The city of Oceanside was never planned; it was pushed. First the railroad, then the military, drove Oceanside's growth. The city's character was taken over, overshadowed for decades by forces beyond its control, but the people of Oceanside eventually fought back. Now, a happening art scene is breaking the "ghetto" and "military town" reputation into pieces.
Oceanside's downtown is bustling, and new developments are sprouting up along the coast, but the city isn't completely letting go of its past. Oceanside will never become a homogenized shop-and-condo land with a cute, controlled art district like some of its high-brow North County sisters; the city is growing up in its own way, with its own flavor. With such a thick, calloused past, Oceanside's history is a big part of its future.
"It was because the railroad decided to build a train station here that the city of Oceanside was eventually built," explained John Daley, vice president of the Oceanside Historical Society. Daley described early Oceanside as an industrialized railroad town peppered with warehouses and shipping yards.
The city would have continued on its path as a railroad town, but World War II hit. The military lost a huge chunk of its forces at Pearl Harbor, and it needed to rebuild fast. The Navy purchased Santa Margarita and Las Flores, two big ranchos north of Oceanside, and immediately started construction on Camp Pendleton.
"Within a year, 7,000 people were brought in just to build the base," said Daley. Census figures show the population of Oceanside jumping from just 4,652 in 1940 to more than 18,000 in 1952.
Oceanside was flooded with military folk. Young Marines with fistfuls of cash headed downtown, looking for a good time. "They would bring in busloads of prostitutes," remembers Harriett Treadwell, a longtime resident of Oceanside and volunteer at the Historical Society, "but they've pretty well cleaned that up now."
Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway these days, you can still see traces of the city's history. A few vacant warehouses and dusty lots leftover from Oceanside's train days are scattered along the streets just east of the tracks. As you draw closer to the heart of downtown, you find that many of the warehouses have been torn down or recycled. An old warehouse building on the Coast Highway near Pier View Way is now called Artist Alley -- it's home to Main Street Oceanside's Phantom Gallery, a few artists' studios and a small performance-art venue. The old, often large and affordable warehouses throughout Oceanside are havens for cash-strapped artists looking for studio space -- what some consider "ghetto" the artists regard simply as "affordable."
As for the military, its presence is barely detectable nowadays. The population of Oceanside, roughly 170,000, is more than double Camp Pendleton's average daily population of 60,000. Plus, the Marines don't tend to congregate downtown anymore; after the Amtrak and Metrolink lines were built alongside the old freight train tracks, the Marines began bypassing Oceanside and heading straight for San Diego or Los Angeles.
Now, when local television news anchors want to shoot military stories in Oceanside, they have to do some extra searching to find an obvious military backdrop. Besides a few more veterans' organization thrift stores than your average city, more signs saying "We support the troops" hanging in windows, and perhaps more red, white and blue color schemes used on retail storefronts, Oceanside is just Oceanside -- a quirky beach community in the midst of an artistic awakening.
A splash of color on the blue highway
Colin Whitbread used to sit at the beach and set up dozens of tiny, plastic Army men in war scenes. Picture it: a grown man sitting in the sand, playing with little soldiers for hours and hours at a time. People would look at him like he was crazy.
"It's OK-I'm an artist," he'd assure the onlookers.
Now that Whitbread has his own gallery and studio space, ArkLite, he can play with his toys in peace. In the small, 75-square-foot storefront on the corner of Eucalyptus Street and Pacific Coast Highway, Whitbread displays his Army-men installations alongside his oil and acrylic paintings-a colorful portrait of Fidel Castro, a black and white of Johnny Cash and a beautiful, detailed portrait depicting President Bush as an Arab kid in the desert. His larger works -- Pollack-inspired drizzled house paint on canvas and surreal cityscapes -- take up an entire wall in his small but cozy space.
Whitbread's artwork is surrounded by the works of about a half-dozen Oceanside artists, everything from tattoo art and stencil work to detailed pen-and-ink drawings. He's been holding openings every other month and bringing in new work since he opened six months ago, but Whitbread isn't ready to call himself a full-fledged gallery owner just yet. He wants to keep the operation grassroots for a while, keep it "word-of-mouthish" and see how it goes.
