ESAW 2.0 – How the best art walk in California got even better
by Mark McDermott
Like the city that gave it birth, word of the El Segundo Art Walk began as a whisper.
A group of artists led by Holly Socrates had the idea, back in 2015, that El Segundo’s burgeoning creative scene and its rows of low-slung warehouses, wide array of businesses, and hometown vibe might be the makings of a great art walk. Hesitatingly, she began making inquiries. The enthusiasm she met surprised even her. Everyone Socrates asked said yes, businesses, artists, and a committee of art-minded folks who came together to make it happen.
On the third Thursday of June in 2015, ESAW sprang to life.
Nobody who took part in those first ESAWs will ever forget them. It was an artistic Wild West, with art parties popping off all along a trail of 31 venues, from downtown El Segundo out into the Smoky Hollow industrial district. You never knew what you might discover behind the next door, the next business you entered – painters hanging canvases in venues ranging from real estate offices to machine shops to surf shops, music in a steam punk-infused motorcycle shop, a glass blower in a factory, furniture made out of airplane parts (where a trapeze artist hung from the ceiling), and generally just a feeling of exuberant unexpectedness and outright delight rising up from the byways of El Segundo.
Four hundred people came on the first night. Through word-of-mouth alone — there was no budget for advertising — it doubled to 800 people on the third Thursday of July, and somewhere near double that again in August.
The event felt like El Segundo itself, which was being discovered by businesses from the emerging “new creative” economy, who molded, and mixed seamlessly with the town’s old school, ornery sense of independence. El Segundo had always been a place where people made things. But now, the town was quietly becoming a locus for creativity known throughout Southern California.
The whisper increased to a chorus of yea-saying shouts.
Seven years later, the El Segundo Art Walk’s momentum is still growing. It has evolved into a revered local, and even regional institution, while keeping that sense of unexpected wonder that made it so special to begin with. On August 27, ESAW will feature over 50 venues, the unfurling of an ambitious new mural, a new Augmented Reality Piece, and an eclectic range of artists and musicians. This year, there will be two music stages, including one at ESAW headquarters downtown near the El Segundo Fire Department (sponsored by Nicol Real Estate), and a new stage on a blocked-off section of Eucalyptus Street in Smoky Hollow (sponsored by BeachLife festival). Another big addition to the El Segundo Art Walk is the Friday Night Kick-Off Concert, headlined by local band Feed The Kitty.
ESAW 2.0 has arrived. And it’s made what is arguably the best art walk in the region even better.
“I think it’s matured,” said Drew Boyles, the mayor of El Segundo, and also the owner of a venue featured in ESAW, Hazaway Today (which features a mural by legendary South Bay artist Damian Fulton), and his new building, called Roots on Eucalyptus. “The Art Walk has kind of grown up. It started out as a scrappy, pioneering entrepreneur, more or less, and it’s kind of matured into a real ongoing concern.”
“The City also loves it, which is why we have supported it from the beginning,” Boyles said. “We believe in it as a real driver of bringing people into town and getting more visitors and more people to experience the uniqueness of El Segundo, because it’s such a cool enclave of a little town.”
Boyles credits the growth of the Art Walk to its event producer John McCullough and creative director George Renfro, who took the helm of the event five years ago, and each year – minus the lost pandemic year – have found ways to keep reinventing ESAW.
“Those guys picked it up and ran with it,” Boyles said. “John and George, I applaud them for their entrepreneurial spirit, and for their fortitude in keeping this thing alive.”
McCullough married into El Segundo. He has an event organizing background as the founder of Prohibition NYE, a heralded New Year’s Eve “immersive experience” at Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles.
But McCullough says that what makes ESAW keep growing is the investment made by the businesses who host it, the passion of artists who flock to it, and both the community’s and the City’s embrace of it.
“This year we have over 50 businesses who will be venues,” McCullough said. “That means you then have 50 different promoters and mini-event producers, and then all the artists, and all the musicians….It’s just a collective thing. Where we are at right now, there’s just a lot of momentum. The Art Walk has a life of its own now.”
“The momentum ESAW has taken on means that when summer comes around, there’s an expectation from businesses and artists and guests in the city, and really the South Bay at large,” he said. “It has evolved into a different thing. For me, it used to be just nose-to-the-grindstone, like walking down the street, if I saw a new business or artist, I was kind of pedaling the Art Walk, knocking on doors. Now, it has its own brand or set of expectations, so for me it’s more like riding a wave.”
Renfro also credits McCullough for what ESAW has become.
“The level of production has stepped up across the board. I think that is what ESAW 2.0 is, and John is a really big part of that,” he said. “His background in events and ability to keep making everything to scale and while getting bigger, and then I am able to focus on just keeping it raw, and paying the right attention to the businesses, and the artists that make ESAW what it is. Together, we are able to kind of take a step back and think about the event, and focus on what we want to maintain.”
