Last weekend, Peter Vizzusi juggled red-hot blowpipes as he waltzed between furnaces filled with molten glass, dipping and retracting the long pipes and buzzing around the room like a choreographed dancer. Once in a while he sat down before the small crowd to make a joke, tending to the glowing material at his workbench before hopping up again.
By the end of his demonstration, Vizzusi had transformed the 2000-degree lava into a decorative glass, cool to the touch and perfectly safe to drink from. Like any performer after a good show, he was met with a round of applause. But Vizzusi is not a performer. He is an artist, a glassblower, welcoming an audience into the garage of his Aptos home.
“This is incredible,” said Vizzusi of the applause. “We’re anonymous about 361 days of the year, and we get to be celebrated for these four days. People applaud us for something we do every day. It’s such a treat, and it really makes us appreciate this amazing situation we’re in.”
Vissusi is referring to the 24th annual Open Studios Art Tour: three consecutive weekends where he and 299 other local artists open their workplaces to the public to demonstrate and share their crafts.
Put on by the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County, the tour spans from Davenport to Watsonville and just about everywhere in between, including Capitola, Aptos and downtown Santa Cruz. Ranging as vastly in mediums as it does geographically, the tour offers all aspects of visual art, including oil painting, furniture making and, of course, glassblowing.
To help manage the 300 participating artists, Cultural Council Events Manager Ann Ostermann and the Open Studios board members have created a calendar, complete with showing dates and a comprehensive list of participating artists’ contact information. The purchase of the $20 calendar also gets patrons a map of the county, where artists’ locations are indicated by the their number in the tour.
Artists can also be found via lime green signs around the county, pointing art enthusiasts towards studios, living rooms, garages or wherever else artists render their creative juices.
Ostermann hopes that the tour will allow artists to connect with the community, sell some of their artwork, and if they’re new to the art scene, begin to make a name for themselves.
“The tour does have cache, it’s well known. It gives them credence as a professional artist,” Ostermann said. “Generally people feel like, when they see a green sign in front of someone’s studio, they know that they’re going to see a great body of work by an artist who knows what they’re doing.”
Artists hoping to display that green sign are required to apply through the council, where they are judged on technical proficiency and consistency.
The tour runs annually the first three weekends in October. The first weekend is dedicated to artists in what the board members have deemed North County, or those north of the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, and South County artists show in the second weekend. The event culminates in a third Encore Weekend, October 17-18, where artists from both counties are invited to present their work a second time.
While the event is highly-regarded and chock-full of experienced artists, Ostermann stressed that novices are encouraged to apply.
“A predominant number of these artists don’t get seen, or are just starting out,” Ostermann said. “I like that this allows them to take that leap without having to do a whole body of work for a gallery.”
A T-shirt and Sandals Event
“I’m just going to keep talking to myself, you don’t have to respond,” Barbara Bailey-Porter turned and said with a giggle to those watching her painting demonstration of a Santa Cruz sunset. “I talk when I paint whether or not someone’s actually there.”
The freedom to chat in her studio is one of many reasons Bailey-Porter enjoys the Open Studios tour. A celebrated painter, she enjoys the casual and friendly flow of visitors, a treat she rarely experiences in gallery shows.
“I like to have friends and patrons visit me and talk about my work on a more personal level,” Bailey-Porter said. “I paint a lot of local landscapes, so I really enjoy when people say they’ve been there, or the piece feels like that area. I don’t get to have that at a gallery.”
For Ostermann, bridging the gap between artists and their supporters speaks to the heart of the program.
“Open Studios has a dual purpose. We want to allow artists to market their work, and we also want to educate the public on the process of making art,” Ostermann said. “So it brings you right down to the community level.”
Bridget Henry, an Open Studios printmaking artist, felt it was important that observers were made to feel at home.
