‘Such a beautiful place’: Liberty Station’s Barracks 19 fulfills new mission as a home for art
The wish list of most working artists includes good lighting, a workable studio and plenty of inspiration.
Those wishes and more have been granted to more than a dozen artists with studios in Barracks 19 at Point Loma’s Liberty Station commercial and cultural center.
Anne Gaffey, one of those artists, has high praise for the location, one of a dozen buildings that once housed recruits at the former Naval Training Center.
“I love the studio. The light is great and it’s a very inspiring place to create art,” she said. “But just being with other artists, talking and sharing your thoughts and ideas — those kinds of conversations are so nice to be able to have.”
But there’s at least one more item on the wish list of many of the artists — more visitors to their studios.
“We want to build awareness in the community that we have artists’ studios upstairs,” Gaffey said. “People are so surprised when they come up the stairs and see the spaces.”
Many guests don’t realize that the upstairs studios enable the artists to showcase and sell their work.
“The walls are covered with artwork,” Gaffey said. “And there are plenty of opportunities for selfies.” She added that much of the artwork has QR codes for those who want more information.
Gaffey describes herself as a sixth-generation Californian. She left the state in 2001 to raise her family on the East Coast, but she moved back in 2020.
“My work is whimsical, vibrant and happy. I paint with intention from a dream, a memory, a conversation, a feeling, an open heart,” she said. “Through my use of color and design, I hope to inspire happiness, lightness and uplift your spirit.”
An artist for more than 25 years, she uses acrylic, oil, oil pastel, cold wax, collage, charcoal, pencils, mosaic and more to create her multimedia works.
One of the first things she did on arriving back in California was secure a studio in Barracks 19.
The old barracks buildings are under the care of the nonprofit NTC Foundation. Its executive director, Alan Ziter, said William Kettner, a congressman in the early 1900s, is credited with establishing the Naval Training Center, as well as several other Navy bases in San Diego.
Congress authorized the Naval Training Center in 1919. Construction began in 1921 and the base was commissioned in 1923.
The commission to build the base began around the time of the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park, “and you can see the influence of the Spanish Colonial Revival in the buildings,” said Ziter, referring in part to the many archways, outdoor spaces, courtyards and limited decoration of the structures.
“I’ve seen the historic buildings in various states of renovation. Now it’s such a beautiful place, clean and so well kept up,” Gaffey said. “Barracks 19 really is a destination for artists and for people who want to see art and buy art.”
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The building is another source of inspiration to many of the artists, especially when they find themselves talking with guests who have been to the barracks before — often when they were in training for the Navy.
“One gentleman said it was all open back then and said they had their beds and a restroom at each end and that was it,” she said.
Ziter confirmed the description. “Originally, each building would have had two floors with 50 beds per floor and the two bathrooms, and not much else,” he said.
He added that each concrete building is a little more than 9,000 square feet. The buildings are cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
A new purpose
The old training center was closed in 1993. The remodeling process, at a cost of $2.5 million received from grants, involved removing asbestos and other hazardous materials from the buildings, installing new electrical wiring and gas lines and constructing the new loft spaces.
Twelve of the remodeled barracks in the Arts District now boast four large downstairs spaces and 13 upstairs studios.
The buildings are fully disabled-accessible and are equipped with elevators and fire sprinklers.
As a nod to history, the barracks kept their original numbers.
“All the buildings were numbered in the order they were built, but they weren’t always built next to each other,” Ziter said. “But they were all painted the same Navy tan.”
No longer a monotone beige, the upstairs interior of Barracks 19 is full of color and art of all types.
One artist bringing color to the space is June Rubin. Her whimsical cats, florals, mandalas and Frida Kahlo portraits are often inspired by her trips to Bali and Borneo.
“I employ vivid colors in my watercolors, acrylics, mixed media and artworks with dime store sparkly ‘gems,’ Rubin said. “My work is humorous as well as sophisticated, gleaned from my experiences, dreams and travels.”
