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First Thursday Art Walk – A many splendid evening

San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, has always attracted creative, independent, artistic types to its ocean-rimmed, panoramic vistas. In the late 90’s to highlight this community and the growing number of galleries, a First Thursday Art Walk was inaugurated along 6th and 7th streets in what generally became known as the gallery district. I had one of those galleries, Sunyata – next to the Whale and Ale, and lo and behold some twenty years later, the Art Walk on the first Thursday of each month continues to thrive.

In those two decades, it began with art, grew into something larger with music and gourmet food trucks, but still remains a gallery-centric evening. Along with the mobile food venues tempting the flow of people strolling about, there are a number of distinctive, quality restaurants dotting the downtown – ranging from English pub, Italian, sushi, seafood, Mexican, Thai, Polish and more to pop into and a live band playing at the nexus corner of 6th and Mesa. With many of the galleries offering wine and snacks, the good times have been rolling on First Thursday.

But back to the artists and the appeal of the Peninsula for creative types to take up residency here and the vast array of great art being produced – and why this matters. Distinctive, vibrant,eclectic,extensive and accomplished all apply to the creative output and the individuals comprising this diverse community. The attraction comes largely, I believe, from the particular geography of this place, this peninsula – being so surrounded by ocean making it almost an island. The rugged coastline, the pervasive marine environment, those gorgeous views of Catalina are all part of the alchemy that turns the sea into the most elemental of muses for the artists – eternally present, its flame always flickering, its beacon always beckoning and nurturing. That’s geography factor #1. The other is space – there is room to languish here on the peninsula, room to open up and breath deep and get on with the creative process without the crowds of the Westside, the insularity of the Eastside, nor the urban velocity of Downtown and Mid-Wilshire. But for all this removal – you are still a central 30-40 minutes to most of the creative watering holes LA offers…Santa Monica, downtown, Long Beach, the South Bay, etc. You’re in LA, but you’re also not in LA. One of the Zen secrets of San Pedro.

Many of the artists in town have extensive exhibition histories – showing locally in the prestigious uptown gallery districts, nationally – New York, Boston San Francisco, Denver, etc, and internationally as well, Which is not so say or suggest artists of such caliber are or should be the only draw to First Thursdays. Because there are certainly emerging gems who have been slowly biding and nurturing their creative output – waiting to be discovered. Yes – the galleries and First Thursdays also function as a launch pad to exhibit early in their careers.

Like Cao Yong.

It was back when I had my gallery on 7th Street before I’d moved up to the West Hollywood art district, that I had the opportunity to show a brilliant but still struggling Chinese artist named Cao Yong. He had spent several years in Tibet travelling nomadically about on foot with only a donkey burdened with his art supplies visiting temples and learning the life of the monks first hand. I exhibited a number of his paintings from those years – exceptionally rich portraits and landscapes capturing the dharmic Tibetan lifestyle – Rembrandt-esque in their detail and compassionate texture. Of course the show garnered critical attention and sales were quite good. But Cao was an ambitious artist and went on to create a gorgeous series of global romantic destinations that have since become his trademark and cornerstone to what could easily be called a multi-million dollar artistic empire.

So — back in 1998 – if you were strolling around on a First Thursday evening in San Pedro’s downtown arts district, you probably would have seen and marvelled at the Cao Show exhibit in the Sunyata Gallery. My gallery is no longer there, but you can still see some great Cao Yong Giglee’s at the Parkhurst Gallery on 6th street. So go out and wander about on a First Thursday, have a glass of wine, a snack from one of the food trucks – and make your own discovery, the next Cao Yong, the next break-out artist waiting to be discovered.

First Thursdays – a many splendid evening…and another of San Pedro’s Zen secrets.

– Don O’Melveny