Santa Monica’s business success stories come from around the area, with one of the most hard-working local economies coming in the Pico district. The “working street” mentality of Pico Boulevard has long been rooted in the people behind the storefronts, a mentality further explored through the “Our Pico” portrait gallery.
A collaboration between the Pico Improvement Organization and renowned Los Angeles photographer Sam Comen, the gallery works to “reveal the humanity” behind Pico’s numerous businesses. Comen and a small production team visited 12 different locations, setting up camera equipment and capturing the workers’ world through engaging portraits. In all, 41 workers were photographed completing tasks like hands-on work, entrepreneurship and artisan crafting.
The Pico Improvement Organization was awarded a grant from the City of Santa Monica’s Art of Recovery program, and was able to seek the aid of Comen on the project. The photographer has long used his home state of California for inspiration, and his work has long been praised for focus on immigrant experiences and the working class. He was exhibited twice at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and his background had the organization knowing that “he would capture our workers with empathy and admiration,” said Pico Improvement Organization Merchant Engagement Director, Dana Moorehead.
“Sam specializes in shooting environmental portraits of everyday heroes as well as leaders, actors, musicians and artists,” Moorehead said. “He has such an eye for capturing the essence of his subject, and their world. We put no constraints on Sam, rather trusted his innate interest and expertise to capture the world of the Pico worker. He accomplished that even more than we imagined.”
For the project, Moorehead noted that she wanted other locals to gain “a deeper knowledge and affection for Pico’s workers and businesses” as well as “a renewed knowledge of all the useful services on the boulevard.” Business portraits were taken at locations like Adriana’s Hair Studio, Paws & Effect Pet Spa, Gilbert’s El Indio, McCabe’s Guitar Shop and Rae’s Restaurant; showcasing the diversity of both Pico’s people and their chosen professions.
“As we often say, everything you need is on Pico, along with our rich history of merchants, some of who are among the oldest in Santa Monica,” commented Pico Improvement Organization Chair, Sharon Town Lee.
Having a grant from the Art of Recovery program was appropriate for the project, as many of the featured businesses on the project’s website, OurPico.com, described how they survived the COVID-19 pandemic. At Paws & Effect, groomer Kathy Lopez was able to make it through the pandemic by creating a “doggy drop-off zone” at the sidewalk over her 3030 Pico Boulevard location. Ana Henton and Melanie Keedle, co-owners of Still Life Ceramics, were photographed at their Pico studio which opened during the pandemic, the second such studio after opening a Downtown Los Angeles location in 2018. In November, the two will open another space in Henton’s hometown, the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, Michigan.
“The pandemic challenged Pico … and the businesses found solutions,” Moorehead said. “Building patios, pivoting to take-out, setting up doggy drop-off zones, building their online presence. Cars still needed repairs [as well] and Pico businesses showed up to work.”
Moorehead noted that the three-mile-long Pico business district is also one of the most “ethnically and economically diverse” populations in the area, saying it “made sense to take a deeper look” into that human element.
“When is the last time you saw an art exhibition celebrating everyday workers?” she said. “We think they are what make Pico special. Their stories are compelling and entertaining. We named the exhibition ‘Our Pico’ because we really are a community.”
The gallery is now open through the end of 2023 at the Pico Culture House, 3018 Pico Boulevard, with hours available from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. By appointment viewings can also be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.