"I don't want to jump the gun too quick and get myself out there before I'm ready," he said. "I want to keep building up the steam with it."
Judging from last month's opening -- about a hundred people tried to jam into ArkLite -- Whitbread is building up steam quickly. He admits he's already doing better than he expected. "I didn't expect to sell anything, especially in Oceanside," he said, "but I did."
"I couldn't do this in any other town though," he continued, "I mean, come on; I can afford a place on one of the busiest corners of the Coast Highway. Where else can you do that?"
A group show, Rags to Riches, featuring original artwork, installations, custom-painted Vans shoes and other oddities opens from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, at ArkLite, 1105 S. Pacific Coast Highway. There will be free sushi, music by the surf band Deoras and art and installations by a dozen Oceanside artists. www.arklite.net or 760-277-3156.
The Bungalow district: Oceanside's newest corner of art
The Coaster train speeds by in the background as a large group crowds around D Gallery, Oceanside's newest venue for fine art. Inside, the smell of expensive cheese and cheap wine permeates the air. A Dionne Warwick cassette playing on a small stereo in the corner acts as the DJ. Aaron Ishaeik stands tall in the center of the gallery, a huge smile spread across his face.
"I really wasn't expecting there to be so many people," says Ishaeik, his abstract acrylic paintings hanging on the wall behind him.
Outside, a mix of young and old stand, wine glasses in hand, chatting and sucking in the ocean air; the beach is just blocks away. An older couple with a German Shepard stands on the sidewalk admiring the art. They live just around the corner.
"Every time we walk the dog by, we go in," explains the woman. "We just love it."
A group of middle-aged men nearby laugh and joke. One takes out a silver flask, tips his head back and takes a swig. Larry Balma, founder of Transworld, an Oceanside-based skate and surf magazine, is among the group. Balma says the art scene in Oceanside is huge but hidden.
"Oceanside is the best-kept secret," explained Balma. "People are stuck on the military thing, but it's changing and growing."
Gia Guidinger opened the doors to D Gallery at the start of the year, hoping to change misconceptions about Oceanside. "I think it's really important people figure out who we are up here and what we're really all about and what we're doing," she said, "because there's just so much going on."
Coming from a family of gallery owners, Guidinger tried several other ventures before eventually falling back into the family biz-she had a "mini-career" as a painter in San Francisco, did black-and-white portraiture at a fine-art photography gallery in Vermont and worked as a sales rep for a children's clothing company in New York. When Guidinger moved to Oceanside and discovered the Bungalow District -- a name she and her neighbors came up with for the "charming shopping district" stretching along Wisconsin Avenue between South Cleveland and Ditmar streets -- she couldn't resist the urge to open a gallery. She found a vacant building begging to be transformed.
"This space just wanted to be an art gallery, it really did," said Guidinger. "Just [look at] all the windows."
Guidinger didn't have to do much to the space-a fresh layer of paint, a few portable walls and the gallery was ready to go. The next step, finding the art, wasn't hard, either. She discovered her own neighborhood was crawling with creativity.
"When I was opening, all of these artists came walking in and congregated and stayed and they were talking to one another and exchanging ideas and techniques, and it was so wonderful," she explained. "Some of them had never met and we all lived right here in this neighborhood."
Guidinger's D Gallery has been pumping out monthly shows-most featuring local artists-ever since she opened, and her enthusiasm for art seems to be spreading.
Next door to the gallery sits Art Attacks Ink, an airbrush workshop owned by JoAnn Mauck. After D Gallery opened, Mauck built two small gallery walls in her window and now proudly displays her oil paintings. Around the corner, on the other side of D Gallery, is Nautique, a gift store owned by Beverly Fisher. Fisher sells original watercolors, photography and sculptures by local artists.
"When Gia opened up the gallery, she opened up a flood of doors," Fisher said.
There are still two large, empty warehouses sitting across the street from the gallery, just doors away from world-famous skater Tony Alva's skate shop on Wisconsin Avenue. Guidinger said there have already been attempts to open an art gallery in one of the warehouses. She's crossing her fingers, hoping something creative moves in.
