Nearly a decade ago, Melissa Inez Walker and her husband, Sam Pulvers, figured they couldn't possibly be the only ones in Escondido craving eye-grabbing, edgy visual art.
The couple launched Distinction Gallery in 2004, opening with a solo show by Nathaniel Clark, a local artist whose career took off when his paintings of nudes hanging in the Pacific Beach Library became the subject of more than one rant by radio-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who called Clark's work "porn."
The Clark show was Walker and Pulver's way of announcing that Distinction Gallery had arrived, joining a scene in Escondido that had dozens of galleries but none that offered the mix of figurative-pop and urban-surrealist artwork for which Distinction would become known.
"When we opened eight years ago, people came in here every day and said, This art will never make it in Escondido; Escondido is far too conservative for this kind of art,'" Walker recalls.
Fast-forward to 2012, and the couple's gallery is one of only five left in the area, though it, too, struggled during the darkest days of the recession. Walker says that in 2009, sales were half of what they were in 2008. This year, on the other hand, has been great for Walker's art-brokerage business, thanks in part to one of the artists she represents, Gabe Leonard. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen and John Travolta have all commissioned his work, and Walker can barely keep what she still has in stock.
But for Walker, the major success has been ArtHatch, the nonprofit organization geared toward at-risk youth that she founded in 2010. It received $75,000 in county grants and private donations in 2011 and 2012, and it currently serves 15 teenagers who have been paired up with artist mentors.
"We look for teens who are hoping to become visual artists," Walker says, adding how gratifying it is to see students' confidence build and skills improve over time.
Students get unlimited after-school and weekend access to create, display and sell their art made from supplies provided by the nonprofit. At first, teens were rotated out of the program every four months, but it became too hard to kick out the kids that were really into it, Walker says. Now, once they're in, students can stay until their 20th birthday.
In 2011, Walker turned Distinction into an online art gallery and brokerage, with the 7,000-square-foot, two-story building more and more becoming a venue for ArtHatch.
When visitors first walk inside, they're greeted by a front gallery that hosts a new exhibit each month. Lining a hallway leading to the teen studio space are more than 100 works by artists from around the world. The building also contains 14 artist studios for rent—four downstairs and 10 upstairs, all currently occupied—with part of the rent money going back into ArtHatch. Though Pulvers remodeled in June to add more rentable wall space—there are currently 12 walls—ArtHatch is at capacity. The couple is entertaining the possibility of expanding to a second location, though Walker is tight-lipped with details.
On the second Saturday of every month, a new show goes up—either guest-curated group shows featuring the studio artists or solo shows by the six artists whom Walker represents, like Latvian pop-surrealist painter Jana Brike.
"Rather than it being the same work every single month by the studio artists, people get to come in and see completely different work every single month," Walker says, adding that she's excited to bring international artists to Escondido.
ArtHatch has distinguished itself as a local institution, serving as a place where high schools and colleges send their students for assignments. Through fundraising, like an annual, 24-hour Art-a-Thon each January, the nonprofit is able to give $1,000 in scholarship money to Palomar College every year. This past winter, Art-a-Thon featured 25 artists from San Diego County and beyond who created non-stop and raised $12,000 for the organization.
"Mariah Leslie was one of the recipients from last year, and she now rents a space and is one of our most talked-about artists," Walker says.
Walker's own experiences as a student have shaped how she runs the ArtHatch. When she was getting ready to graduate from college in Santa Fe, N.M., with a degree in photography, she set out to study under Philipp Scholz Rittermann, the commercial photographer whom she'd heard was the best in San Diego. In the meantime, she worked as an art installer at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. After being Rittermann's assistant for two years, she accepted the assistant director position at La Jolla's Joseph Bellows Gallery, which specializes in fine-art photography. She traveled the U.S. with Bellows, but more than anything else, she wanted a space and business of her own.
Walker hopes to get back to her own art soon and return to a project she's been working on for the last 10 years called My Monday Morning Series. Every Monday, right after waking up, Walker takes a self-portrait as an ongoing study of the technology she uses—from film to the Hipstamatic app on her iPhone—as well as her aging process and her chaotic life. Bellows, her former boss, will curate a show at ArtHatch in April 2013 featuring self-portraits taken with cell phones. Maybe one of Walker's will make a cameo.
From 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, the public can find out firsthand what Distinction / ArtHatch's shows are like, during the second Saturday event, The Privileged Series. Through a combination of photography, paint and words, Anthony Dortch Jr. illustrates comic-like scenes of society's upper crust, and it's not all pretty, which is important to Walker and Pulvers.
"It's not the Gaslamp," Walker says of her enclave in Escondido, "but people come here when they want something really different."