Like looking at herself in a past life, Concepcion Rodriguez explains how she painted her self-portrait,“La Ofrenda,” translated, “the offering,” by looking at a photograph her husband took of her. Rodriguez’s painting was part of the “Simply Red” art show at the dA Center for the Arts Gallery in Pomona. / photo by Blanca Rocha

Like looking at herself in a past life, Concepcion Rodriguez explains how she painted her self-portrait,“La Ofrenda,” translated, “the offering,” by looking at a photograph her husband took of her. Rodriguez’s painting was part of the “Simply Red” art show at the dA Center for the Arts Gallery in Pomona. / photo by Blanca Rocha

by Gloria Diaz
photography by Blanca Rocha

The thought of celebrating a 20th birthday can yield screams from teenagers dreading the end of their teenage years. It can be an empty birthday—20 is well past 18 and just shy of 21. But for a gallery hidden among the treasures of the Pomona Arts Colony, 20 brings cheers and feelings of accomplishment. It is during this celebration, called “dAs Dos Decades” that it becomes noticeable how pivotal dA has become to the Art Colony.

Guests entered the two-room gallery, carrying their painted ceramic tiles (purchased for $20 each) that held their slices of birthday cake. They were immediately captured by the tall white walls, filled with the work of many ambitious artists looking for exposure of their work. The bright white lights hanging from the high ceiling function as spotlights for the pieces—illuminating the colors, shapes, and lines that encompass each piece.

When the gallery applied for non-profit status in 1984, the federal government issued a stern restriction to dA’s executive board about displaying work from any of its members during a probationary period that ended in 1994. Chris Toovey, founding director of dA, stuck to the government’s message even 10 years after the end of dA’s probation. But for the first time in 20 years, there it was, on the gallery walls—the art of dA’s past board members hung on the walls of the main gallery as a 20th birthday celebration. Near the exhibit was a sheet of paper with a typewritten message from Toovey. Since it blended in with the white wall it was tacked onto, most at the Saturday evening reception guests passed by it without a glance. The two-paragraph message, “Landscape of Sorts . . .” by Toovey explained how the “fed said to remove any artwork from the premises that belonged to any member of the board.” The non-profit gallery could, in no way, “appear as self-serving.”

However, this storied, 20-year success began as a failure. The failed Pomona Mall paved the way for the conception of the idea that would become dA. The historic dA building, located at 244 S. Garey, used to be a stable, followed by a dance studio. Then Chris Toovey was hired to create an arts program for the city of Pomona through the Comprehensive Educational Training Act. Toovey, director of the project, invited friend John Haner to join him. Together, they worked on developing a community arts program.

The project did not take physical form until 1983 when Toovey found a 6,000-square foot building for $150 per month. In 1984, it was named the dA Gallery. Toovey points out that the dA “named itself.” The handle came about haphazardly when a couple of roofers made an apparent mistake that solved the owner’s burning question: What can we name this place? When roofers were in the process of fixing the roof, they were supposed to cover up the words “DANCE STUDIO,” but mistakenly failed to cover the D and the A. Chris Toovey and his friends decided that would be the name of their gallery. At its start, the dA struggled to stay afloat. There was little activity in that part of Pomona at the time, save the few stores left from the old Pomona Mall, which seemed to bring in the occasional patron.

Steadily, other artists located to the old mall, bringing an unexpected new prosperity to the dA. Little did Toovey know at the time that dA would help establish the art scene in Pomona. A name change followed: the dA Gallery became the dA Center for the Arts. Toovey says the change was essential in establishing “more of a community art space and to keep it open to new artists.” Toovey adds that the word “gallery” brings a negative connotation of exclusivity, but naming it a center for the arts “emphasized a feeling and mission to the community.”

