By Camille de Beus
Daily Press Intern
Santa Monica has been an inspiration for local artists for generations and the City’s Artist-in-Residence reflects the connection between artists, residents and the City By The Sea.
Zeal Harris is the newest Studio Artist-in-Residence at 1450 Ocean.
From Aug. 10 to Nov. 12 Harris will be teaching classes while working on her own art that will be showcased near the end of her residency at the Camera Obscura Art Lab.
“My work is about revealing characters on journeys,” Harris said. “Whether the journey is brief or epic, tells a linear or non-linear story, or is recognizable or obscure, my paintings serve to complexify grand narratives of Black lives and prompt fresh dialogue about sociocultural issues.”
Though Harris has an idea of where she is hoping her art will take her during the residency, she admits that it is liable to change with new inspiration.
“Sometimes experiences are immediate, and sometimes experiences go into you and they incubate,” Harris said. “I’m thinking that the plan that I have is to do this kind of ongoing narrative that’s very poetic that’s centered around the beach… But as an artist, sometimes you have to incubate on things, and do a little bit and a little bit at a time until you get the big picture.”
According to Cultural Affairs Supervisor Naomi Okuyama, the residency often helps the artist’s ideas develop in surprising ways.
“They have reported being able to dig deep into process, having had rare time and space to accomplish tasks, becoming inspired to try new directions in their work, and coming away with a reinvigorated love of teaching,” Okuyama said. “Artists have mentioned that the public nature of the residency and the workshop requirement has helped them become more directed in their process, and seeing students’ output has helped them get back to their earliest creative impulses.”
Past Artist-in-Residence Frank Valdez found the new source of inspiration that Okuyama spoke about. Initially, Valdez planned to paint landscapes, but over the course of his residency discovered something more interesting to paint.
“[The residency] really gave me the opportunity to figure out how to next level my art,” Valdez said. “There’s nothing wrong with landscapes…they can be charming but there’s nothing really challenging about them conceptually; they’re easy to like…I went in with an idea, but when my idea changed, I was afforded the opportunity to roll with it. I would be sitting there painting a palm tree, and people would come up to me and…ask me questions about my art. Then, eventually in that conversation I asked them to model for me. That allowed me to look at something that I’m more interested in. It resulted in a project that I wound up showing for my residency show.”
Similarly, both artists were excited to work so close to the beach. Being so near to the beach inspired Valdez’s art to become focused on visual ethnographies of people who go to the beach.
“On the surface of it, it seems simple: it’s just a day at the beach,” Valdez said. “But when you really delve into it, it gets into issues of race like, what races are going to the beach? What religion? What kind of sexuality, gender performance? What impact does class have on people who go to the beach? Some of my models were homeless from the park, and then on the other end of it I had a Moroccan prince who modeled for me and an executive from one of the biggest companies in Los Angeles. So it’s all this range. It was from a simple question: who goes to the beach? Who are these people?”
Although Harris has yet to begin her residency, she has a history with beaches. She previously drew inspiration from a beach in Virginia where her great grandmother had run a fish fry. Harris dug deep into the history of that beach, collecting images, videos and interviews. She also often uses lunch breaks at her day job to walk by the beach.
“I actually just love, love, love the beach,” Harris said. “[At] my day job at Otis College of Art and Design, as much as I can, we all go and take a lunch break power walk at Playa Del Ray-the closest beach to my job…I would say walking at the beach for me is like a spiritual bath.”
With the residency so close to the beach, Harris is hoping to focus her art on all the people near the pier and Camera Obscura.
“It’s the actual people and seeing in the crowds of people, seeing in the crowds these moments that you just want to hold onto is special,” Harris said. “I feel like there’s the possibility of gaining inspiration from that. Then there’s the energy of the people. Then there are the people that you meet, and the people that you enter into conversations with, and for me those conversations are critical because that is where the text for a lot of my artwork comes from…I have a personal mission as an artist to illustrate personal anecdotes of everyday people.”
Additionally, in an effort to learn more about the history of the beach, Harris plans on connecting with a specialist in the area who has done extensive research on black recreational beach areas in southern California. Because for Harris, art is about telling a story.
“It’s through those everyday conversations, it’s through the bonding, it’s through being human to another person that very carefully I get a lot of the stories that go into my artwork,” Harris said. “I’m a very interested when people’s stories connect to larger issues that I feel are very important to our times, those are the stories that I tend to make into artwork.”
Those interested in registering for classes with Zeal Harris should visit smgov.net/reserve and search for keyword “Zeal”. Any artists interested in the residency should visit arts.smgov.net.