What was once a weed-grown lot languishing against the northbound side of the 101 at Gutierrez Street is today a quiet oasis of artists’ lofts known as El Zoco. Here, artists live and work close to the heart of the city, creating work that might never have existed in Santa Barbara without such a home.
The vision of El Zoco was born in 1987, when Patrick Davis, former director of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, approached the directors of Homes for People, a nonprofit organization founded in 1980 to create low-income housing for the city. Davis’s idea was to create affordable housing for artists, encouraging those who might otherwise have been driven out of town by rising house prices to remain here. Architect Dennis Thompson was commissioned to design units with high ceilings and windows, adequate ventilation, skylights, and modest kitchen and living areas adjacent to larger studio work spaces. From the time of its completion, 80 percent of El Zoco’s residents have been artists and professionals in related fields, and there is a waiting list of artists eager to move in. Among the current inhabitants are five painters, four graphic artists, two photographers, two architects, a furniture designer, and a theater director and playwright.
As has become common with other areas artists have inhabited, like New York’s SoHo district, the area around El Zoco is becoming gentrified. But preconditions set in the purchase agreements, requiring occupants to live in the units for 30 years before they can sell them at market prices, make the process of gentrification unlikely to overwhelm El Zoco itself. For the artists who call it home, that’s good news.
Painter Francis Scorzelli has been involved with El Zoco since ground was broken, and has lived there since the units were completed in 1994. Like the other artists who live there, he views El Zoco as a community. In part to foster that atmosphere, he, along with fellow residents Marilee Krause and Tom DeWalt, participate in the Santa Barbara Studio Artists annual Open Studios Tour, which this year falls on Labor Day weekend.
Scorzelli has been painting for 30 years. Rendered with oils and scraping tools, his large, heavily layered, colorful abstracts reflect trackless journeys through time. It can take him up to a year to finish a canvas. He likes to work in series of six to 12, the pieces loosely related by geometric “themes”-squares or triangles he employs as doorways into the painting process. Built around these elements, complex color fields, diverse forms, and alphabet-like characters interact like constellations of indefinable thoughts. For Scorzelli, the objective is balance; when the eye is drawn to explore the entire painting, it’s finished.
El Zoco resident Krause has been drawing and painting for the past two decades. She credits her mother with giving her the confidence to become an artist by teaching her to make her own clothes. Krause views painting as a joyful practice, and hopes some of the benefits she derives from it are passed on to her viewers and students. Her intimate landscapes tend to concentrate on off-the-beaten-track scenes, finding the charm in brush and grass and solitary trees, often with details of remarkable specificity that might commonly be overlooked. She combines watercolor and pastel, pushing the mediums to create masterful impressions of realism that defy deconstruction. Her recent works depict wet sand beaches at low tide, shimmering in late light near sunset. These quiet, soothing images have an ethereal quality that borders on abstraction.
Nature is also an inspiration for DeWalt, who has been living in El Zoco nearly as long as Scorzelli, his next-door neighbor. A landscape painter working in oils, DeWalt considers himself a contemporary realist. He traces his commitment to painting to 1983, when he “house-sat” the lighthouse at Point Conception during the El Ni±o storms. “Nature made me an artist,” he said. For DeWalt, the experience of painting is larger than the act itself. All of his paintings carry memories for him of the places they depict: the colors and sounds, the feeling of air on his face, and the people he met there. His paintings tend to have a very smooth finish. “Composition is everything,” he said, and indeed, his paintings exhibit a strong dramatic sense, emphasizing the spatial relationships of natural forms in a style that is thoughtfully idealized.
At the end of the El Zoco block, a street cleaning company parks its fleet of street sweepers. Just beyond a tangle of shrubs and shaggy trees, the highway roars along. In the courtyard of El Zoco, behind the carport-cum-storage-facility designed as a sound barrier, it is quiet, and the ornamental plants are well tended. Among the tiles paving the center of the courtyard is one that bears a quote from Shakespeare that characterizes both the success and spirit of this minuscule community: “Beauty doth of itself persuade.”
As part of the Santa Barbara Studio Artists Sixth Annual Open Studios Tour, Francis Scorzelli, Marilee Krause, and Tom DeWalt will exhibit work at El Zoco from September 1-3. For more information about the tour, call 899-8854 or visit sb-studioartists.com.