Salinas art teachers build "culture of art" at monthly Artist Alley
Salinas is a city known for its agriculture. But instead of selling strawberries and lettuce, a group of artists has come together to sell their work once a month in what they’re calling a different kind of farmers market.
It’s the brainchild of two local high school art teachers who want to cultivate art in the city.
On a recent Friday evening, people gathered in an alleyway tucked between two buildings in the heart of downtown Salinas. Painted on one building is a mural of an agricultural field in the city.
Beneath it, photographers, painters and jewelry makers line the skinny passageway. Most of the artists were born and raised in the city, like Andre Fernandez.
Fernandez is one of the local art teachers who co-created the event. As he helped a young artist set up his work, he said he hopes to inspire a new generation of artists and to teach them to take their work seriously.
“It only takes that one person to kind of pick you up and show you the ropes,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said that’s how he got his start. He said he’s always loved to draw and would doodle in his notebook during high school classes.
“I kept the sketchbook like it was a diary. I didn't share it with much people,” Fernandez said.
That is, until he bumped into his old high school wrestling coach at an arts supply store in 2018.
“I didn’t know he did art. He didn’t know I was an artist either cause he’s never seen that side of me before, it was just sports,” Fernandez said.
As Fernandez and his old coach, J.J. Garcia, talked in the aisles, they realized they both love to paint comic book characters like Batman, Spiderman or Pikachu. Garcia had become an art teacher at Salinas High School.
After meeting, the two stayed in touch, and Fernandez eventually got a job as a high school art teacher, too.
During the pandemic, they rented a studio together to work and to store their art at. J.J. Garcia said using the studio inspired them to give other local artists a place to showcase their work.
So they began to invite vendors into their space, from other local art pop-ups.
“Salinas is full of talent, they just have no outlet, or nowhere to display or sell or just come together,” Garcia said.
Now, artists from throughout the city spill into the alleyway in front of that studio once a month. Fernandez and Garcia named the gathering Artist Alley.
On this Friday night, Sabino Eduardo Avalos, or Yayo, is one of the more than 50 local artists who’ve set up in the alley.
“One of our local artists called me psychedelic gamer art. So a lot of UFOs, squids, mushrooms, stuff like that,” Yayo said.
But Yayo said one of his favorite paintings is his version of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary.
“Growing up I've always been a strong believer,” Yayo said.
Yayo grew up in a devoutly Catholic family. He said as a kid he drew to pass the time, but he never believed he could turn his doodles into a career.
“When I was younger, I really wanted to get into it. But, you know, coming from a low, middle class family, I had to pay my dues a different way,” Yayo said.
Yayo said he often had to spend time isolated from doing activities while he was growing up. His parents barely let him go out because they were afraid he’d get mixed up with Salinas’ gangs.
He says over the years, his mother has always been supportive of his art, but never considered it a career. That is, until he showed her his painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe — that now hangs above her bed.
“It's the first thing she sees when she wakes up so it’s like a beautiful thing,” Yayo said.
He said connecting with other artists in Salinas has also helped him build his confidence. According to JJ Garcia, that’s exactly what the alley was meant to do.
“My goal was to have people realize we're not alone and we're building a culture of art together,” Garcia said.
Garcia said he hopes to expand Artist Alley into a larger annual event for people in the area. But for now, artists can showcase their work for free every first Friday of the month in Downtown Salinas.