Fullerton's Magoski Arts Colony Is Orange County's Last, Best Hope for an Artist Shangri-La
Illustration: Nicole Goux | Design: Dustin Ames
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."
He was a creative child, doing crazy things such as dropping a running lawn mower into a hole in the front lawn so it would make smoke for his home movie. But the life-threatening experience inspired him, as well as his wife, Candace, to open a private art studio called Violet Hour in his dad's warehouse. "The gallery was born out of the necessity to house photo equipment and props, but [it] became our fantasy for [photo] shoots," Candace says. The room changed over the years, but it still contains props that most visitors never forget—a Burning Man bunny art-car and dozens of mannequins in different costumes and poses.
It remained the Magoskis' private playground until 2010, when two local gallery owners walked in. Jesse La Tour from Hibbleton and Brian Prince from PÄS both found themselves hanging out at Violet Hour's underground shows. "It was a surreal experience," Prince says, shaking his head. "With all the costumes and mannequins, you just felt like you were somewhere else, not Fullerton."
Mike saw the potential of not only the space, but also the community that could be fostered and offered Prince his own little corner. Shortly after, La Tour relocated Hibbleton there; the soft-spoken Fullerton College English professor single-handedly started Fullerton's Art Walk, enlisting local galleries and even retail businesses to participate. Once La Tour and Prince moved into the colony, the warehouse began attracting more people. "Growing up in a suburban community, you're kind of isolated," La Tour says. "Having the gallery awakened a sense of caring for the community. I was a shy person, but I realized how very important it was, and it makes your worldview more open."
Over the next couple of years, Mike built the galleries and lofts upon Hibbelton and PÄS. Between the artists renting space, outsiders showing in galleries, and group events that welcome the public, including Movie Night and Poetry Night, a solid group of 30 or so people began using the colony on a weekly basis. "There were privacy issues that plagued me," Candace says, "but it has turned out to be good, and we enjoy all the colonists."
"I just think of the entire building like an art project," Mike says. "It's my art project, and I'm painting with people."
* * *
On the first Friday of every month, the colony pulls back the curtain. The heavy metal doors are swung wide open, and the theatrical lighting pours out into the street. Artists stand by their galleries, explaining their pieces to the quizzical. The hallways fill with crowds. Candace smiles and serves sangria. At each art walk, she wears a different costume and an enormous, colorful wig; it makes chatting her up at the bar, whether about art or Facebook, rather captivating. Mike pumps an eclectic mix through the warehouse's sound system and deejays behind a white projector screen; on this Friday in May, Mike is showing a Godard film. He comes out only once to mingle.
"Candace is the yin to my yang," Mike says. "She'll be the first person to tell you I'm full of shit. I think she sees all of this in a potentially different way than I do, which is why we work well together. I see this grandiose big picture of a utopian art world, and Candace sees it for what it is now. She pulls me in."
"[It] has been challenging for me because I don't always understand [his] vision," Candace admits.
Actually, most OC residents have never understood any art-colony dream, period. In the early 1900s, painter Norman St. Clair moved to Laguna Beach and began painting Impressionist works of the beautiful landscape. Hundreds of others followed him and established a vibrant arts community that birthed the Festival of the Arts and the Pageant of the Masters. But as Laguna grew into affluence, starving artists couldn't afford to live there anymore, and the city's art scene turned into the current plague of Thomas Kinkade knockoffs and dolphin-sculpture galleries.
In recent years, Santa Ana's Artists Village seemed as though it could be a permanent contender, with galleries circling Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Arts Building and the historic Santora Building. But, just as with Laguna, rents began to increase, and the city started pushing for more restaurants and bars instead of keeping artists in mind. The death knell came in January, when Newport Beach millionaire Jack Jakosky purchased the Santora, summarily painted over a community mural and kicked out longtime tenants.