"I'm so excited to see what we'll be in five years," Guidinger said. "Just thriving." She paused. "Not [like] Solana Beach, though." She paused again. "We have our own flavor."
A group show, Into the Woods, featuring the artwork of Alex Sample, Carol Marks and Jay Merryweather opens with a wine-and-cheese reception Saturday, Sept. 2, from 7 to 9 p.m. at D Gallery, 222 Wisconsin Ave. www.thedgallery.blogspot.com or 760-805-0423.
A place for pretty pictures
"I thought a gallery would be cool, so I started designing it-watch your step," warned Craig Weatherwax, owner of Oceanside Photo and Telescope, as he led the way through the narrow doorway to the Underground Gallery, "and this is what we came up with."
Beautiful hardwood floors stretch across 3,000 square feet of gallery space. Strategically placed segments of large, black, portable chain-linked fence act as the gallery's walls. The contrast of the colorful photos mounted against the stark fencing is striking.
"The look is-they call it retro-metro or industrial chic," continued Weatherwax, "Most galleries have 8-foot walls and you kind of look like a rat in a maze trying to walk around."
Tucked below Weatherwax's retail space on the corner of Mission Avenue and Horn Street, the Underground Gallery takes up what was once the vault area of an old bank. Weatherwax bought the building in 2003, renovated it and moved his 32-year-old photography and telescope business in the following year. Business was good, so he reinvested in the building and opened the fine-art photography gallery last month.
Weatherwax said 400 people showed up to the gallery's grand opening, and he raked in $5,000 in sales the first week. He says the numbers prove Oceanside's population is a lot more than just military men and women; it's a town filled with artists who moved in for the city's affordability and affluent art appreciators who moved in to be near the coast.
"I think we're ahead of the curve," said Weatherwax. "A lot of people still think we're just a military town. The unfortunate part is many of our City Council people used to think that, as well. We're finally changing the way they think, which is important, because the way the leaders think is the way the city is going to go. They have to shake that mentality of being a military town. It took a long, long time to do that, but I think they're finally figuring it out."
Weatherwax has hired Vince Baworouski, a photography instructor at Palomar College, as the Underground Gallery's collector and curator. The gallery's shows will be changed out every six weeks; each show will spotlight eight to 15 photographers with an entire wall reserved for one featured photographer. Eric Blackhurst, the young manager of Oceanside Photo and Telescope, will be the featured photographer at the next show. Blackhurst does something he calls "deep-sky work."
"By deep sky work," he explained, "what I mean is photography of things outside our own solar system; we're going beyond just lunar and planetary photographs. The sun is cool, the moon is kinda cool, the planets are alright-but what I've always found really fascinating is really deep objects. Nebulars are really interesting...."
A group show featuring the astro-photography of Erik Blackhurst opens at OPT's Underground Gallery, 918 Mission Ave., on Saturday, Sept. 2, from 6 to 9 p.m. www.optcorp.com or 800-483-6287.
Art while you eat
Billy Watson bounced up to Hill Street Cafe & Gallery like he had springs attached to each leg. He's the type of happy-go-lucky guy who's always wearing a big, bright smile and saying things like "alrighty," "right on" and "that's cool, man."
Watson seems to know everyone in Oceanside. People kept strolling by the cafe, giving him a head nod or asking how he was doing. His popularity is a good thing, because one of his jobs-he's also a blues musician and works at a surf shop part-time-is filling the five large rooms at Hill Street with art. He says he's able to find most of his artists simply by word-of-mouth.
So far, it's been mostly North County artists who've shown at Hill Street, but Watson says he doesn't really care where the artists are from; he's more concerned with what they're about.
"I'm pretty open-minded," Watson said, "but I'm trying to get artists who are in it for the long haul-people who aren't hobbying. I want to get people who are dedicated. I think people who are focusing on art are going to produce some cool, more thought-provoking art."
One of the first shows Watson curated featured the work of Tim McCormick, a nationally known artist living in Oceanside. The show helped build the reputation of Hill Street. Now, Watson says, he's able to sell art out of the restaurant on a regular basis.
"If the artists price their stuff to move, then it all works out," said Watson.
