With a slight accent and an abundance of enthusiasm, Gustaf Rooth explains his philosophy on life: “It's OK to believe in yourself. It's OK to achieve something.”
Born in Sweden, Rooth moved with his family to Del Mar in 1978. Though he took to the San Diego lifestyle like a native, he moved back to Scandinavia at age 21 to attend school and rediscover his roots.
“I studied furniture design, furniture manufacturing, woodwork, architecture, welding, ceramics and textile printing,” the 34-year-old rattles off. “Whatever I could.” After graduating, he was recruited by the Swedish government to teach skilled political refugees in an EU-operated woodshop. “I worked with about 250 students in three years. It totally woke me up to the realities of the world.”
Though Rooth enjoyed his job, he started thinking about America. His parents still lived in San Diego (now in Hillcrest) and he knew there might be new adventures and opportunities awaiting him here. Ten years after leaving, Rooth packed up his Stockholm apartment and headed back to California.
His dream was to open an art gallery-Planet Rooth. Two years ago, he found a vacant two-story building on North Park's Ray Street. “Rumor has it that it might have been a crack house back in the day. But it was perfect.”
He signed a long-term lease with an agenda to renovate and shake San Diego out of its artistic rut.
Located just off the busy intersection of 30th and University, Ray Street is lined with charming buildings from the 1930s, most of which are occupied by artisans or small businesses. Rooth quickly found like-minded individuals.
Ken Calloway ran North Park Studio at the time, a couple of doors down from Rooth's gallery.
“I talked to Ken and we decided it would be cool to do some kind of monthly art walk,” Rooth recalls.
They recruited Richard Miller, who owns a retail shop called Lost Your Marbles Too?, and Samantha Treadwell, who runs The Cabernet, a wine-tasting business/gallery. The four met weekly to plan. “When we told everyone else [on Ray Street] what we were going to do, they started coming to the meetings too,” says Rooth.
The committee decided on the second Saturday of every month, giving Ray at Night an out-on-the-town feeling. People could stay late and really enjoy themselves. They chose a logo, had cards made and advertised in neighborhood papers. For their galleries, they bought wine, hors d'oeuvres, candles and flowers. Rooth even brought in a DJ from Long Beach. Everything was donated or paid for out-of-pocket.
“It took a lot of enthusiasm to get things going,” Rooth recalls. “We promoted the hell out of it.”
The first Ray at Night occurred just three days after 9/11. Rooth, like many people, was shaken to the core by that day's events, but he was adamant that the show continue as planned. If anything, he contends, people needed art more than ever. “Art can distract you from your woes.”
An estimated 300 to 400 people showed up that evening. Last month's Ray at Night brought in 1,500.
Rooth envisions that within three to four years, North Park will be the epicenter of San Diego's art scene. “The art in the galleries of La Jolla and the Gaslamp does not define the art scene in San Diego.”
Since Rooth moved in, several artists have moved to Ray Street from downtown's once-thriving Brokers Building. Rooth says there are 12 places actively involved with Ray at Night these days.
Their crowds have been like the art they offer-eclectic. Familiar art scenesters roam from gallery to gallery next to eager young couples looking to buy something special for the walls of their new apartments or homes.
“It's the diversity that makes this whole Ray at Night thing so neat,” Rooth explains.
“Oh, it's just wonderful,” enthuses Sandra Lucia Kassa, a former Brokers resident who co-owns Tres Gallery on Ray Street. “There are new homeowners in town and they all want to buy original art. It's so festive here and people love to come and have a glass of wine, mingle and look at art.”
Cassandra Inman, a 27-year-old architecture student, has been to Ray at Night several times since it began. “I've gone to a lot of art shows where you had no idea who the artist was or what they were all about. Ray at Night encourages interaction.”
Inman's friend, Richard Lopez, a 22-year-old aspiring street artist, was impressed with the diversity of the art in the different galleries. “I found a print I wanted to buy, but it was already sold,” he says. He adds that he'll be back again soon. “This thing is cool.”
Rooth stresses that Ray at Night won't last without San Diego's support. “Artists need to make money, and so do the galleries, or they'll close.”
For Rooth-a high-end furniture designer by day-the economic risk of Planet Rooth is worth it. “It's incredible being able to shape your community via an art gallery.”
He has no intention of slowing down, either, with plans to open galleries in Stockholm and Copenhagen and put on a lot more shows at his San Diego location.
It's reassuring how wholeheartedly Rooth believes in San Diego's blossoming art scene, especially when he promises that as long as he's on Ray Street, “there will be a Ray at Night.”
Ray at Night happens the second Saturday of every month in North Park.