By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
The brick warehouse along Santa Fe Avenue in downtown Fullerton looks eerily still most nights, akin to the industrial wastelands of a Rust Belt city. The only people to pass by its sawtoothed roof and dimly lit sidewalk are college kids stumbling to and from Bootlegger's Brewery, beginning or ending another night of bacchanalia. But stand near the warehouse's cold metal door, and you can feel the vibration of music and hear the occasional laughter. It sounds like a buzzing hive.
Inside, you're greeted by a pent-up energy that unspools every which way and the smell of toasty, old wood. Warm gallery lighting peeks out from seemingly every corner. The music is louder, but the place is still devoid of people. A left turn out of the square foyer puts you in a long hall with no visible end, artwork covering its length, each segment painted in different hues and separating a labyrinth of rooms.
Floating down the hallway is a suspended river of paper cranes that leads to the center of the warehouse. That's where Mike Magoski appears. The 54-year-old's blue eyes bounce wide for a moment, his mop of white hair shinning under the lights. "Oh, good! You're here!" he exclaims, clasping his hands together. "Come on back; we're having a dance party, and there's something new I have to show you." And running like a child, Mike introduces us—in fact, everyone who walks into this realm—to his life and his creation: the Magoski Arts Colony.
Anyone who has ever experienced the colony during its monthly art walks admits to being a bit disoriented afterward. Much like the Navidson House in Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, the colony seems larger on the inside than it looks from the outside, and the more it's filled with galleries and exhibits, the bigger it seems to get. Mike builds walls and artist lofts so quickly they work like vines, constantly growing and wrapping around everything; it's similar to how artists build lofts at the Brewery in Los Angeles, except on a smaller scale with a quicker turnaround. "I think our business model is different," Mike explains, satisfaction in his eyes. "When people come in, they are guests. The show isn't about us! It's about facilitating an experience, whatever it is they're looking for."
In a city better known for drunk bros, brutal police officers, and the habitual destruction of historic buildings and public art, the Magoski Arts Colony operates in Fullerton's shadows. Most residents, let alone the rest of Orange County, don't know it exists. But it may represent OC's best, last chance to foster a genuine artists' colony, one that won't collapse under city planning, greedy investors or the eternal siren call of more established scenes.
"There seems to be a difference between the average Joe who goes to a bar and listens to rock music and the bourgeoisie who go to the galleries and drink champagne," Mike says. "The latter are basically doing the same thing, just with their homies. The problem is we don't have a mingling between the two in Orange County. . . . We want everyone to know that art is a good investment, and I'm not talking about the pieces you buy at IKEA."
* * *
On a warm spring night, Mike prepares to go up on the roof. His tool belt has a camera attached. One hand holds a growler; with his empty hand, he pats himself down.
"Hmm, do I need anything else?" Mike says to himself. "Oh, yeah, I was going to get a cigar."
Clusters of artists join him via a small, winding wooden staircase. Four rows of dormers stretch the length of the 116-foot façade, with romantic pivot windows that look down onto the tiny artist lofts. From the ground floor, the lofts are hardly noticed; from above, they resemble fairytale workshops.
"I think about hallowed ground a lot," Mike says, his eyes drifting across the dusk horizon. "Like an Indian burial ground—is it sacred because there was something special there before, or did they make it special? I think this place is like that. What makes a place hallowed? Love."
The warehouse that shelters the Magoski Arts Colony was built in 1928 and is recognized as a local landmark by the city. It operated for decades as a laundry facility, and then it housed juicers for the Chapman's Old Mission Brand Valencia oranges packing plant that was across the railroad tracks. In the late 1980s, Pete Magoski—father of Mike—purchased the building along with three others next to it because they were pretty cheap and, as Mike explains, "the buildings no one wanted."
Pete wasn't a real-estate man or a big-time investor. He was a space engineer and later the owner of North American Aerospace Corp., which helped to design Apollo spacecrafts for NASA. Neither he nor his business partner, Vic Harrison, will offer up details, though. "Oh, I'm just a poor country boy—that's all," Pete says with a laugh.
Until the mid-1990s, the laundry building was storage for anything from stoves to tanks. Then, one year, Mike asked to use a small corner. He had been a career server and restaurant manager until an employee tried to rob his place, in the process literally stabbing him in the back. "I almost died," Mike says, "but it was my daughter's birthday, and I couldn't let that happen. I realized I had to reevaluate my life, so I embarked on this mad affair with art."