs.

Although she’s been honing her craft for a decade, this is the first year Garcia has participated in Sac Open Studios. “I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been great. I see the value of folks coming through when usually you’re in your small bubble all the time.”

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