Many years ago, Mike and Candace rented a wall at the Santora. It didn't last too long. "How do you build a community that's self-sustaining and constantly evolving?" Mike asks, though it's more of a statement than a question. "I think the only way it can happen is where there is a partnership between business and structure and chaos and the artists. If these two opposing forces can find common ground, that's where you'll find the longevity in the community."
Even though the artists spend at least one night a week together, conversations about the colony never seem to dry up. "I think it's great knowing such drastic differences can exist next to each other," says Steve Elkins, the documentary filmmaker in charge of Movie Night. "Amidst all the puke puddles, you can crawl down the rabbit hole into this place. It's an important image to carry with you, that people are doing incredible things just around the corner."
For Anna Hansen, resident printmaker, it has been about adjusting. "It's a good human lesson for how to love your neighbor," says the Utah native. "When I first became part of this place, I assumed we were all liberal, but there are people who identify as Republican! But we still agree on so many other points. People are not just who they vote for."
"Before this, I've never really interacted with white people," says Josue Rivas, a colony photographer who shoots for the Weekly. He's the kind of guy who, while everyone sits around drinking and goofing off after a group project night, will suddenly announce, "I think it would be good if we all go around the room and tell what is inspiring you right now," then convinces people to participate.
"My position in society was always as 'the Mexican,'" he continues, "but when I met [La Tour], I was having intelligent conversations, and it shaped my personality outside of my race." He pauses. "Oh, God, I'm gonna cry just thinking about it!"
As nurturing an environment as it seems, the colony does have inner conflict. For this, La Tour says, they have "a resident psychologist." Ricardo Gonsalves, a licensed art therapist with an office in the colony, will sometimes hold group sessions when arguments arise.
"At the Kelly Thomas show, I wanted everyone to leave pissed," remembers Stephan "Bax" Baxter, owner of the Egan gallery. He curated a collection of artworks inspired by the homeless man's brutal death at the fists of Fullerton police officers. "But [Mike] didn't want that, you know, because the colony is a sanctuary."
"I wanted to create a space where the [enraged] community could use art to voice their feelings," Mike explains, "but also be all inclusive to those with different viewpoints, whether they were supportive of police or councilmen or in some way anti-Kelly Thomas. It's easy to be 'nice' to 'nice' people; but if you want to change hearts and minds, then you have to be willing to reach out to people who might not see things your way."
The collective compromise for the Thomas show was to offer panels on which visitors could write a positive message about Fullerton as they left. "It took away the ability to say we were just being negative," Baxter says. "We agree that we want people to be treated with dignity, but we don't always agree on how to get there. In the end, we always compromise, and it ends up bringing more people in and makes it a better community."
For the little issues that don't require big sit-down sessions, there's Vince Morgan, the colony's gatekeeper and security guard. An accident at his father's workshop left Morgan's right hand mutilated, which sent him into a downward spiral of drugs, pain meds and homelessness. Pete came across him more than 20 years ago, connecting through their mutual interest in model building; his storefront on 232 W. Commonwealth is a hobby shop, Model Mania. Eventually, Mike offered Morgan a job.
"[Morgan] is like the white blood cell in this whole thing," Rivas says. "He's always here and he protects this place."
He does more than monitor doors, though. "Vince serves as the check and balance," Mike says. "The last thing we want is people to think the colony is where people are doing drugs and it's just drunken debauchery. When the tiniest shreds of that happen, [Morgan] is right there, and he reels them back in."
"[Morgan] probably pisses me off more than anybody on a regular basis," Baxter admits. "I'll be showing the colony to a client, and he'll come in yelling that someone didn't clean up the dog puke on the floor. But then I'll ask him what he thinks is wrong with my Vespa, and two hours later, he's still mumbling about it to himself, trying to figure it out."
On a recent night, Morgan wandered past Baxter, ready to take Mike and Candace's dog, Satine, out for a walk. Baxter sauntered after him and gave Morgan a bear hug.