Renfro is fourth generation El Segundo. He left town for school and travel and came back with a design degree and renewed love for his hometown, along with an intention to help keep El Segundo’s inevitable growth true to the town’s character. He sees the Art Walk as a key to this, a fusion of old and new El Segundo.
Carmen Zella, the executive director for NOW Art and one of the foremost advocates for public art in California, says that what sets the El Segundo Artwalk apart from other art walks is that it has grown naturally out of what El Segundo already is — meaning that ESAW carries an authenticity and connectedness with the community and even with its aerospace background. The El Segundo Art Walk is, for example, debuting an Augmented Reality piece.
“I think anyone who has worked in aerospace, it’d be fun to look through their record collection,” Zella said. “There’s probably a lot of unexpected jazz and punk.”
ESAW, in other words, is an expression of El Segundo, and also a celebration of it.
“This is such a quirky place with the combination of heavy industrial, and we’re surrounded by the industrial complex, and its got the uniqueness of Smoky Hollow, which is evolving from traditional manufacturing and industry to some of that still but also now more tech, more creative, more aerospace startups,” Boyles said. “And you have a little bit of all of that represented in the artwork. I just love how they have all the different businesses and venues in town participate. It’s a serious community come together, really, because you get everyone participating.”
Zella also said the fact that ESAW is actually about art, and not selling trinkets, makes it different from most public art events.
“This is curated, there is oversight in the selection of the vendors and the artists who are participating, and there is this really personable and authentic adaptation that the El Segundo Art Walk organizers have cultivated – that to me is the difference,” Zella said. “And that’s the differentiating factor from what I’ve seen in other art walks, where it’s more of a business where they’re trying to bring any type of vendor in to sell, and to fulfill a financial goal. That’s not the intention of these guys. These guys are not doing this for money. They’re doing this because they believe in the community of El Segundo, and they also believe in the artists.”
And there is a whole universe of artists featured at this year’s ESAW, ranging from woodwork by South Bay legendary surfer (and Spyder Surfboards founder) Dennis Jarvis, to the intricately detailed miniaturized WWII scenes by Armet Ngo, to the muralist Andrew Hem, whose work at Art Center College of Art and Design in Pasadena has earned him a strong reputation.
Jarvis will be featured at a new venue, WWOO Outdoor Kitchen Design. Another favorite venue that is returning is the former House of Gong and its enigmatic proprietor (and famed artist in his own right), Jon 9, who has moved on to the creation of immersive and experiential entertainment environments at Virturlarium. Among the new venues are Art Class, a creative media company that works with A-list national clients, and The Grotto, a men’s tailored clothing company that is new to town. And of course South Bay Customs, the Smoky Hollow motorcycle shop that is a galaxy unto itself, will once again be a venue, as will the beloved Richmond Bar & Grill.
Another relatively new aspect of ESAW is the commissioning of a lasting public art piece, which is sponsored by the City of El Segundo, and goes through a formal request for proposal process. Zella helped shape the RFP. The artist selected was Andrew Hem, who is completing a 109 ft. mural on a wall of Labib Funk + Associates, a civil engineering firm on Main Street.
David Funk, a principal at the firm, said that he and his team are thrilled to be part of the art walk, both as a new home for Hem’s mural and as a venue. Engineering, he noted, is often a creative art as well.
“In our work, architects are involved, and they are artists, too,” Funk said. “So we are very connected in that sense of having to use creativity to make their dreams come to real life. So it is cool to be involved with ESAW on that side of things, and have creativity. And we were kind of lucky, we found a great building here [in 2014], we just happen to have a great wall that would allow for a mural.”
The mural will further expand ESAW’s role in the community, both leaving a lasting spark of creativity for people to encounter in their workaday lives throughout the year, and a reminder of the magic of people coming together for the enjoyment of art and each other.
“The El Segundo Art Walk is that moment in time, it’s that opening, where it’s like: here’s a bunch of artists, here’s a lot of their work, here’s those hidden doors, here’s an opportunity for the community to have this direct interface,” Zella said. “Yet it’s developed into something that’s more than that – as public art pieces are being generated, there’s more of a presence throughout the year that we’re seeing happen on the city streets.”
Zella said that the Art Walk could be looked at as one large exercise in joyously public art.
“It’s a public art experience because it’s an activation of a direct line of sight between a community and artists who live and circulate in that community,” she said. “You can meet the artists whom you are going to be collecting, and admiring, and following. And that’s really important in this day and age of Zoom calls and lack of human connection, an opportunity like this for an artist to be able to interface with people, and develop really personal, honest connections, and explain that artwork face-to-face with another person. It’s a really important moment.”
The El Segundo Art Walk takes place from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, with a free kick-off concert featuring Feed the Kitty Friday at 6 p.m. at 200 Eucalyptus Drive. See ElSegundoArtWalk.com for more information. ER