Color also features strongly in Rosa Huerta’s Mi Gallery Tu Gallery, which offers art exhibitions and workshops and Huerta’s own pieces. She plans to expand and feature work from Latino artists from all over California.
With a background in graphic design and art instruction, she said most of her work is oil on canvas, and she loves to paint by layers.
“What inspired me to create art is expressing my thoughts and feelings with an image. My background as a Latino woman is represented strongly in my work with the color and textures of my culture,” Huerta said.
Another type of color is shown in Margaret Fischbeck’s oil paintings, which she said started as a study of color as influenced by the Southern California light. From small plein air paintings to large studio canvases, her work aims to showcase much of what makes San Diego special.
“My work is based on my personal observations, but I include a few commissioned pieces every year as additional opportunities to challenge my artistic eye,” Fischbeck said.
Fischbeck is the longest tenant of Barracks 19, having been in residence since it opened for art studios.
Susan Salazar and Lisa Bryson can probably claim the longest relationship, since Salazar is Bryson’s mother. The two share a space in Barracks 19.
Salazar is a colored-pencil artist, while Bryson prefers oil painting.
Nature is the theme of much of Salazar’s work, which includes dogs and cats, livestock, wild animals, florals, human portraits and more.
Bryson’s work primarily is in in oil portraits and focuses on her quirky take on the world.
Leah Schaperow, the ceramics artist behind Milk Oolong Pottery, teaches small classes that include not only the making of ceramics but also modern and historical techniques. Her pieces include both glossy and matte finishes and colorful and muted palettes.
To help demystify the artistic process, all the artist rooms have glass doors, and additional glass windows were put in so visitors can watch the artists at work.
But working in an open studio isn’t always easy.
“There is a little bit of feeling like you’re in a zoo,” Gaffey said. “But most of the time, the doors are open. We try to make guests as comfortable as possible so they don’t feel like they’re intruding. They are usually amazed at the work we are putting out up here.”
The public is encouraged to engage with the artists, and many of the Barracks 19 tenants offer classes. One of the best-known instructors is Leon Okun, a classically trained painter who is a teacher and chairman of the Fine Arts Department at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Arts.
Okun teaches private lessons and holds online classes from his Liberty Station studio. He also takes his students to painting workshops around the world, including Mexico, Russia, Italy and France.
Other art and artists in Barracks 19 include the ballet photos and more of Patty Martinez of Canela Photography, Judy Mandel’s colorful paintings, Andrea Rushing of Andrea Rushing Fine Art, the Moroccan-inspired Bouhdy Art, Leslie Pierce of Leslie Pierce Studio/And Something Different Studio Gallery and Julie Martin of Scout Mandolin’s custom fine jewelry.
For a complete list of Barracks 19 artists offering classes and workshops, visit libertystation.com/directory/arts-district/tenants.
Most of the artists in the building join in First Fridays, when the studios are open and the public is invited upstairs the first Friday of each month to meet the artists. The free event is presented by the Arts District and often features live music and dance performances.
Visitors to the artists’ studios quickly discover that Liberty Station also offers much more to keep their interest. The center has an array of restaurants, shopping, 125 acres of parks, a boat channel, outdoor artwork, a golf club, classes and activities and more.
“The big green spaces here are just phenomenal and are scattered throughout the complex,” Gaffey said. “Families can come here to safely play, picnic and have birthday parties and walk their dogs.”
The green spaces, or parade grounds, are on the interior grounds between the rows of buildings and were used for the naval trainees to practice marching, lineups and more, Ziter said.
All the barracks buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Ziter said they will be here for generations to come.
“But as beautiful as the buildings are, what is going on inside them is even more beautiful for San Diego,” he said. “We’re bringing a former Navy building to life with a new use as artist studios.”
Barracks 19 is at 2690 Historic Decatur Road. For more information, call (619) 573-9315.
For more information on all things Liberty Station, visit libertystation.com.