"Get off me, Bax!" Morgan growled. Later in his office, he explains, "I'm like Quasimodo, and this is my sanctuary," extending his arms out, then dropping them to his lap. "I've learned to let go a little. I don't wanna be the grouchy old man . . . but I don't know why Bax is always trying to hug me."
* * *
In January, Mike called a colony-wide meeting. Every chair and couch was pulled around the Burning Man trailer in the back smoking room; with the low lights in that section of the warehouse, the atmosphere was reminiscent of that of a campfire. The last few colonists snuck in as Mike began, the wind chimes on the back of the door announcing their arrival.
To prepare for this meeting, group members had to answer a long survey with questions such as "What art do you most closely relate to?" and "What dimension does your art exist in?" and "Do you fear the unknown?" As the colony finally reaches its capacity for gallery spaces, the group must vote on its future and whether they'll let the public in, as at any commercial gallery.
"I mean, this isn't a normal business," Mike says. "It's artists' studios where people are actually working. We don't want to make it like an amusement park."
Baxter says, "Mike is not a spoiled kid. I mean, I know Pete has some money, but Mike and Candace work hard. They're not getting anything but the power that comes with having a space like that in a conservative city."
According to Mike, the rent money (around $250 per space) goes back into repairs, building expenses, supplies and a little income for Morgan. Unfortunately, abandoning the desire to sell is a luxury that artists worldwide can't afford. Talk to artists after an art walk, and you'll find many long faces and disgruntled whispers registering a night without a single piece sold.
"I sincerely don't care about selling!" La Tour says, stressing exactly how sincere he is by moving his hands up and down with every word. "I just care about putting on sweet shows every month."
"Yeah, that conversation doesn't even happen here," Elkins says. "I mean, it's nice to sell. But it's almost an afterthought. We think, 'Come if you want, but we'll be here having a good time either way.'"
By the end of 2014, the colony will be open to the public at least one day per week. Docents will be assigned to overlook it while strangers wander in. Whether or not the new format works, it won't be in the same quiet niche forever: The dirt lot across the street is slated to become a fancy apartment building, but the group doesn't seem to be worried about the development. "Something was gonna go up," Candace says. "I'm just glad it's not a mega-bar."
Most of the colonists welcome opening to the public. Despite a couple of assholes who've tagged artists' walls and one really big asshole who slashed a painting during the Mike Atta benefit, the outside world doesn't bring in too many problems. "We're extremely fortunate to decide if we even want to [be] open more," Mike says. "Without my father as the benefactor, we'd have to look at this much more in a real-world sense, but instead, we can just focus on building community."
Pete backs him up. "My son will tell you, I've never been known to sell anything," he says. "You have no idea how many times and how much money I've been offered for that building. Yeah, I think they're hysterical over there, but sometimes, Vic and I say, 'Let's take a break and go see what those clowns are up to!' Every now and then, there's something good. Why would I sell it?"
So Mike just keeps planning. Having finally filled the warehouse with workshops and gallery spaces, the only thing left to do is return to the beginning and once again make Violet Hour a private studio. "This is the last step before the colony is filled," Mike says. "Then we'll move on to the hobby shop across the street. The next stage is fantastic. It's going to be a concert hall with a small bar and display kitchen with the best waiters from here and the best chefs from there. It will be the actual commercial venue. With that in place, perhaps we'll make the colony completely private. Who knows?
"Maybe bigger galleries can even learn from the disorganization and innocence that we have here," he adds. "Art is a bridge, but by itself, it's not going to change the world. It's people who change the world. Which is why I'm not interested in revolution—that's just the ebb and flow, the rise and fall of society. What I'm interested in is evolution, a breaking away from our cyclical nature. How can we ever expect to have peace in other parts of the world when we don't even have it at home?! We can only get there through self-introspection on a local and global scale. And maybe when art, the truest expression of self, is made valuable by society, then that evolution can occur."
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