Two kids from Linda Vista Middle School-one boy, one girl-can't take their eyes off of a painting: A woman with a string of bare bones replacing her right arm is holding a gold cloak over her head; a knife dangles from a fine piece of twine tied to her wrist; a unicorn peaks out from the layers of cloth covering her legs.
"We're all the same on the inside. Without a leg, without an arm," a voice says softly from behind the kids. They look back and see a woman standing with a painted crutch that stands in place of a missing right leg. She's wearing bright red lipstick and a funky red shoe, and her name, Diana Duval, matches the one on the painting. The students look at each other.
"That's really her," they whisper loud enough for Duval to hear. She smiles and walks away.
The San Diego Art Institute (SDAI) might very well be an untapped gem of the San Diego art community. There may be no other place in the city that better integrates living local artists, students, patrons and professionals. SDAI, a nonprofit in existence since 1941, has a mission-to maintain a center for emerging artists and the visual arts in San Diego. Its physical gallery-the Museum of the Living Artist-is 10,000 square feet of crisp white walls, vaulted ceilings and chic countertops.
Mervin Gale, a 93-year-old art patron, sits underneath the gallery's stairwell, smiling broadly and watching as the middle school students see, for the first time, their art-Van Gogh replications-displayed on the gallery's walls. Nearby is a man who calls himself "Solarman." He's an artist entrepreneur who takes yearly mural-painting expeditions to Peru, and in his spare time brings self-made solar-operated cell phones to migrant workers in Carlsbad. In the next row over, there's a professional couple still wearing business attire. A closer look reveals that the man has his top three buttons undone, and his corporate counterpart is wearing a flowered bandana. Standing near her award-winning display is Effie Karakaidos, whose Relics/Remnants digital photo exhibition, was SDAI's featured work last month.
SDAI's most visible activity is a showcase of emerging San Diego artists through a program of more than 30 juried shows a year. A new exhibition of works by regional artists opens every four to six weeks. Juried exhibits display works in mediums including oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel, pen and ink, monoprint, collage assemblage, mixed media, digital art, photography and sculpture, among others. Solo artists' works are is featured along with the main gallery exhibition. The David G. Fleet Young Artists Gallery showcases work from elementary, junior and senior high schools in San Diego County.
The Art Institute is neither a museum nor a for-profit gallery. Its museum functions much like a municipal gallery and offers a good look at the visual art scene in San Diego. Its exhibitions offer exposure for regional artists and opportunities for people to experience San Diego's contemporary visual arts in a professional and elegant setting.
"It doesn't matter what rung you're on-there's always a place for you. We are very unpretentious," says Executive Director Timothy Field. "Our museum is all about community, fun, diversity-people coming together to focus on arts. Everything here, even the post cards in our gift shop, is made by artists."
Field has worked in a variety of 9-to-5 careers, but he wanted to try something with sustainability. He didn't seek a career in the arts; rather, it seemed to find him. "I essentially do the same thing I did, but the product [art] is essential to quality of life and health of community," he says.
Field says he's inspired every time he walks into the gallery and sees the artwork. He is awed by youth art and thrilled when artists find their mark and start to excel. The biggest challenge he faces, he says, is educating people about the value art holds for society. "Too often arts are viewed as a luxury, and therefore, when the money is tight, arts fall first," Field says. "If we really understood the value of arts-not just visual but performing, music and even athletics-we would have them in our schools."
San Diego is gradually becoming more sophisticated, but it's still relatively provincial. How does SDAI plan to keep bridging the gap in a community that puts so much emphasis on sun, sand and surf?
"All arts relate somewhere along the line," Field says . SDAI brings in programs that have a crossover in the arts. A running club, for example, is partnering with SDAI. And there are poetry readings and other events, such as "The Smart Collector Show," which teaches people how to buy art.
For $15 a session (free if you're an SDAI member), you can get schooled by other artists twice a week this month in SDAI's "Life Drawing Session." Or, you could sign up for a "Paint-Out" happening Saturday, Oct. 15, from 9 a.m. to noon. You'll cruise around Balboa Park with a group of art enthusiasts-painting and exploring the scenery with a free potluck meal.
The popular C-Note fundraiser, during which frugal art lovers can buy works relatively cheaply-$100, $200 or $300-kicks off on Nov. 26, from 6 to 9 p.m., and runs through Dec. 5.
Running from Oct. 15 through Nov. 20 is the Southern California Regional Juried Award Exhibition, featuring guest juror Osvaldo Sanchez, a native of Havana, Cuba, and a graduate in art history from the University of Havana. An awards presentation and grand-opening reception happen Saturday, Oct. 15, 5 to 8 p.m.
"The regional exhibitions are really about meeting artists and seeing what is going on in the arts and, in a way, your community," Field says. "Art is a component of history. Each artwork is a snapshot of time and place, of sense and expression."SDAI, located at 1439 El Prado in Balboa Park, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors/military/students with ID; children 12 and under get in free. Primo surf spot: www.sandiego-art.org.