“Pomona is a cultural hub that is in the middle of an identity crisis. The arts have taken such huge hits with budget cuts and have been heavily impacted by the recession. We’re still recovering and fighting to make a comeback.” -Erns Valdez
There is a steady, yet slow, upward trajectory in the growth of the Pomona Arts Colony. Many gallery owners and resident artists within the colony desire to see it evolve and proliferate into a mecca of artistic culture, all within the confines of the eastern San Gabriel Valley. The monthly Second Saturday events have helped build upon an existing culture that is beginning to firmly take root in the identity of the San Gabriel Valley. Award winning galleries such as Loft Beats have been major contributors to the success of these events, as well as the steady growth of the Pomona Arts Colony. I had the opportunity to chat with Erns Valdez, former President of the Pomona Arts Colony and current Owner and Director of Loft Beats in Pomona, California. Erns shared his deep history and passion for the arts as well as his mission, goals and experiences as President of the Pomona Arts Colony.
30ME: Erns, please tell me about your personal history with your art.
EV: Like most artists, I grew up drawing all the time, which continued up into my teens. I was usually trying to draw what I had seen in comic books and cartoons. I got into graffiti art and it took off from there. Like most graffiti artists, I started out tagging and doing simple pieces out in the streets. Soon after I graduated high school, I left for the Air Force. For the next four years, I would continue to draw and sketch, but mostly graffiti style art. Every trip home, I would drive around and take pictures of all the graffiti I had seen to study (this is before internet was popular). In 1997, I moved to Japan and I started being paid to hook up friend’s surfboards and body-boards with my own personal art. However, I was too busy enjoying my social life and spent a lot of time in the water so art took a back seat. In 2001, I moved back to California (Fresno) and started going to school and working. I was living in a part of town with many galleries and art. You would think I would have been inspired to create art again, but it was not something I was into anymore. I always loved art and I still would sketch and draw, but I think I just did not see any point to pursue it at the time. Jump forward four more years and I’m living in Vegas. I met this girl who was from Rancho [Cucamonga] . I would drive back out to California on the weekends to hang out, and one weekend she took me to the Pomona Art Walk. I still remember which shows we had seen and the artists who really impressed me. I was just awe-struck and found new inspiration. I was encouraged by my girlfriend (who had seen my drawings) to give traditional painting a try. A few months later, I moved out back to California. I enrolled in school, got myself an apartment in Pomona off Holt (back then there was a long waiting list to get an artist loft in Pomona) and I started painting. Without ever taking any classes it was just all experimenting and trying to go beyond just painting graffiti. It must have been the four years I had spent living in Japan, but I got hooked on painting trees. A lot of my early stuff is a mix of graffiti and traditional images. In 2009 a few lofts had opened up. Loft Beats was the first unit I was shown, and I knew it when I walked in that that was my spot! Once I moved in and set up my studio, my paintings took a new direction, I got more into carving and larger pieces. Most of my paintings are of trees now and I occasionally I still add some graffiti type roots. I also love painting characters from movies that make me laugh. Being in Pomona and submitting artwork into some of the themed shows has pushed me to paint new things, as well as my push for commission. It can be challenging. These days still do graffiti, but mostly for movie sets. Also, I do have graffiti inspired pieces. It will always be a part of my art, but currently, I’m trying to push myself to take what I do now to the next level.
30ME: What inspired you to open up Loft Beats?
Like I mentioned, just coming down to the art walk inspired me to get into painting. Once I had 30 or so paintings in my little 300 square feet apartment, it was time to get a loft in the Pomona Arts Colony. Once a loft actually opened up, I snatched it up. The first month I moved in, I opened my loft to the public. I just hung my art on the walls, put out some snacks and wine. I had maybe 5 visitors all night (laughter). The next month, I propped the door open, put a balloon and a sign indicating that an artists loft was open and I got a few more people up there. I also made a small sale. The name Loft Beats comes from the first group showing we had at the loft. Since I had a lot of wall space and had a few artist friends, I decided we should all get together, show some art and have like an “old school” house party. We called that show Loft Beats. It really was a great show and a lot of fun. The art walk itself was a lot more laid back then. The show went so well we decided to do it again the following month and keep the same name for the show. In order to live in the lofts, you are required to have a business license. I went to go get my license and decided to just get it under “Loft Beats”. It just took off from there. Our shows got bigger and began featuring more artists and live music. We’ve really toned it down over the past year or so as we’ve expanded to hosting music and art shows at other venues.
30ME: Has it had an impact on the colony? The surrounding area?
Good question! I would like to think Loft Beats has had a positive impact on the colony and surrounding area. I think in the early years we didn’t rely on the arts colony for guests. We were bringing in our own crowds and kind of kept to ourselves. Once i started attending the Pomona Arts Colony Association (PACA) meetings, I became more involved with the colony. From there, Loft Beats officially became part of the team. We have hosted shows with 100+ artists from LA to Riverside so we’re really opening the doors for a lot of artist and bringing new people to Pomona. Not a lot of galleries were doing that at the time. Now there are a few galleries who really do a great job at hosting shows for emerging artist. Loft Beats and it’s artists started doing shows at the Ontario Art Walk as well as other galleries in other cities with the purpose of trying to spread the word about Pomona and invite more artists to come show here.
30ME: What are your goals when a first time, non-artist visitor enters Loft Beats? What is it you hope they experience?
