In Talmadge, an auto body shop transforms into a creative space known as Department
Owner and curator Danielle ‘Dani’ Higgins takes an auto body shop and turns it into a gallery, store and event space for creatives
To say that Department is inconspicuous would be a slight understatement. Owner and curator Danielle “Dani” Higgins acknowledges this fact as she gives me a virtual tour of the former auto body shop-turned-creative space in Talmadge she opened a couple years ago.
“So you can see where ‘service’ used to be, but isn’t there anymore,” Higgins says, pointing out the sign that once said “service department” but now simply reads “department.”
“I think we came in and got drunk and spray painted everything just for fun, just to like wreck it because, you know, I have a punk spirit at heart,” Higgins continues. “You know, kind of like to make it ours. But then we put coats of paint to fully widen out the walls, painted the floor, which was covered in oil stains. We even built a lofted space that I slept in a few times.”
Nowadays, Department, which opened in 2020, resembles exactly what Higgins intended it to be: a space intended to sow relationships among creatives, especially among younger, underrepresented artists, musicians and creatives.
“I’m interested in building community,” says Higgins, who moved to San Diego from Portland, Ore., four years ago. “I don’t like the word incubator very much, but that’s kind of what the space is. It’s like cross pollination, getting different voices in here, keeping it fresh. I found in San Diego, especially, it seems like there’s a lack of that.”
Higgins makes a good point. With exception of a few places in San Diego’s more uptown neighborhoods, the city has historically had a very small number of all-ages venues. Multi-hyphenate spaces, such as Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center in North Park, still caters to a younger crowd. Weird Hues in Chula Vista has yet to reopen after closing during the pandemic, and Teros Gallery in City Heights served as a safe creative venue before closing last year. Other than those, however, it’s difficult to think of a place that offers the variety of events and services as Department.
“I just wanted something that felt more like my own and felt safer. Where you can really work on your own voice,” says visual artist Laurie Nasica, who has been working in the Department space since May of 2020. “I think that’s what it was like. We both didn’t really know what it was going be at first. We were both transplants and stuff. We just really gravitated around the idea of a safe space, not always having a plan or an idea, but a place where you’d want to create — having the space where you can let that unfold. It’s a very important part of the creative process and Dani definitely facilitated that.”
Higgins says she also wanted to bring a more inclusive “feminist perspective” to the programming at Department. Since opening, she’s worked with artists such as Andrés Hernández and Amel Janae, both of whose work explore issues of intersectionality and representation. When it comes to music, Higgins has hosted bands and DJs she feels are either underrepresented or whose members are LGBTQ and people of color. She’s also teamed up with local businesses with progressive values such as Burn All Books, Quiet Type and Hill Street Country Club for pop-up events like sidewalk sales and POC-forward Pride parties.
“I think it starts with the fact that I’m not seeing the work I want to see and where is this stuff I want to go to,” Higgins asks rhetorically. “If I can’t find it and I can’t go to it, maybe we should just make it. As a feminist, I’ve never thought about qualifying the space as a women’s space. We had this really beautiful show where it just so happened that the performers were all women, but it’s not billed as such. I don’t think I need to say it like that. No one ever said something like, ‘the amazing male artist, Picasso.’”
Nasica says she especially feels inspired by the creative energy within the space. Originally from France, she says she’s become something of a “permanent artist in residence” and points out that Department has helped her foster connections and professional relationships with other creative people in the city.
“From a painter’s perspective, I feel like what this place provides for me is the two things that I’m trying to achieve in my work, which is to transcend and self expression,” says Nasica, who has hosted open studio events to showcase her new series of paintings titled, appropriately enough, “Friends and Family.”
“That’s how it starts. And then building connections on top of that,” Nasica adds. “So that’s what it does. I feel safe enough here to be able to make the work that I want to make. And then if there is a bridge that gets built with other people along the away, then that’s just the biggest accomplishment that I could ask for.”
Both Higgins and Nasica want to continue to build out the space beyond the current DIY-heavy design, which at the moment includes a studio, stage, DJ booth (complete with a disco ball), a cyc wall and a basketball hoop designed by local artist Spencer Little. There is a small area devoted to upcycled fashion, but Higgins wants to add a more formal storefront component for local designers and vintage clothing merchants. The name? Department Store, of course.
“I know, I know, very tongue-in-cheek,” Higgins laughs.
Higgins wants the space to continue as a “self-sustaining entity” but wants to add more formalized weekly music nights and a more structured schedule of artist residencies, which would ideally culminate in a gallery-style opening. Mostly, however, she just wants to get the same sort of feedback she’s been getting from people who’ve already attended a Department event.
“I think the common thread from people has been that they met others there,” Higgins says. “I hear that probably more often than anything else; people who went off and did something else, they started here or they met here, or they were at an event here. I’ve had a lot of women come up to me either via DMs, at an event or afterwards, or in public, and they’ll say something like, ‘Hey, I went to that thing and that was really nice. I felt really safe there.’ And that’s really cool.”
Combs is a freelance writer.
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