With its unusual name, the dA has managed to establish an equally unique identity. Going along with its mission of “enhancing the quality of life for the greater community by educating and providing opportunities to experience, appreciate and support the arts,” throughout the last 20 years, dA has provided emerging artists with a means to display their work. The dA offers a place free of criticism and full of exposure for artists at all experience levels. “The dA is really designed for anybody,” Toovey says. “It is more of a community space that is open to new artists.” Toovey says he believes that anyone can be an artist. Contrary to common thought that the inability to draw a straight line disqualifies someone from being an artist, Toovey says, “Art is something that everyone contains; it is not exclusive. What artist does draw a straight line?”

The dA experience can overwhelm the “know-nothing” patron, but after spending a few minutes in the spacious gallery, the comfort of the dA kicks in. In its 20-year history, no one has been turned away from exhibiting. The art work stars the show. Whether the piece is done by a beginning artist or by one established in the art world, it is approached with the same appreciation. And the work displayed at the dA is enjoyed by a variety of people. Some come to the dA by an invitation from a friend; others visit every month. Visitors with little exposure to art come to the dA, while some have earned degrees in the field.

Although dA has a flourishing reputation and more than 8,000 visitors per year, it has hit some financial bumps along the road. When the state of California encountered budget problems after the energy crisis, funding to non-profit art programs was cut dramatically. For the dA, it meant that money from the California Arts Council immediately stopped. “When the grant money dried up, we had to go back to fund raising and depending on the “Friends of the dA Center for the Arts” program,” Toovey says. To aid in the fund raising campaign, dA has started an “Up Yours” fund raising program, based on the idea for patrons to “Up your support” for the dA. Every newsletter includes a “wish list” and a donation sheet for those who wish to become Friends of the dA, which has become a helpful program in dA’s success. Gallery sitters, an IBM color printer, halogen bulbs, and electrical cords are a few of list items. Along with donations, dA runs on the generosity of friends and about 80 volunteers. Among all the helping hands is Executive Director Joan Weldon, the only paid staff member. Weldon describes dA as a “very heart-driven place.”

To help pay the rent, dA rents out the “dAdA free space” to artists looking to display a series of pieces. Money is brought into the dA, too, through a 35 percent cut from any purchase of the art for sale. Toovey says he would prefer that they not take any money. However, dA’s cut is significantly less than the 50 to 60 percent acquired by most galleries.

 Ernie Hernandez’s painting “Red Ball” sells for $1,500 and hangs on the back wall of the dA Gallery. With its vibrant reds, Hernandez’s piece grabs the attention of gallery patrons of the 15th Annual “Simply Red” exhibit. / photo by Blanca Rocha

Ernie Hernandez’s painting “Red Ball” sells for $1,500 and hangs on the back wall of the dA Gallery. With its vibrant reds, Hernandez’s piece grabs the attention of gallery patrons of the 15th Annual “Simply Red” exhibit. / photo by Blanca Rocha

The dA has also had a long history of interesting fund raisers for people who follow its unique atmosphere. A walking tour of the Pomona Arts Colony, led by Dee Marcellus Cole, long-time volunteer of the dA and self-proclaimed “Goddess of Pomona,” brings in $400 per year. On Feb. 21, 2004, the tour group braved the rain and explored the hidden art and living spaces in the Colony. Because the dA was originally located behind the Mayfair Hotel, a champagne toast on the roof of the hotel capped off the evening. Cole is pictured in the spring dA newsletter holding a glass of champagne in the rain. In the past, Cole organized a “looky loos” tour that brought 100 people to the Colony to look at toilets and bathrooms, all decorated by Colony residents. “You always have to think of something clever to try to raise money,” Cole jokes.

For many years, Cole has had close ties to the University of La Verne. Cole was a part-time faculty member in the Department of Art for 12 years, and she also earned her bachelor of art degree though the University’s CAPA program. When her husband died, Cole donated some old cameras to the Photography Department for student use.

A new show emerges every month, and although the art on the walls might change, the quality of work displayed does not. A new experience lurks at a turn of the head. Some art requires patrons to get really close to the pieces to find the correct aesthetic angle. Others require taking a couple steps away from the piece to fully absorb them. The dA frequently has open shows for artists to gain exposure of their talent. The February 2004 show titled, “Simply Red,” featured the work of many area artists and focused on pieces that contained some element of the color red. University of La Verne senior La Venna Ware displayed her work at the dA. While flipping through the dA newsletter, Ware found out about “Simply Red.” Ware’s piece, a combination of abstract and figurative art, shows a landscape with a face in a mountain. The eyes of the face cry into a lake with hands catching the fallen tears. For Ware and all students, there was no cost to display work in the show, whereas all other artists paid.

