I came to San Francisco when the city was crowded by people who were going to Burning Man. It was the end of August. I wasn’t planning to go to Nevada. It was my first time in California, so my seven days in San Francisco were reserved for streets, cafes, food and happy urban individuals I happened to meet there. My friend Ben who worked in San Francisco for “one of the fastest growing startups”, found a shelter for me… in a local art squat. It was holiday time, so the space was empty, and the guys were lending small rooms for $10 per day. “The Convent” and “The Center” were two spaces of the art squat on the Oak Street in Lower Heights. Nearby there was also a big church which was still not utilized for the project. Earlier the Convent had been occupied by the nuns and the Center had been a rectory. Today these buildings are inhabited by more than fifty young creative professionals who share their household, leisure and develop different creative communities.
When everyone in the building was preparing to go to Burning Man, I met the founder of the space Michael Latronica and heard his story.
– Tell me who you are. What’s your story?
– My name is Michael Latronica. I’ve been in San Francisco for almost eighteen years. I came here from Philadelphia with the plan to go to art school. I found out how expensive the city really was and ended up working three jobs. While I was doing that, I happened upon a space. I was working with people who had an open space above their restaurant, and they told me they needed to do something with it. I suggested paying them rent so that they give me the opportunity to open an art studio there.
It could fit about eight artists for a workspace. I went out on the street and handed out flyers and found some artists. I didn’t even have the place built, there was just tape on the floors. They paid me upfront first/last security which paid for all the building materials. That’s how I started up The Blue Studio and my life with artists began.
It went on for a year until I had to move out of that space. I realized the potential of that business and found a space that doubled in size and could place about fifteen or sixteen artists. Then, after three years, the whole neighborhood was gentrified and they were kicking everybody out. I had a friend who was one of the artists in the space, and he said, “Hey, let’s keep going with this, we’ve got something good.” At that point we had a woodshop, a gallery, and sixteen artists.
– How long did The Blue Studio exist?
– For about sixteen years.
The Convent. Previously it was occupied by the nuns. Today it is a home for twenty creative professionals.
– So it has always been a studio and not a space for living?
Exactly, just a workspace. Although I lived there underground for a long time. Whatever place I went to, I had my own little home and studio. And then from that place I had to move to another one. There I had about 70 artists, all in one space with a woodshop and spray booth. A part of the rental space was a dance studio as well. That went on for about 8-10 years.
While I was in that space, I knew a guy who had an office in the same hall. He offered me to come and take a look at this old convent. I came to see it and it was a beautiful chapel, stained glass windows, rooftop, workspace, living space. He said, “You can invite twenty some people in here.” Once we made an agreement, I had three weeks to find twenty some artists to come in. It happened almost three years ago. And then he bought a rectory, this place we’re in right now, the center.
– So this guy is a landlord?
– He’s a landlord, yes. He’s a contractor. Usually he buys these buildings, tears them down and guts them and turns them into condominiums. But he had to preserve the historical quality of these buildings by the city standards. He decided to make a group housing there. He just wanted one guy to take care of it, and that was me.
– What is happening inside? How is it organized, who are other people, what do they do here and who makes the rules?
– The convent was a total experiment. I knew how to run workspaces, but I’d never lived with twenty some artists. I realized that I hadn’t done anything like that before and didn’t know anything about it. And how can I run it from another space remotely? I need to immerse myself into it!
Me being an artist myself, I thought this was a great opportunity to live communally and have a great workspace. So it started out with me kind of having to say what goes on, because I could choose the people initially. But I realized over time how important it was for this community to have a shared voice in what happens in there, and how much less pressure it was for me to be the one making the wrong decisions (laughs).
And so it slowly developed into a democratic system. You know, people often want to have a leader type of role when there’s somebody facilitating what’s happening in the space. I still to do that to a certain degree, but I helped facilitate more democratic voices, encourage that. When you give a little bit of “go go go!”, they get really excited about it, like, “This is our space! This isn’t us renting form this dude – this is our place!”
– Could you give me an example what kind of situation would it be?
– For example, if we want to organize an event in the space, put on an art show or throw a party, we have a meeting and there are a few facilitators who help delegate committees to produce the event. And that works out really well because there’s evenly distributed amount of work. It’s not just one person or a few people doing the work, it’s all of us working as a collective.
|You have your own three months trial living in a space, and we have an opportunity to decide whether you are fit or not. And how we decide is just… You kind of know if there’s love in the air, if you’re connecting with the group. But if you came into the space and you just hide in your room then most likely people are not going to want to have you stick around necessarily. We want people that are engaging!|
– What are the standards for a person to start living here?
– There are two different animals – the convent and the center. In the convent we are looking for productive artists, people who are serious about their art, who are interested in working collectively and not just renting a room in a space. And they’re not just there as a stepping stone purely for their own sake, for their own growth and career. The idea is for them to be participating in the collective, in the whole, so that we can grow together and create something amazing, meanwhile still working on ourselves and trying to know ourselves better. That’s very important, that’s kind of the grounds – quality artists, quality human being and someone who cares about community and not just about themselves. Sometimes artists can get in their own world, in their own head, you know.