“I don’t know what it is about galleries, maybe it’s because they’re so clean, but there’s this feeling that you’re not dressed well enough to go in — they can be very intimidating,” Henry said. “I feel like going into a more everyday situation, like a studio instead of a gallery, breaks down those barriers.”
While artists have always been encouraged to demonstrate for the public, this is the first year where the calendars have indicated which artists would be showing their work and where. The demonstrations, a highlight for many, offered another aspect often difficult to find at a gallery opening.
Gail Mayo, a friend and fan of Vizzusi’s work, appreciated the depth of the artisan’s glass demonstration.
“It’s really interesting watching him work, because he explains the process really well. You can really see each step and understand what he’s doing,” Mayo said. “I think he really enjoys sharing the process with those watching him.”
Henry was glad the studio tour could add some transparency for visitors like Mayo.
“I think sometimes art-making can be a mystery, so what’s neat about open studios is you get to break that down, and show the step-by-step process,” Henry said. “Also, when I’m showing in my house instead of a gallery, I don’t have to clean anything up.”
Gogh-ing for Broke
With art funding facing cuts right and left nationwide, the tour is not immune to the current monetary debacle. But in times of fiscal chaos, Open Studios artists have found creative ways to maintain their sanity, keeping their bank accounts — and ears — fully intact.
Sarah Bianco, a first-time Open Studios artist, found her fine arts calling through pure thriftiness. Owner of her own faux-finishing business, Bianco uses her sample paint boards instead of fresh canvas for her works, and avoids buying new art supplies.
“I like that [sample boards] give you something to work with. There’s some texture or the edges are uneven, just enough to spark some interest,” Bianco said. “The things that you find — or that find their way to you — have much more interest than something brand new.”
Although recycling art materials doesn’t speak to everyone, local artists have managed to stay afloat by other means. Many teach art on the side, have part-time jobs or find income utilizing other passions and talents.
Bailey-Porter felt the dynamics of the Santa Cruz community fostered her own path to success. Along with selling her artwork, Bailey-Porter owns a private practice as an intern under a licensed therapist.
“Everyone in Santa Cruz is an artist. They’re either an artist or a therapist, and I happen to be both,” said Bailey-Porter with a chuckle.
Known for painting large works, Bailey-Porter hoped rethinking her artwork would not only benefit her sales, but also the community at large.
“This year, I’ve focused a lot on smaller, affordable pieces,” Bailey-Porter said. “I know everyone’s hurting right now, so I’m hoping that my work is more affordable because of the smaller work I’ve done.”
It seems to have done the trick.
Bailey-Porter’s smaller paintings and prices gave Donita Adams an extra skip in her step as she exited the Capitola studio.
“This is the first piece I’ve purchased [from Bailey-Porter] because she had some very reasonably priced stuff this year,” Adams said. “Even if I could only buy a little something, I wanted to show my support.”
Community members like Adams help to reassure struggling and aspiring artists. When asked how she planned to tackle an artist’s life in the current economy, third-year UCSC art student Campbell Steers laughed.
“That’s my parents’ favorite question too,” Steers said. “But honestly, I think people will still spend money on art. I think art is still really important to people and they want to support artists. It’s so important for our happiness and our culture.”
Bianco agreed, expressing her obligation as an artist to the community’s well-being.
“In our culture, so many things are based on artists creating culture and if we stop just because we’re not getting paid, it doesn’t help anything,” Bianco said. “It’s an important part of our spirit and a way to cultivate change.”
Open Studios artist Ben Hecht, voted Artist of the Year in Good Times Santa Cruz, uses his workspace as both a studio and an art school. An encaustic painter, Hecht melts colorful wax to make beautiful pieces. He hope that his lifestyle can serve as an inspiration to emerging and struggling artists.
“When I have people walk through here with my gallery in the back, what it’s modeling is a working artist who’s making it,” Hecht said. “It’s definitely a struggle, I’m not pretending it’s not a struggle, but it’s modeling that choice. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.”
For more information about the final weekend of the tour, visit: www.ccscc.org.