In the second room, the “dAdA free space,” hangs a piece titled “Imagine” by Sonia Salazar. Salazar used different shades of red to form the face of the late singer and songwriter John Lennon. Next to Lennon is a painting of the late Jim Morrison. Titled, “Love Me Two Times,” the piece was painted by Rebecca Curren. Red lines imply the outline of Morrison’s hair, eyes and nose.

Expressing the main themes in day-to-day life, while embracing the Latino culture is the focus of the work by Victor Gallegos and Josephine Ramirez. The words “Amor, Respeto, Paz, Unidad” (Spanish for “Love, Respect, Peace, Unity”) are the themes of the piece by Gallegos. Ramirez has managed to focus on two contrasting themes. Her first piece, titled, “Friends,” shows two women lying down and hugging. Using acrylic paint, braided rope and lace to form the provocative tops the women are wearing, the women are woven together to demonstrate the depth of their friendship. “Enemies,” her second piece, has two women—made from acrylic paint and braided rope—looking at each other.

Artist Shelli Weldon calls her piece “Messita de Tecate” (Little table of Tecate). Triangular cutouts from a Tecate box cover the top of the short wooded table; smashed bottle caps adorn the tabletop perimeter.

Charlene Ho of Upland, experienced dA for the first time at “Simply Red.” She said she was impressed with many of the pieces on display because of the quality and the ideas behind them. “I like the colors and the harmony of the shapes and lines,” she says, describing, “Quark Fog” by Chris Cousins.

The dA has found many faithful followers over the last two decades. Luis Barajas is one. For the past two years, Barajas regularly has made the drive from Maywood, Calif. to the Pomona Arts Colony. Barajas, an art major at Cal Poly Pomona, says he enjoys the mix of people and culture in the Arts Colony. “Here, you have the Glass House with the punk culture, and the art galleries with the intellectuals. “You can come and see the art and the artists. There have been more Latino artists showing their work here, and also more Latinos are coming out to the galleries.”

ULV Professor of Art Ruth Trotter has been a long-time patron of the dA. “I was a graduate student at the Claremont Graduate University when it first started as an alternative studio and gallery space,” Trotter says. “There were several very hip artists living there, including [Toovey], who has been the enduring presence there for the past 20 years.”

Starting off as a gallery that was taking it “one day at a time,” as Cole describes, the dA continues to serve its tradition of exhibition rather than sales. “It has made a name on its own out here,” she says.

“This is a test of the capacity of individuals and what they can do when they get together,” says Gary Colby, University of La Verne professor of photography.

Coming from a beginning that had an informal Board of Directors, Toovey says he has seen dA become more financially responsible with a more involved board. Business, for 20 years, has been conducted at “food for thought gatherings” rather than meetings, because the Board is against having meetings. It is through this unique perspective that “dA has become a substantial part of the community,” Toovey says. He continues to explain that the dA survived as long as it did simply through volunteers. “There are enough people who believe what dA can do.” As for the future, Toovey says, “There’s lots of room for improvement.” He wants to see dA become a real cultural center and more child oriented because “the arts make you become more self aware. This is how you learn the answers to questions like, ‘How do you feel?’”

After 20 years, Toovey jokes how his “hair used to be dark and now it’s all white.” But he stops joking when he sums up the 20 years. “I can’t believe it. This is what 20 years of doing this will do to you. Art is a universal language. Through it you learn the similarities instead of the differences. The fine arts are a way to create a community. It connects people to a time and place.”

But its time is not over. “The dA continues to be the place for viewing the best contemporary art by young and local emerging artists. I think it’s wonderful and astounding to see dA celebrate 20 years,” Trotter says. “I’m sure it will be around for many years.”