How plumbing and art intersect at POTTS

  • Photo courtesy of Brica Wilcox.

  • Photo courtesy of Brica Wilcox.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

On the western end of Valley Boulevard in Alhambra stands what was once Potts Plumbing Parts. Though the sign out front still reads the same, the space is now occupied by POTTS, a contemporary art gallery.

A family-run plumbing supply store for 76 years, its role changed when brothers Joe, Rick and Tom Potts rented it to a group of friends — Olivian Cha, Eli Diner, Laeh Glenn, Sean Kennedy, Asha Schechter and Jackie Tarquinio Kennedy — in late 2016 to open POTTS.

Kennedy and the other gallery owners are conscious of the space’s history and wanted it to inform the gallery’s identity, both through the name and the iconography used.

“It’s partially kind of ready-made [a style of art using manufactured objects] but then it’s also kind of an homage to them [the Potts family business] in a way,” Kennedy said. “The signage out front with Potts Plumbing Parts spelled out in plumbing parts, that was something that we knew we wanted to keep. Then we just thought it made sense to call it Potts.”

The Potts brothers owned the family business until they closed it in June 2015. Joe Potts worked in the store for more than 35 years, and was the only Potts remaining there during its last 10 years. When it closed, Joe, who is also an artist with a Master of Fine Arts degree from Otis College of Art and Design, planned to use the back room as his studio. He had no plans for the rest of the building, calling it “excess space.”

Today, the gallery occupies the front of the building, while Joe and Rick Potts use the back room as their studio. Kennedy detailed how the gallery founders, in an early project, connected the building’s identity to the role of plumbing in art.

“When we were trying to figure out what POTTS was going to be, we just kind of took the history of the space as our point of departure. Then we started thinking about the fact that it was a plumbing store that was run by artists and what significance plumbing has had in art, particularly in relation to modernism.”

Kennedy and the rest of the team began researching the history of plumbing in art, compiling lists and images of artworks.

“The most notable of [the works] is probably [Marcel] Duchamp’s ‘Fountain,’ which was the urinal that he exhibited in 1917,” Kennedy said “We realized that was exactly 100 years before we were opening our space in 2017, so we decided OK, let’s do this 100 years of plumbing related artwork chronology as a PDF file and that will be our introduction to the space.”

While the plumbing theme doesn’t usually influence the actual art exhibited, Kennedy said it exists as an “undercurrent” that some artists choose to “tap into.”

Passersby welcome

Along with acknowledging the building’s past, the collective also tries to engage with its Alhambra community. According to Kennedy, pedestrians, people driving by and employees from local businesses have been curious and have stopped by.

“The people across the street from Burgers and More have had an interesting time looking in,” Kennedy said, “As have people from the auto tint shop and the doctor next door. I think everyone knew this place as a plumbing parts store. I don’t think they could help but notice that something changed.”

Other members of the community are still unaware of the space’s new role. Kennedy said that people occasionally come in looking for specialized plumbing parts. Former customer Robert Delacruz assumed that the parts store was left dormant, and expressed a lack of interest in the morphed space and contemporary art in general. Allen Lee, an employee at the nearby Fortune Auto, said he had “no impression of [POTTS].”

“Every once in a while I see people come in and then leave, but we [the neighbors] are just trying to mind our own business.” Lee said.

Despite the confusion, the gallery’s co-directors have made efforts to attract a wide variety of Alhambra residents.

“We don’t consider this just to be a neutral context,” Kennedy said. “We try to be as welcoming as possible to the local community here too. I’ve reached out to a couple of the high schools in the area to try and schedule tours with the students, though surprisingly none of them ever replied.”

The space is often used to host free public performances, lectures and other gatherings. Kennedy and Schechter, another founding member, agree that visiting a gallery can be intimidating, but they say they try to provide a positive experience for passersby who are first-time visitors.

“The main thing is the space kind of lends itself to being a little bit more welcoming than some galleries because it’s so open,” Kennedy said. “I like it and I think other people do too when people we don’t know come by, especially if it’s people who aren’t really accustomed to going into an art gallery. It’s interesting for us when people can have a new experience here.”

The gallery also seeks to connect with the community and be a good neighbor by using its exhibition newsletters, put together by Schechter, to attract people to other local places.

“Every newsletter is really just us and the people around us writing about the San Gabriel Valley and our perspective on it,” Schechter said. “We wrote about a convenience store with all these fruit trees in the parking lot, we [wrote about] a nautical decor shop… to show that this neighborhood has all of these interesting kinds of businesses.”

Not your average commercial art gallery

The gallery’s directors share the responsibility and expenses of running the space. They each attract people from their respective art communities to Alhambra. Kennedy and Schecter referred to the space a “destination gallery,” located far from a more concentrated gallery district.

“We’re on the east side of Los Angeles,” Kennedy said. “A lot of artists live around this area, but a lot of commercial galleries that are actually in the business of selling art position themselves closer to collectors who often tend to be on the west side. We don’t get a whole lot of collectors in here.”

The collective members finance POTTS out of pocket, not through art sales. Although the gallery does sell art, the directors don’t put much emphasis on doing so in an effort to cultivate an “alternative” or “artist-run” space. They hope to offer a niche that differs from more commercially oriented galleries by displaying art that wouldn’t commonly get such exposure.

“Sometimes it’s showing artists who are a little bit older and have been working for years, but they’ve sort of fallen off people’s radar,” Kennedy said. “ We want to give them a space and introduce their work to a new audience. Sometimes it’s our peers; we give them an opportunity to have a show here.”

Joe Potts said that he and his brothers are “flattered” to be associated with the gallery. Calling it a “model for how vacant space can serve the community and revitalize the neighborhood.” Kennedy said that they may even do a show of the brothers’ artwork in the future.

POTTS is located at 2130 Valley Boulevard in Alhambra and is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. The current exhibition, “Raul Guerrero: An Abbreviated History of The Americas” runs from July 8 to Sept. 16.

Bastian Mendez is an Alhambra Source summer intern and a graduate of San Gabriel High School. He will attend Cal State LA in the fall.

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