Photographer Danny Jay, 29, is participating in his first Open Studios this year.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

After a pandemic pause, Open Studios poised for a creative reset: ‘People are hungry for art’

The next three weekends bring a longed-for chance for artists across Santa Cruz County to reconnect with the community and fellow artists — or, for many of the younger, first-time participants, to make real-life connections with folks they’ve seen only virtually during the past year and a half.

When the annual Open Studios tour was canceled in 2020, Ann Ostermann sobbed. With a spreading pandemic and, at the time, no vaccine in sight, canceling the tour was the right thing to do, the only thing to do. Still, for Ostermann, the woman who had been putting the tour together for more than 15 years, it felt like sliding into a void.

She thought of the hundreds of Santa Cruz County fine artists who depended on Open Studios as their most immediate connection to their audience and to the market where they could sell their work. And she also thought of her own work. “What am I without Open Studios?” she wondered.

It was, of course, temporary. Even then, there was every expectation, or at least hope, that the event would return the following year. But that was little more than blind faith. Even for the most optimistic, in the spring of 2020, when the cancellation decision was made, October 2021 seemed like a distant planet indeed.

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Now, that moment has finally arrived. And Open Studios is poised to roar back into action with about 300 artists studios open to the public, over the course of the next three weekends, across the county, from Davenport to Boulder Creek to La Selva Beach to Watsonville.

The 2021 event is, Ostermann believes, bound to be something special. The pandemic gap year has created, she said, a renewed sense not to take the creative community in Santa Cruz for granted.

“People had grown accustomed to having this wonderful opportunity and then have the rug just yanked out from under them. So, there is a palpable hunger to go out and connect with people, even if it’s just with our eyes. We’ve all learned to smile with our eyes (while wearing masks). Two years feels like it’s been a drought and people are hungry for art.”

With the widely available Open Studios guide in hand — or, failing that, the Open Studios app — the art-curious can set across anywhere the county for a free self-guided tour Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 17 (if you’re keeping a scorecard, Saturday and Sunday are for South County artists, all those between Watsonville and the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor; Oct. 9-10 is for North County artists; and Oct. 16-17 is a special encore weekend with select artists all over Santa Cruz County).

Since its inception in the mid-1980s, the Open Studios tour had never experienced an interruption like 2020. And, in that sense, 2021 marks a kind of reset. And that new start shows in the roster of participating artists as well. Almost one-fifth of this year’s artists are first-time participants, many of those under 40. Self-guided art tours, often with chardonnay and brie at every stop, can too easily be stereotyped as weekend fun for the comfortably middle-aged. But if events like Open Studios are to remain relevant, they obviously have to bow to the passage of time and adapt to emerging demographic realities.

Self-portraiture is a theme for photographer Emily Reynolds at her North County open studio.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

One of those staking a claim for younger artists at Open Studios is 25-year-old photographer Emily Reynolds, whose work might be among the most relevant to times as any on the tour.

“I use a lot of self-portraiture, and it all kind of sprung from my COVID experience, allowing me to dig deeper into fear and isolation and the dark emotions that come out of dark times,” said Reynolds (artist No. 174) who will participate in the second and third weekends.

The work she will display at Open Studios is, she said, an opportunity to see how the creative process dealt with the emotional restrictions of the pandemic. Of the many self-portraits she’ll have on hand, Reynolds said, “I only had myself to work with, so I ran with it.”

For Reynolds, diving into personal expression wasn’t consciously about grappling with the isolation of 2020. But it certainly helped. “It wasn’t intentional,” she said, “but once I started it, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what I need to help process all this.’”

The onetime pastels painter applied for Open Studios only after goading from a friend. She jumped in, she said, in an effort to seek out some connections in the arts community, and to build confidence in her work. “I do find that I’m almost always the youngest in [artist gatherings]. I mean, everyone has had to deal with imposter syndrome occasionally, but my generation, growing up on social media and dealing with imposter syndrome in so many ways, there’s just not a lot of confidence there. But I do find it really refreshing to be able to learn from the artists who have been doing this for years ahead of me.”

Jewelry artist Katelyn Byrne (250) has been to Open Studios in the past as a visitor, and has applied to be on the tour in the past, but 2021 is also her first year as a participating artist. Byrne has been doing a lot of electroforming, a metal fabrication process often used in the electronics and automotive industries.

Byrne, 30, said that there is a robust cohort of local artists in the under-40 generation: “There’s lots of young artists, but they’re just not as plugged into the mainstream, or the institutional where there’s more kind of tape and ribbon you have to go through to participate. So, many of the younger artists are more DIY.”

Photographer Emily Reynolds
“I use a lot of self-portraiture, and it all kind of sprung from my COVID experience,” photographer Emily Reynolds says, “allowing me to dig deeper into fear and isolation and the dark emotions that come out of dark times.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Painter Jessica Pidcock (134) applied to be part of Open Studios in 2020, and now finally has her chance to showcase her watercolors and acrylics, much of which is focused on marine life. Pidcock, 31, said having high expectations for Open Studios is “a recipe for disaster,” but she’s hoping to establish some relationships within the community of artists and arts supporters. Many such relationships are already established, only not so much in the flesh.

“I’m excited to maybe see in person some of the people I’ve connected with over the last year and a half virtually,” she said. “I’ve been painting virtually, and teaching virtually and then connecting with other artists virtually, but having staying isolated, obviously. So I’m excited to actually, like, see these people in the real world finally after a year and a half.”

Another artist participating for the first time on the tour is photographer Danny Jay (295), who uses tools and techniques that many in his generation might view as antique. Jay, 29, is most comfortable in the arena of analog photography: film, darkroom development, making prints from negatives.

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“When I was a kid, digital photography was just beginning to take off,” said Jay, who’ll be showing his work at his workspace on Coast Road between Santa Cruz and Davenport. “But my parents and grandparents tended to focus on using analogue, like point-and-shoot cameras. So, after my grandpa’s passing, I was given one of his old cameras, and I just kind of stuck with that.”

Jay will be sharing a space with printmaker Bridget Henry and ceramicist Beth Sherman, both older artists with much more standing in the local arts scene. “I know a lot of people will be coming onto the property to view their stuff and end up just getting dragged into mine, but I’ll take it.”

For details on Open Studios 2021, go here.