Watson moved to Oceanside 15 years ago to try to make a living painting surfboards. Things were different in Oceanside back then. He remembers gangs, prostitution and Marines-but Watson sees Oceanside's bad rep as sort of a good thing.
"Because the Marine Corps is here, and there's a mis-perception about the Marines," Watson said, "it scares that stuffy type of person back to Encinitas. You still have to have an open mind to live in Oceanside."
He also credits Camp Pendleton for keeping Oceanside from falling victim to Los Angeles' urban sprawl.
"That whole space between Camp Pendleton and Orange County keeps this from going completely megalopolis," Watson said. "And that's the story. Oceanside is right on the edge of a complete reserve."
A group show featuring the work of Brian Banash, Gretchen Frazier and more is on view at the Hill Street Café & Gallery, 524 S. Coast Hwy., through Oct. 13. 760-966-0985 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Making more room for art
The Oceanside Museum of Art (OMA) has been operating as a full-time art museum for less than a decade. After a grassroots push for an art museum, the Irving Gill-designed building housing the Oceanside City Hall was renovated in 1997 and the museum moved in.
"Immediately, we knew it was going to be too small," said Beth Smith, the OMA's assistant director.
The young museum is beautiful, open and inviting, but there's nowhere near enough space. The four, full-time employees are crammed into offices -- the director has his own, modest office but the rest of the employees are forced to share -- and there's not one foot of extra gallery space or storage.
"We don't even have a permanent collection because we have no place to store it," explained Smith.
When the museum changes exhibitions, the lack of space forces it to close to the public. With five exhibitions a year, at an average pace of three weeks to switch the exhibitions each time, the museum is closed roughly 15 weeks a year.
All that is about to change. Through fundraising, private donations and grants, including a matching grant of $1 million awarded by the city of Oceanside, the museum has raised $5.35 million; enough money to expand from its current size, 5,000 square feet, to a whopping 32,000 square feet. With $80,000 still needed for the full expansion plan, the museum's operators have decided to go forward with the first phase.
On Sept. 24, they'll break ground on a building that will connect the museum to the Irving Gill-designed building next door, currently a fire station. The new "Central Pavilion" will have three galleries, office space, storage space and a large lobby and terrace. When the firehouse is renovated, the second phase will make room for the OMA School of Art, an auditorium and more storage space. A cafe, larger museum store and culinary center will be added to the current gallery space.
The museum is getting bigger, and there's no doubt the expansion will soon boost it up as a national-level art museum, but Smith says they will continue exhibiting works from the San Diego region. Past regional exhibitions include Ethel Greene: Surrealist Painter, Art of the WPA Era, featuring works from collections of the San Diego region, and Irving Gill in Oceanside.
"There are quite a few artists that we've discovered that live right here in Oceanside," said Smith. She says the city seems to be in the midst of an artistic renaissance. "We had one person say that this is what Venice Beach used to be. This is the new Venice Beach."
The Oceanside Museum of Art is located at 704 Pier View Way. The museum's next exhibition, W. Haase Wojtyla: A Coincidence of Paintings, features the abstract work of Wojtyla, a longtime San Diego artist. The exhibition opens from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, and will be on view through Oct. 15. www.oma-online.org or 760-721-2787.
Artist Tim McCormick is at the point in his career when most artists would hightail it to New York or Los Angeles to be closer to a more happening art scene. Instead, McCormick chooses to paint his dreamy characters, often lost in quirky landscapes, while enjoying the quiet of his modest Oceanside apartment. CityBeat e-mailed him to find out why.
CityBeat: Why do you live in Oceanside?
Tim McCormick: First, I like to surf, and Oceanside has good waves. Secondly, the population is very diverse and, for the most part, no one cares about art or an art scene or who's showing off that new look. It's a workingman's town and carries with it a feeling of humble practicality. I like that. There's a whole world outside of our Southern California fantasy bubble, and a lot of these guys have seen the rawest of the raw, and I see it in them. That keeps me grounded and thankful for the luxury I experience everyday in my ratty little apartment.
How long have you lived in O'side?
Twelve years, and I plan on staying.
Have you seen the city change over the years?
A little. I think Oceanside will always have a bit of edge, but it has gotten, let's call it safer, over the years.