Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Arts Refocused

Martha Gardens has long been an arts district, even through city stumbles
GARDEN GUARDIANS : Shilo McCabe's installation, "Guardians of the House of Fire," was on display at the Art Ark Gallery in San Jose last weekend. Photo by Gary Singh

When portions of James Frazier Reed's 500-acre ranch were subdivided into streets named after his family members, no one knew artist collectives would populate the area 170 years later.

Reed went down in history, not only for co-founding the ill-fated Donner Party adventure and rescuing his family from the whole mess, but also for owning much of the land that became downtown San Jose. He was even one of the prime movers that led to San Jose becoming California's first capital, after statehood. Originally an Irishman, Reed is now buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Last weekend, I surfaced in Reed's old stomping ground to see what was going on. His family endures via the street names: Keyes, Martha, Virginia, Margaret, Patterson and Carrie.

A portion of his old property now goes by the "Martha Gardens Arts District" moniker—not an official city-designated name, but an inspiring one, since it involves artists creating all sorts of awesome stuff in a section of town called Martha Gardens. Reed's daughter Martha would be proud.

About 17 years ago, the city unleashed a 120-page document, the "Martha Gardens Specific Plan," detailing the creative potential of this neighborhood, citing its unique arts focus above all else. Even today, despite enormous cookiecutter condominium projects, artists continue to percolate and take advantage of the neighborhood's agricultural past by working out of studios and warehouses leftover from the cannery era.

At the nucleus sits the Citadel Artist Studios, a longtime bastion of heroic activity and currently the home of FUSE Presents, a collective created to showcase the work of artists renting studios in the building. Citadel has a long history, although right now the gallery is only allowed to open for 12 people at a time, which is unfortunate because it's one of the best exhibit spaces anywhere in San Jose.

The SJSU Foundry is also in this neighborhood, as is the Art Ark Gallery. One can easily ingest an artsy vibe if one slithers around these parts long enough. If one visited any equivalent neighborhood in any other major city, anywhere, the first thing one would think is: "This is probably where the artists live."

When I surfaced in the area last weekend, I went to Bestor Art Park between Fifth and Sixth streets. Beginning two years ago, the artists of DDEF (Dream Daringly, Execute Fearlessly) started organizing events called "Meeting of the Mindz," pairing up local artists to collaborate on paintings without discussing the outcome in advance. In each case, two artists combine their talents on one canvas to see what will happen.

The DDEF compound is now located around the corner, so last weekend a few painters gathered in the park to create new works, all of which were then auctioned off to charity, along with other paintings created at previous Meeting of the Mindz events.

The auction unfolded online via Zoom as the final capper for a larger event called heArt's Delight: Virtual Contemporary Visual & Performing Arts Festival, organized by FUSE Presents. HeArt's Delight was yet another example of artists migrating their operation online during the Covid-19 era. It was like an open studios event, but in the virtual world.

Unfortunately, there were no "Martha Gardens Arts District" signs anywhere to be found. Even after such an artful weekend, it seems like the original intent of the Martha Gardens Specific Plan doesn't hold as much weight these days. The whole area seems officially absorbed into the larger Spartan-Keyes neighborhood. Of this, Martha would not be proud.

Yet by sheer coincidence, just as I was about to summon the goddesses to put a spell on City Hall and force them to prioritize the arts in all planning policies, I walked into the Art Ark Gallery, where an installation asked me to do just that. A post-apocalyptic exhibit, Beyond Rust & Dust–Rising from a Broken World, included Shilo McCabe's installation, "Guardians of the House of Fire," beckoning visitors to kneel, supplicate themselves to the Guardians and ask for inspiration.

So I did. I pleaded with the Guardians to channel the spirits of James and Martha Reed, to make sure the arts remain integrated in all future San Jose specific plans. History will now judge.