In Talmadge, a body shop is transformed into a creative space called Department


To say the department is quiet would be an understatement. Owner and curator Danielle “Dani” Higgins acknowledges this fact by giving me a virtual tour of the former auto body shop build space in Talmadge that she opened a few years ago.

“So you can see where ‘service’ was, but it’s gone,” Higgins says, pointing to the sign that once said ‘service department’ but now just reads ‘department’.

“I think we walked in and got drunk and spray painted the whole thing just for fun, just to love destroying it because, you know, I have a punk spirit in my soul,” Higgins continues. “You know, kind of like it was ours. But then we put on layers of paint to completely expand the walls, painted the floor, which was covered in oil stains. We even built a loft space that I slept in a few times.

These days, Department, which opened in 2020, is exactly what Higgins wanted it to be: a space to seed relationships between creatives, especially among younger and younger artists, musicians and creatives. -represented.

“I’m interested in building community,” says Higgins, who moved to San Diego from Portland, Oregon, four years ago. “I don’t really like the word incubator, but that’s kind of what space is. It’s like cross-pollination, getting different voices here, keeping it fresh. I found in San Diego, in particular, there seems to be a lack of that.

Higgins makes a good point. With the exception of a few places in the more upscale neighborhoods of San Diego, the city has always had a very small number of places for all ages. Multi-hyphenate spaces, such as the Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center in North Park, still cater to a younger crowd. Weird Hues in Chula Vista has yet to reopen after closing during the pandemic, and the Teros Gallery in City Heights served as a safe creative venue before closing last year. Other than these, however, it’s hard to think of a place that offers the Department’s variety of events and services.

“I just wanted something that looked more like me and felt more secure. Where you can really work on your own voice,” says visual artist Laurie Nasica, who has worked in the Department’s space since May 2020. “I think that was it. We didn’t really know what it was going to be like at first. We were both transplanted and everything. We just really gravitated to the idea of ​​a safe space, not always having a plan or an idea, but a place where you would like to create – having the space where you can let that happen. It’s a very important part of the creative process and Dani definitely made it easy.

“From a painter’s point of view, I feel like what this place gives me is the two things I try to achieve in my work, which is to transcend and to express myself”, says Laurie Nasica (seated), shown here with Department owner and curator Danielle “Dani” Higgins.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Higgins says she also wanted to bring a more inclusive “feminist perspective” to the department’s programming. Since its opening, it has worked with artists like Andrés Hernández and Amel Janae, whose works explore questions of intersectionality and representation. When it comes to music, Higgins has hosted bands and DJs that she says are underrepresented or whose members are LGBTQ and people of color. She has also partnered with local businesses with progressive values ​​such as Burn All Books, Quiet Type and Hill Street Country Club for pop-up events such as sidewalk sales and POC-forward Pride parties.

“I think it starts with me not seeing the work that I want to see and where is this stuff that I want to go,” Higgins asks rhetorically. “If I can’t find it and can’t go, maybe we should. As a feminist, I never thought of calling space a women’s space. We had this very nice show where the performers happened to be all women, but it’s not presented as such. I don’t think I need to say it like that. Nobody ever said something like “the amazing male artist, Picasso”.

Nasica says she feels particularly inspired by the creative energy of the space. Originally from France, she says she has become something of a “permanent artist-in-residence” and points out that the Department has helped her build connections and professional relationships with other creatives in the city.

“From a painter’s point of view, I feel like this place gives me the two things I try to achieve in my work, which is to transcend and to express myself,” says Nasica, who held open studio events to showcase his new series of paintings, aptly titled “Friends and Family.”

“That’s how it starts. And then creating connections on top of that,” Nasica adds. “So that’s what he does. I feel safe enough here to be able to do the job I want to do. And then if there’s a bridge that’s built with other people along the road, then that’s just the biggest achievement I can ask for.

Higgins and Nasica want to continue building the space beyond the current DIY design, which currently includes a studio, stage, DJ booth (complete with disco ball), cyc wall, and basketball hoop designed by Locals. artist Spencer Little. There’s a small space dedicated to upcycled fashion, but Higgins wants to add a more formal showcase for local designers and vintage clothing dealers. The name? Department store, of course.

“I know, I know, very ironic,” laughs Higgins.

Higgins wants the space to continue as a “stand-alone 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. Most of the time, though, she just wants the same kind of feedback as people who have attended a Department event before.

“I think the common thread among people is that they met others there,” Higgins says. “I hear that probably more often than anything; people who left 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 via DMs, at an event or after, or in public, and they’ve been like, “Hey, I went to this thing and it was really nice”. I felt really safe there. And that’s really cool.

Combs is a freelance writer.

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