I think I want them to be inspired like I was when I attended my first art walk. I had never seen so much art all at once. It was just gallery after gallery of so many different kinds of art. I loved seeing breathtaking fine art in one gallery, walking next-door and seeing graffiti/street art up on the walls. At Loft Beats, when you walk in, you are going to see the whole spectrum of art and there is going to be a lot to look at. Moreover, with a name like Loft Beats, we have to have some beats! For those who are just visiting the Art Walk for the first time, I think it is important for people to see that not all galleries are quiet, uptight places with expensive artwork. We do have those places and it is good to experience those galleries too, but that is not what all galleries are about.
30ME: Can you tell me about your election to the Presidency of the Arts colony?
That’s something that came out of nowhere! I had been attending PACA meetings regularly and tried to be an active member at the meetings. The arts colony has gone through a lot of changes over the past five years, so I’ll try to be as “PC” as possible and leave out some of the hurdles. First off, I’d just like to say that being President of PACA is by far one of the highlights of my life. I was honored to be asked by current president at the time, Andi Campognone. It all came from the recommendation of previous President A.S. Ashley (who was a one of my biggest supporters and supported what Loft Beats was bringing to Pomona). Andi had decided to step down as President because she had recently been selected to be a Cultural Arts Commissioner for Pomona. She asked if I would like to be Interim-President while she stepped down, and I gladly accepted. By this time PACA, as well as Downtown Pomona itself were going through some changes, as new businesses and galleries started moving in. This changed our downtown’s “chemistry” for lack of a better word. Having never run an Arts Association, I relied heavily on advice from Ashley, as well as looking to Andi for input and suggestions, especially during the first year. By the second year, things started falling into place, and I was making moves on my own. I had great support from Juan Thorp, who was the real backbone of PACA for 9 years, as well as some of the members whom I’m still working with today.
30ME: What did you learn as President of the Colony? What were some take-aways from the position when you stepped down?
Being President really made me see the “big picture”. As a gallery owner/resident/artist, you only see your point of view, and you’re only concerned with what directly effects you, your passion or means of living. Being President, you have to step back and see everyone else’s needs. Not all galleries have the same needs or goals. Add the in City, Larry Egan (Executive of the DPOA), the property owners, neighboring business and venues needs, expectations…everything gets complicated. I was trying to be a good neighbor, prove my worth to the property owners and city (so they would continue to see us as an asset), and keeping all of the galleries happy is a full-time job! The one thing I learned is , you cannot please everyone, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try. It was one of the first things mentioned to me when I took over as President. In addition, learning the history of the Arts Colony has been great. Meeting some of the people who helped create and keep it going throughout the years has been inspirational. There are many people out here that most would never hear of. Those people have had a major impact on the colony and continue to make things happen to this day. What I took with me is…well, I’m still here and I’ll never stop being involved. That is the take-away. I still plan to be an active member of PACA and I am still working on projects I had started when I was President. So, I’m still here, learning, and helping trying to push the colony in a forward direction. I am still giving it all I have.
30ME: Did you find any conflicting ideals with that of the association and your vision for the colony? Commonalities?
When I first started attending the meetings, I think I was very open minded, but I really didn’t know what I was doing. It was more of a hobby and I was just happy to be there. As the years went by and it became more of a passion, as well as source of income, my purpose in being there became more defined. Throughout my time as a member, as well as a President, I found it obvious that it’s an “Arts Colony Association”, but inevitably, there are those who are there to make money and there are those whom are there because it’s their passion. As a business owner myself, I can identify with wanting to make money. If you do not make money, you cannot keep your doors open. It is very expensive and time consuming to operate a gallery of any kind. I started finding myself in conflict with those who were only concerned with sales and reaching specific clientele outside our area. While this was not the overall goal of all the members, it was a die-hard objective of some of our senior members. While attracting LA buyers sounds great, it has been my mission to open more doors for local artists, and to attract visitors from our neighboring cities who do not even know where here. This includes all visitors 30 miles to the west, not just the buyers. It became evident what my passion really is and where I want to devote my time and energy. I plan on being just as supportive to PACA as I was while President, and will call upon their support as I continue to bring more arts and culture to Pomona.
30ME: What is your vision for the future of the colony?
Pomona is a cultural hub that is in the middle of an identity crisis. The arts have taken such huge hits with budget cuts and have been heavily impacted by the recession. We are still recovering and fighting to make a comeback. Downtown Pomona has grown over the past several years and we are trying to grow with it. As I’ve seen some of our artsy “big hitters” leave Pomona, I’m also seeing some new galleries come in as well. Many established LA artists are moving their studios eastward. There are also some new galleries and artists in Pomona who are starting to step up. They are influencing the colony and the association. The dA Center has been our anchor for over 30 years. Its new director, Margaret Aichele, is really doing some impressive work and really making the dA a true cultural center. The property owners I know are sometimes seen as “bad guys”. However, I was told by someone I really look up to that, “As long as the Tessiers are in Pomona, there will be an arts colony”. So you have some security in knowing the colony will always be there mixed with new life and motivated leaders at the helm. I see nothing but great things to come.
30ME: My hope here at 30 Miles East is that the Downtown Los Angeles & Hollywood areas realizes we’re very much in LA county, and very much a part of the Los Angeles region. This can be accomplished by highlighting our local culture, especially the art culture of the Colony. Do you believe Loft Beats fits into that ideology?
Geographically, we are on the outskirts of LA County and there might have been a cultural dead zone between us for a while. Just as the internet has made the world a smaller place, new art communities are springing up between LA and us. They are starting to connect us culturally on a larger scale. Pomona has always been the gateway to LA. We send artist to LA, and we bring a lot of artist out this way. Pomona is a trading post of culture, and Loft Beats is like that bar in Star Wars! Sorry for the cheesy Star Wars reference! So, yes, Loft Beats does fit into that ideology, as we regularly feature LA based artists and musicians just as much as we feature artists from the Inland Empire.