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Ascending Into the Art World

Artists around the county are celebrating the opening of the Attic, the newest and largest gallery in Santa Cruz. Could it revolutionize the local art scene?

By Mike Connor

The suspense was killing me. A gentle buzz about a new performance art space above the Blue Lagoon floated to my ear on a breeze of hope, smelling vaguely of teas, salads and White Russians.

"Huge," I heard it called, as well as "amazing," "the size of a basketball court." The string of superlatives already attached to Santa Cruz's newest and least-seen venue suggests that, if ever there was a 5,000-square-foot "secret garden" of property in downtown Santa Cruz, the Attic is it.

Joe Quigg, a Santa Cruz resident who's worked as a certified financial planner for over 20 years, put in a bid for the space on Pacific Avenue site-unseen but hoping the space was miraculous as it sounded.

"Myself being in a wheelchair, I wasn't able to get upstairs," says Quigg, who's also a board member for the Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Arts (SCICA). "I just looked at the economics of the building, I put in a bid and thought, if I get my bid accepted, I'll get some guys to take me up."

In the meantime, he daydreamed about the possibilities of a top-story space, of punching huge skylights out of the roof to let the heavens in and create an atrium atmosphere. When Quigg's bid was accepted in May of this year, he found that the skylights beat his ideas to the punch.

"Low and behold, when I got carried up," says Quigg, "it was everything I wanted it to be. It had great big high ceilings and all these skylights; it's very unique. I like to refer to it as 'Santa Cruz's hidden gem.'"

Sounds divine, but as they say, seeing is believing.

Up the Rabbit Hole

Just north of the entrance to the Blue Lagoon, I finally walked through the unassuming doorway of the Attic, up a narrow stairway and into a warm, sunny space so expansive that it seemed to defy the laws of physics--as if you opened the front door of an RV and found St. Peter's Basilica inside. Overhead, the roof meets the walls at 17 feet high, but reaches 24 feet at its apex.

The SCICA has correspondingly big plans for the space, allotting 2,000 square feet for a tea and salad-bar cafe in the front, and 3,000 square feet for the performance art section in the back, with no partition separating the two rooms.

The first show at the Attic is extremely ambitious in its use of all that open space. It's a performative and visual celebration of both the 20th anniversary of the Moving & Storage/Crash, Burn and Die (MS/CBD) dance company and the longevity of the public artwork of company member Darryl Ferrucci, whose gigantic murals of the dancers helped propel the company out of the Santa Cruz underground and into the spotlight in the late '90s.

"We were very underground until Darryl decided to go into huge murals, I have to say," says Therese Adams, who, along with Leslie Swaha, founded the MS/CBD company after the two graduated from UCSC 20 years ago. "We were able to get bigger gigs."

Unlike other pursuits wherein, hopefully, size doesn't matter, bigger gigs are often better. And when you're talking about Ferrucci's beautifully rendered, full-color images of MS/CBD dancers falling from the sky, bigger was most certainly better, as anyone who's seen the mural on the side of the Rio Theatre, or who saw either of the murals at the corner of Soquel and Pacific or on the side of LuLu Carpenter's, can attest.

Ferrucci says the response to the gigantic murals has always been great, owing in part to the illegality of billboards in town, which makes visual projects of extraordinary scale that much more unique.

"The big one in 1998, it took over 20 people to put that up," says Ferrucci. "It was 25 feet high and 80 feet wide, and we didn't have big equipment, we just had a whole lot of muscle and ingenuity. We got rock climbers who were really psyched about climbing the building and drilling holes in the wall."

If anything, the death-defying antics needed to get the murals up mirrored the genre-defying antics that led to a static piece of art representing an art form based in movement.

"These public projects," explains Ferrucci, "were very collaborative efforts that all came out of the work of Therese Adams and Leslie Swaha. It was not just me with a camera taking a picture of some model or some flower. It was a real, active, vibrant dance and theater situation."

SCICA co-director Chip says that, given the nature of the Attic space and how it's laid out, the new venue offers a huge range of possibilities to artists like Ferrucci who are breaking the boundaries between artistic mediums and genres--starting with the opening show, which Ferrucci sees as an end of a difficult era and the beginning of a better one.

"It's been four years since we had to move out of our warehouse," says Ferrucci. "It was this vibrant art scene that was affordable, and we haven't found a space that our group could afford in that no-profitable art mode. I was kind of disillusioned, the difficulty of funding these projects kind of brought me down, and I went into a funk and declared myself an ex-artist. Now I'm celebrating the last eight years of work with this big show, I've given up being an ex-artist and I'm going to grad school. So this show is like the end of summer, the celebration of all this past work with the dance companies--which I'm not stopping, but for me it's a real milestone."

A retrospective of Ferrucci's photos will adorn the walls of the Attic, while the dance company will present three separate pieces: The first is a revival of an urban folk dance, titled Snow in Berkeley, originally choreographed by Swaha back in 1986.

"Leslie made it watching a concert at the Catalyst," says Adams, who remembers taking ballet lessons in the Attic space when it was a dance studio back in the '80s. "She was watching dancers storm the stage, and the surge back and forth towards the band. But the dance has precise timing and footwork derived from folk dance steps."

The second piece, Clowns vs. Ants, is a brand new comic work choreographed by Adams, featuring over 80 bright green, 3-foot-long ants created by cardboard maestro Dag Weiser. The final piece by Pedro Cosme y Prado is titled No Narrative, a "pure" dance piece with dancers frolicking beneath an abstract, giant cardboard mobile. Award-winning composer Graham Connah and a 10-piece orchestra will provide jazz accompaniment for the entire show.

Eat and Learn

After the premier show, the SCICA plans to host a variety of multimedia events and educational programs in the Attic, concurrently with a rotating gallery show that SCICA co-director Kirby Scudder says will be mostly large-scale work by established artists, rotating every month.

"What we'd really like to do is make it one of the more unusual and interesting environments," says Scudder, emphasizing "environment" in a way that's not possible in the Pearl Alley and Cathcart Street SCICA galleries.

Both Chip and Scudder forecast a dense programming schedule, including a lunchtime music series, arts education and evening performances, all presented in a comfortable environment.

The tea house cafe will be managed by Quigg's daughter's, Tina Sullivan and Denise Schwab, who say that they'll be putting together a build-your-own salad and sandwich bar using mostly organic food and homemade dressings. They'll also have tea--with over 50 different varieties of tea to choose from, as well as Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting coffee for the die-hard java fans.

"We just feel like it would be a nice alternative to coffeehouses in Santa Cruz," says Schwab, "more of a peaceful, tranquil environment, concentrating more on the health benefits tea has to offer. It's going to be a very holistic environment, just in general, with the art that's going to be offered, and the type of place it's going to be."

Exactly what that is remains to be seen, but everyone involved with the Attic seems to be interested in a collaborative vision, working with everyone from their Blue Lagoon neighbors downstairs to the community-at-large to help make the Attic a viable cultural entity.

"For the past 20 years or so it's basically been a retail space," explains Quigg, "Bugaboo, Western Mountain Sports, and there was some sort of an office up there, so it hasn't been enjoyed by the whole community for a long time. But at one point it was quite a hopping place, and we're hoping to bring that back."

Moving & Storage/Crash, Burn and Die Dance Company performs its 20th anniversary shows at the Attic, 913 Pacific Ave., on Sept. 18, 24 and 25 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the Question Mark Gallery at 1101 Pacific Ave. at Cathcart Street, or call 831.427.5540 or 831.459.7970 for information.

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From the September 8-15, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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