Feb. 23 2015 06:44 PM

Fine-art gallery opens March 1 with a big bill of San Diego artists

Sonya Sparks
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

After more than a year-and-a-half worth of construction and rehabilitation projects, Sparks Gallery is finally ready for its big reveal. Located at 530 Sixth Ave., Downtown, the fine-art gallery will launch with One on One, a group show featuring a huge lineup of local artists, opening from 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday, March 1.

Walking through the refurbished 4,500-square-foot building, constructed in 1924, owner Sonya Sparks is as likely to point out unique architectural or historical details as she is to talk about the art that'll soon be on the gallery walls.

"This is the original floor," she says, pointing to the freshly revamped wood beneath her feet.

"With a good deal of patching," adds her dad, Barry Wilson, who owns the building and, with help from his son, a general contractor, led the renovation.

For most of its early life, the building served as a hardware store. Reviving it was necessary for making much-needed aesthetic changes, but, more importantly, Sparks and Wilson needed to improve the structural integrity of the building so they could increase the capacity.

Steel beams now reinforce the hollow masonry walls, so, unlike the single, three-week, pop-up exhibition they hosted in 2013, when attendance was limited to 49 people at a time, they can now host nearly 350.

"We were waiting for the building to be exactly right," Sparks says. "We did open briefly, because there was a window of time where we weren't tearing things apart. The capacity limit was a huge hindrance for us, though. We had people lined up down the street at that opening."

Sparks, whose mother is active in historic preservation, makes sure to point out the gallery's antique curio in the back that's filled with relics found during the rebuild. She says they discovered broken sake bottles and other artifacts stemming from the area's former life as a red-light district populated by Japanese immigrants.

"This was an empty lot back then, so when we were doing some excavation, we found old kanji and other interesting historic things," she says.

Now that the history of the building is preserved, Sparks says she's ready for its future. She hopes to put her business and arts background to use by building a contemporary gallery focused on local art. She knows the venture will be a challenge in a region that has few collectors and is apparently unable to support many full-time, brick-and-mortar fine-art galleries.

"I think we can do it," she says. "That's why we're sort of treating the gallery like a retail store in some ways. I'm really focusing on the business aspect of it—so, looking at it in terms of price range and how the market will respond to certain prices and artwork. We're really going to be looking closely to see what works here."

The opening exhibition will feature works by Amy Paul, Anna Stump, Gloria Muriel, Eric Wixon, ManRabbit, Richard Salcido and dozens more. Monty Montgomery's two-story mural will be on view on the back patio, and Vincent Robles will construct a site-specific installation in the storefront window.

"I consider the gallery itself as a big personal art project," Sparks says. "I wanted to start a business, but I just felt like I wanted to support the arts community, too. It's meaningful to me, and I think this could be a great thing to happen to the community."

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