Spanish Village Art Center: the hidden treasure of Balboa Park

In A&E, Latest News by Victoria Davis

An artist’s utopia rests, hidden, between Balboa Park’s Natural History Museum and the San Diego Zoo. Off of Village Place, the Spanish Village Art Center (SVAC) makes a sacred home for painters, sculptors, photographers, weavers, metal smiths and more. Behind stucco walls and glazed, tile-painted signs reading, “Spanish Village Art Center,” a colorful world awaits guests as they enter a village filled with life, housing 37 studios and over 200 artists.

Daphne Gaylord is a studio three artist and the president of SVAC. Gaylord was juried into the village two years ago, took over as vice president halfway through her first year and then, just a few months later, she stepped into the official role of president.

“It’s a lot of work to run everything and can be a little intimidating,” said Gaylord. “There’s over 200 members here and a lot of them have been here for many, many years.”

Originally, the buildings and courtyards of SVAC were built back in 1935 to depict a quaint little Spanish village for the 2nd California Pacific International Exposition.

“It was all just a front. These weren’t complete buildings,” said Jeff Isles, the husband of a silversmith at the village and SVAC history tour guide. “The buildings that were real consisted of tourist shops, bars and a theater.”

While his tours are informal, Isles will dress up in a suit and tie, topped off with a classic 1940s fedora and will escort guests around SVAC, educating them on the history of the village. According to Isles, Balboa Park never meant for the village to be permanent and would have torn it down, but a group of local artists, led by Sherman Trease, came up with the idea of turning the Spanish village into a community for artists. The false fronts were turned into working studios and in 1937, Spanish Village Art Center had its grand opening.

“Some of the artists here now are descendants of the original artists who founded the village,” said Isles.

Don D. Knapp, another artist who works in studio three with Gaylord, is the grandson of one of the founding artists. “She was one of the people responsible for doing all the footwork to get this going,” said Gaylord.

But along came World War Two and suddenly the Spanish Village Art Center was transformed into barracks and military offices for the United States Army. In 1947, it was reclaimed by the original artists following the end of the war, but all the buildings in the village are, in fact, the original structures from back in the 30s.

“There was only some cosmetic construction done to the village after the war,” said Isles. “What you see are the original buildings will a fresh coat of paint. The artists aren’t even allowed to attach anything to the outside walls because they are historic as well as fragile.”

However, despite its long history, rainbow colored cobble stone streets made from ruins of fallen San Diego buildings and the fact that SVAC is the largest community of artists in San Diego, the village remains a hidden treasure that few know about.

“There’s definitely a struggle with people not knowing it’s here,” said Isles. “It’s tucked away between two main San Diego attractions but it is its own special place.”

Gaylord says that she and other artists do the best they can to advertise as much as they can, including driving up to San Diego State University and posting flyers around the campus. Gaylord says they often do the same at Liberty Station.

“We’re really trying to get some younger people in here,” said Gaylord. “Everyone here is older and we would just like to get some fresh ideas from some younger artists.”

While SVAC provides artists with a working outlet for their art, they do not actually get paid to be there. In fact, the artists have to pay to work at the village.

“The money the artists make at the village only comes from people who buy their work,” said Gaylord. “We pay our rent to the city to work here.”

So why do artists choose to work at the village if they are risking spending more to be there than they make in return? According to Gaylord, it’s because money is not the reason to create art.

“We are here to introduce art to the community and do outreach as working studios,” said Gaylord. “We can sell our art here but that is not our purpose. It’s just a nice side-perk. Our purpose here is to get art out into the community and to visitors.”

According to Isles, this was the original inspiration behind the founding of SVAC. The artists even provide classes and camps for youth and adults who are interested in learning different mediums of art. This is not a requirement by the state. This is something the artists choose to do.

But there is a deeper level to why artists choose to work at the village. As Isles said, “It is its own special place” to each individual artist.

Cyndy Campbell is a photographer in studio seven. She has a Monday through Friday job but works at the village on the weekends. As she flips through her laminated photos of Venice, lions, a Muslim woman and more, Campell explains with light in her eyes where she took each one and what each picture means to her. She has a paying job but “Here at the village,” she said. “This is the fun job.”

In studio 39 a pottery craftsman carves at a block of red clay as visitors watch, smile and ask questions. Next to the artist hangs a sign that reads, “This is Where I Belong.”

The village also holds great meaning to Gaylord.

“In the 60s and 70s my aunt was an artist here,” she said. “My dad was a single parent and he used to drop me off down here.” Gaylord’s aunt taught her to oil paint and the artist recalls running around the village with her brothers and climbing the fig tree. “When you could still climb it,” she specifies.

Gaylord says that this is where she began to fall in love with art, starting with her fascination with an oil painting that was on display many years ago.

“I was 11 years old then and the painting was so striking I just thought I wanted to come here and be an artist someday.”

Village visitors are also moved by the atmosphere of SVAC. Next to the white wooden gazebo at the center of the village, a young man with dark skin, a dark beard and light eyes plays Spanish tunes on his guitar while a guest sings along with croissant in hand. A Polish family of three enters studio four, filled with Chinese water color paintings by Lucy Wang. They gasp and speak in breathy, awe-struck tones at her three-dimensional silk paintings of cranes dancing in the snow.

“I’ve seen people get tears in her eyes looking at her work,” said Isles of Wang. “At this village you’re going to see really traditional pieces done well and incredibly unique styles that you won’t see anywhere else.”

As the Polish family walks up to Isles, who is sitting in for Wang, to purchase three paintings, they declare, “Write this in your article: Very happy customers from faraway places.”

The Spanish Village Art Center is truly the hidden treasure of Balboa Park.

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