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Logan Heights art center gives women a free space to create

Christina Schoenthaler demonstrates the art of scagliola to create works that imitate marble.
Christina Schoenthaler demonstrates the art of scagliola to create works that imitate marble. Schoenthaler is participating in the Athenaeum Art Center’s new Womxn’s Open Art Studio program, which provides free studio space, art supplies and resources to female residents of Logan Heights.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Athenaeum Art Center’s Womxn’s Open Art Studio offers free space, supplies and support to women of Logan Heights

When artist and filmmaker Omar Lopex started his job as the manager of the Athenaeum Art Center in Logan Heights in September, there wasn’t a lot for him to do. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the center wasn’t holding in-person classes or events, and the gallery was open by appointment only. So Lopex did what artists do. He took the materials at hand, and he created something special.

The result of his creative brainstorming and artistic strategizing is the Womxn’s Open Art Studio, a new community outreach program offering use of the Athenaeum Art Center’s space, basic art supplies, guidance and other resources to the women of Logan Heights — for free.

And by “Open Studio,” the Athenaeum really means an open studio. The program welcomes Logan Heights women of all ages and artistic interests to use the space and the resources however they see fit. And Lopex can’t wait to see what they come up with.

“When you are starting out, you need time and space. It’s that whole idea of a room of one’s own. That’s what you need,” Lopex said.

“If we can be the thing that an artist of the future uses early on to help them start their career, that’s great. And if it’s just a quiet space where somebody’s aunt or grandma can come and just sew or something, or have two hours to sit in a quiet room and just think, that’s great. This is open to all mediums and all levels.”

The Athenaeum Art Center is located in Bread & Salt, a 45,000-square-foot experimental arts space whose tenants include architecture firms, galleries and artists. It is the satellite location of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla, which was founded in 1899 as part of a nationwide network of nonprofit membership libraries that pre-dates the free public library system.

There are 16 of these libraries left in the U.S., and like its fellow survivors, the Athenaeum has expanded its reach to include such public offerings as art classes, concerts and exhibitions. The Athenaeum opened its original satellite School of the Arts in downtown San Diego in 1996. After a stint at the Naval Training Center, it ended up in University Heights. When that building was sold, Athenaeum Executive Director Erika Torri convinced the board to relocate to the renovated Weber’s bakery that became Bread & Salt.

When it moved, the School of the Arts was rechristened the Athenaeum Art Center to better reflect its neighborhood-centric location, the expanded space that would have room for exhibitions and community events beyond classes, and the spirit the Athenaeum hoped to create there.

“I always loved Logan Heights,” said Torri, who has been with the Athenaeum for 33 years. “It is very community-oriented, and the location reflects us very well because we have always been open to all kinds of nationalities. We have free concerts and free exhibitions that are open to everyone, and we like it that way.

“I think it is difficult for some people to come up to La Jolla, and this is another place where we can get recognized. More people can connect with us there, and that is very much part of our mission to educate people and give them a place to learn.”

The Art Center has an art school studio, a print studio, a gallery and an event space. The main gallery is currently home to “2020 So Far: Prints and Drawings,” an exhibition featuring artists involved in Printmakers Against Racism and drawings by Morgan Miller III.

The Art Center is also the new creative home of artist Christina Schoenthaler, a Logan Heights resident who is the Womxn’s Open Art Studio’s first participant.

Schoenthaler found out about the Open Studio when she saw one of Lopex’s flyers while she was out walking her dog. She was looking for a big space where she could work on pieces for Vesper, her new functional art furniture business, and the Womxn’s Open Art Studio was the dream space at the dream price.

“Real estate prices are really high here, and for someone just starting out, it can be really risky to find the space you need for an endeavor like this. I reached out to Omar, and there was this beautiful space, just waiting to be used,” Schoenthaler said.

“This definitely gives me a sense that I can focus on creating without the pressure of paying a huge monthly rent, and that is something that is so luxurious. I really feel that open doors and spaces create community, and with community comes an exchange of ideas and skills. I feel so grateful to the Athenaeum and to Omar for giving me this opportunity.”

From the flexible hours to its many no-fee offerings, the Womxn’s Open Studio is ready to meet a wide-range of female makers. Even if the only thing they want to create is room to be themselves.

“The way you can most genuinely make an impact is to offer something open-ended,” Lopex said. “I just hope this helps women in the community with whatever they need. There is an intimidation factor in the arts, and we want to get the word out that you can be at any level. I’m here if they want to bounce ideas off me, and if they want the space to themselves and they don’t want to talk to anybody, they can have that, too.”

For information about the Womxn’s Open Art Studio, contact Omar Lopex at (619) 269-1981 or olopex@ljathenaeum.org.


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