During the three hours on Sunday I sit at the Magoski Arts Colony in Fullerton, more than 200 people show up to deliver their art, all of it on 5-inch-by-5-inch wooden blocks. Paintings, collages, mixed media, photography, carvings, pyrography, drawings and sculptures all make an appearance, each piece being donated to “Small But Mighty,” an art-show fundraiser for Fullerton artist/activist Valerie Lewis. A gifted painter and teacher who routinely donated her own work for causes as diversified as gay rights and homelessness, she’s fighting breast and bone cancers, and her friends and admirers throughout Orange County are looking to surround her with love and support as she undergoes chemotherapy. A favorite here at OC Weekly, we’ve covered several of her shows over the years and chose her as Best Visual Artist for our 2014 Best Of issue.
The blocks are $75 each, available for purchase beginning Friday at 6 p.m. (Full disclosure: I’ve donated a piece myself, bringing along artists Bryan Jennings, Evalynn Alu, Cordelia Boyd and Robin Temaiana Repp for the ride, so this isn’t just some puff piece aimed at making you feel good about someone’s suffering. It’s personal.)
Two of the artists donating are Alexandria Kinney and her boyfriend, Carlos Jimenez. As the young couple hand in their blocks, a finely painted rose and a Day of the Dead skull, Kinney tells me she’s an art student of Lewis’ and she’s known her since she was 5. Valerie always complimented her flowers. “It’s her favorite thing when I paint,” she says.
Jimenez is honoring his heritage and its annual celebration of life and death. “We just want to do anything we can,” he says.
It was Nancy Johnson and her husband, Tim, who came up with the idea while brainstorming with friends Jesse LaTour, Charlie Arnold and Paul Sargeant. “Not a pity party,” Arnold says, “but a productive event. . . . We didn’t want it to be big.”
“But it got big,” adds Nancy.
“You take care of family,” Arnold says.
The Johnsons had previously curated an art exhibition with 4-inch-by-4-inch blocks and thought their clean aesthetic and neat unity might work. The team agreed. Tim asked a childhood friend, Jeff Tustin, of Talbert Architectural Panels and Doors in Brea, if he could help out, and the company donated the wood, cut them to size and sanded them.
“This is an easy help,” says Jeff’s wife, Rachel. A librarian at Anaheim Public Library, she’s also a friend of Nancy’s and volunteered to help take in the blocks. “Supporting my friend supporting my friend’s friend—an opportunity to do something for the greater good. It’s not just about Valerie.”
Echoing Rachel, Sarah Spero, a fourth-grade teacher in Fullerton, adds, “I grieve with Nancy when she grieves. She needed my help today, so I just came. . . . Being here is a way to support not just Valerie, but all of the women I know who have fought cancer. It’s about loving one another.”
People want to sneak past and look at the long tables quickly filling up with art. Nancy initially says “yes,” but it soon becomes too crowded, so she starts saying “no”—and feels guilty. “It’s like herding cats,” she says and laughs.
Nancy moves aside to let Lewis’ boyfriend, Steve Cordero, into the back area. He spends a considerable amount of time studying the hundreds of art pieces being donated for his girlfriend. We talk about her progress, the emotional state that arrives as a companion to illness and invasive treatment, his appreciation for what people have done, the exhaustion that comes from caretaking a loved one, and the salvation of Obamacare for sick people with limited funds.
The following day, all of the artists in the Colony have taken down the work in their individual spaces, devoting the walls to Valerie’s fundraiser. Tustin uses his skills as a carpenter and craftsman to make sure the nails are even, and another group hangs the blocks. The brains behind the Colony, Candace and Michael Magoski, aren’t taking a percentage from the work—a rare thing among gallery owners—so every penny made from the show goes directly to Lewis. As friends and collectors of her work, they’ve been exceedingly generous, donating pieces, helping with posters and postcards, even spending a late night deciphering the sloppy handwriting of artists to make sure artwork-label details are accurate.
“We all have a stake in it,” says Tim a couple of days later. “It’s heartening to see that people care and that they’re coming together to support somebody. This is what makes America great, doing this kind of shit for others.”
“Small But Mighty” Fundraiser for Valerie Lewis at Magoski Arts Colony, 223 W. Santa Fe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 441-1504; www.magoskiartscolony.com. Opens Fri., 6-10 p.m. Call for hours. Through Dec. 1. Free, but we hope you’ll purchase a piece of art in support.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.