So that’s the convent. The center is sort of the same thing where there’s quality and conscious human being. It’s a place for transformation and growth for people to work on themselves, but also, even more so, invested in business aspect of the whole building. There is a separate entity down here, this rental space. Not only do we want people living in this space to do their chore, their “sacred duty” as we call it, but also add some flavor to the space in whatever way they can and come up with ideas of how we can raise money for the collective and throw fundraisers. Not just that, but also to realize that this community event space has so much potential which is proven to be very important to our community. We have events here that are educational programs and dance classes, capoeira, yoga and all kinds of workshops. Yeah, it’s just an educational institution.
– Last Saturday you had a fundraising event here…
– That was produced by an outside producer. Sometimes we produce our own events, especially if it’s for the collective, but we also open the space up to fundraisers like that and people come in and produce their own deal, and so they rent the space. But it’s all in line with our vision of this space. It’s not just any Joe Schmoe coming up and saying, “I wanna have a birthday party!”
– Do artists here can actually make money for themselves?
– Yes, we a have a healing sanctuary upstairs, it’s a five office healing space. Right now two of the people living here have an office space there and utilize it for their EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) practice. They basically have their own business in that space. Additionally, we have some yoga teachers in the house that can host their own yoga classes. It’s a change for them to grow as teachers and run their own business.
Photos by Oleksandr Suprunets, biggggidea.com
– You’re going to Burning Man, right? How many times have you been there?
– This is my eighth year.
– I heard that everyone going to Burning Man brings something there. How does the process look like? What are you going to do there?
–We’ve been working on a camp right now for about a month, and just designing the layout of our camp and fortunately we have an architect on the team. Our camp is about magic. However you feel, you can bring magic to the camp individually. The idea of Burning Man is what you bring to it is more important than what you take from it. The more you give, the more you get. And so our concept is to bring magic to the playa, and so far it’s working out magically.
– How many of your people will go there?
– 18 out of 22. So we’re just kind of relocating.
– Are you bringing there the practices you do here, like yoga and capoeira?
– Yes. Brandy’s gonna do yoga there and Paulina is going to throw some dance classes.
– So it’s not just about drugs? (Laughs)
– (Laughs) No, it’s not. It’s a common misconception. The people that have never been there think that it’s just drugs and naked people. That does exist and that is a big part of the culture. But I think having experienced a few years under my belt I’ve realized that’s not what’s important about it. I’ve realized what the magic of this festival has to offer to you as an individual, thus giving to the greater whole. If you can send yourself in this crazy, crazy space, then you start making human connections like you’ve never done before. There are no cell phones, no computers, you drop that shit behind. And here we are, we have to relate to each other like we used to when we were in the school together, and we did well. When I was in school, we didn’t have cell phones.
The Center is inhabited by another twenty people. Nearby there is a church which is still not utilized for the project. A view from the roof of the Convent.
– Most of these people do creative jobs – designers, photographers and so on. What do they do here inside when they come together? What’s happening on a daily basis?
– Most of us are visual artists in some sense. We have a great aesthetic world beautiful inside and out. It’s the way we express ourselves. And we feed off each other since we see each other every day. When we come together to create, that magic spark happens when we’re just, “Oh, we’re gonna take this fabric and pull it over here!” We just create space together and that’s one thing that we’ve realized we have a talent for.
– How do you accept new members to your community? I heard that a person has to live with you for three months before you decide whether he or she is fit or not…
– The reason for that is so that everyone’s happy – the group and the individual. You decide whether it’s working for you as an individual. You have your own three months trial, and we have an opportunity to decide whether you are fit or not. And how we decide is just… You kind of know if there’s love in the air, if you’re connecting with the group. But if you came into the space and you just hide in your room then most likely people are not going to want to have you stick around necessarily. We want people that are engaging.
It’s kind of a way to make sure that we’re moving and progressing and not just stuck with who we pick, because you never know. Even if that’s a friend of a friend, you don’t know, because they don’t know if that’s what they want. People are trying the community out for the first time and what I’ve seen is how much people love the idea of it.
– If we follow this idea that life is a game and we all play, being in this group space is kind of a game. You have more rules and more conditions and more people around you. And it just inspires you, all this life talking and hugging…
– Yes, definitely. Human connectedness, that’s what is happening. You also have more responsibility to yourself, because you’re constantly seeing reflections of yourself. You can’t hide in this space! You can go to your room, but eventually you have to get out and interact. It’s an opportunity for you to either go insular or see what these people are about and make something of it. It’s really cool.
– Yes, definitely, real people make you happier.
– Yes, they do! The positive energy is contagious. Accountability and integrity are two things that come to mind that I’ve learnt from living in a collective.
San-Francisco – Kyiv – San-Francisco