When Dilapidation Blooms into Art

Artists Add Personality to Isla Vista's Notoriety

A Volkswagen van appears in the mural on Cajé coffee house, painted by Michael Kote in 2009, with a burning Bank of America building as a reflection in its windshield.

Missing sidewalks, rowdy street parties, a tragedy of unmatched proportion — as omnipresent as I.V.’s struggles are, the troubles that often define the town also facilitate a motley yet increasingly organized art scene.

Throughout its unabashedly nonconformist history, visual art has plastered the surfaces and permeated the crevices of Isla Vista. Indie coffee shops and eateries sport murals portraying everything from the 1970 Bank of America burning to beach-goers with sunflower heads; residents’ homes feature depictions of mermaids and foes of apartheid; parks bear sculptural memorials to the victims of the May 2014 tragedy.

A wall painting hidden on one of Isla Vista's side streets.

Cajé’s bank-burning façade and Perfect Park’s memorials testify to the creative expression that springs from I.V.’s turbulent troubles. And while many of the works of art are the product of one or a few individuals, the art scene here is trending toward collaboration.

Kim Yasuda, an art professor at UCSB, launched IV OpenLab — a class in which participants work on creative research projects in I.V. that are meant to engage the community. Some of the most visible creative events from the past year originated from IV OpenLab, including BluNite — which marked the one-year anniversary of 2014’s killings with blue LED lights strung along trees, business fronts and homes, and along curbs — and IV First Fridays, the monthly nighttime block parties that host a variety of arts and culture programming and provide an alternative to the usual partying.

“The projects that we’ve been involved in — whether it be BluNite or IV OpenLab — it has been a partnership between the community, the campus, the students, and faculty. It’s everybody contributing something,” said Yasuda. “And that to me is what makes it so powerful.”

Despite the resources of the university’s Art Department and its students’ creativity, the new wave of better-organized art being pioneered by Yasuda and her students still relies on a diverse partnership of community players to be organized and made visible. Partners have including the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District (IVRPD), the Isla Vista Tenants Union, various student organizations, and local businesses.

This intersection of different people, organizations, and resources — combined with its urban struggles — has made the town, in effect, an incubator for creative expression and an artistic outlet.

“It’s like a blank canvas,” said Yasuda.

Where once a whale swam on Embarcadero del Mar, now sunflower people bedeck a beach.

For many, I.V.’s public art also fosters greater appreciation for a community that is often in sore need of a little loving from both within and without. While BluNite, for instance, was UCSB and I.V.’s most prominent artistic commemoration to last May’s victims, it also served to imbue the town itself with personal meaning that fostered a sense of connection to and appreciation for the community. One reason artists and community members such as Yasuda are so excited for I.V.’s burgeoning art scene is just this — the prospect for an amplified sense of connection.

For Jonathan Holcomb, a UCSB grad whose work in Isla Vista included a memorial bench in Perfect Park, even simple projects, like designing the façade of a utility box on El Colegio Road, can enhance the town’s perception of itself in this way.

“I think it’s just a way to add some life to something that’s lacking beauty … adding some flavor to the space,” he said of projects like his utility box.

Artistic projects and exhibitions being coordinated by IV OpenLab, IVRPD, and others have dramatically expanded the audience of residents’ visual, musical, and performance art over the past year. Events like the annual Chilla Vista music festival and IVRPD’s Meet Your Neighbor Day have become recognized platforms for a variety of residents’ creative work.

Perhaps the most dramatic next step in I.V.’s increasingly large-scale, organized art scene is a plan between UCSB and the Santa Barbara Arts Commission, funded by the California Arts Council, to bring in prominent and budding artists from across the state to survey the town and generate their own illumination-centered projects, to be displayed in some of the main parks in May. Despite the recent surge in organized, artistic expression, many still see endless opportunities.

“I.V. has such a need for beautification and positive enhancement,” said Yasuda. “Nobody’s really been paying attention to ‘what does our community look like and feel like?’ So I think there’s endless projects.”


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