“We’re Not New Here” Crenshaw Dairy Mart on Art, History, and Community in Inglewood
Things are growing at Crenshaw Dairy Mart. When we spoke with two of its three founders, alexandre dorriz and noé olivas, they had been gardening and building some new work benches at the space and the sunflowers were blooming. There’s new growth happening all over and around the Mart, located in Inglewood in Los Angeles. It is a gallery, community space, and shared studio space for artists.
noé and alexandre, alongside their other co-founder Patrisse Cullors, built Crenshaw Dairy Mart with a radical lens. It is “dedicated to shifting the trauma-induced conditions of poverty and economic injustice, bridging cultural work and advocacy, and investigating ancestries through the lens of Inglewood and its community…. The Crenshaw Dairy Mart emerges from an investment in abolition, modes of accessibility in art practice, and weaving community solidarity through new memories.”
Their work to make the Mart more physically and environmentally beautiful and healing through gardening dovetails with their focus on ease, joy, and a true dedication to the physical location where you find yourself. As noé put it, “We want to make the space feel good. Putting greenery, it's an element of care to our community. Spaces that shade some people, whoever is like walking down the street, whatever, they could sit down and rest. Plants are healing. And that's what our space is about.”
alexandre and noé shared what it means for an art space to be a space of abolition, how they engage with their community, and where they locate themselves in a longer history of art and community spaces in Los Angeles.
Can you tell me a little bit about the origin story for Dairy Mart?
It all goes back to art school. That's where we met at USC, where all of us were doing our MFAs. And alex and Patrisse right away hit it off the bat. You know, like best friends, BFFs. In the beginning, they had this conversation about abolition work and freeing the land. And what would it look like to purchase a plot of land. And they were originally looking at Antelope Valley. [noé] was like, “Hey, what are you working on? How can I support? How can I be part of this team? [He] wanted to learn what abolition work is and what it means when you add abolition with the arts and healing. And those are like three main points over the years we brought to the Mart.
As we were talking and sitting, Patrisse gave us a call. "Hey, Ms. Carla, (which is her kids' caretaker, a preschool caretaker) is trying to open up a spot in Inglewood. And she invited me to be part of it because there were two sections." There is one section that they were gonna convert into a preschool. And the other one was actually the Crenshaw Dairy Mart.
She invited us to take over the other spot, to collaborate. So we went there. We kind of sat in the space. We didn't really do much in it. We kind of just sat there and talked ideas. We brought some friends over, you know, like, what do you think? I remember actually one of the first people that we brought was Oto [Oto-Abasi Attah]. He's actually from Inglewood. It’s really important for us to have someone from the community just to incubate in the space and imagine what this space can look like.
And we sat on the space for about like two years and kind of feeling it out, you know, really doing our job as far as sort of saying hello to our neighbors, cleaning up the space, you know, small, little things like that that are actually big gestures now that I'm kind of starting to realize.
And unfortunately, the city of Inglewood has a lot of regulations and Ms. Carla wasn't able to open up her spot. And she kind of invited us to take over the lease. That was perfect for us, because we were just exiting grad school. We converted the space into the studios and then the other space, the Dairy Mart space too. So then, we went to work. We were able to build out our studios then we were able to bring two other members of our cohort at USC into the space. We started to get program ideas for the space and making sure that we have our rubric of engagement. And we got invited by For Freedoms to do the inaugurating, the opening.
And that was like a couple weeks before the pandemic really hit. So alex really likes to say we were birthed out of the pandemic, which was great. It's great in the sense that we really had to work quickly. We kind of went with the rhythm and tried to work with it and tried to figure out how can we support artists during this time.
What's the rubric of engagement?
We needed a rubric of engagement that establishes a precedence of expectations, accountability upon one another. We're going into a relationship, a collaborative relationship, not just a contract. When you enter the premises, what are the expectations that you have with one another? Like, how are we going to love up on one another? Obviously, like the five of us that are here in the studio the most from USC, we had the precedence of how we want to ensure safety, lessen harm. All these things to establish a safe environment.
[For] the whole rubric of engagement we actually brought on Mark-Anthony Johnson. He helps out with Dignity and Power Now and Justice L.A. This rubric of engagement is kind of like in collaboration with our sister orgs.
As far as how do we go about running an abolition space, and especially thinking about defunding the police? Like, there's no way we're gonna call police. We can handle the situation.
I'm really curious about how the abolitionist framework shows up for you. Both in terms of how you deal with one another and also how you deal with the wider community, whether it's like the wider art world or like your communities in L.A. and Inglewood.
It's the realest shit. In a very obvious way, it's like one of the things that we've been working on since being birthed from the pandemic. Our inaugural exhibition was focusing on exactly that, on the Yes on R Ballot measure, which was there to [show] alternatives to incarceration and which passed. [The exhibition] opened the weekend before Super Tuesday. Autumn Breon Williams and myself [alexandre] curated that exhibition. She's a curator that grew up right here in Inglewood as well.
Then to follow up, right in the pandemic, we set up a relief fund. Eight of the artists that we were able to give relief funds for were incarcerated artists. So it's like in many ways like abolition as a framework in a very little way. And the way it relates to the carceral state. In the way we implemented our daily practices and how we move through space, it's, you know, implementing community accountability, check-ins.
That's really how we kind of ensure that practice is kind of emanating outward and inward here.
It's in our interpersonal relations that [an abolitionist framework] is really tested; where conflict is really challenging. So are there particular strategies that you use when conflicts come up?
One thing that we are really open about is accountability, trust. And always kind of like leaning in with love, and that's something that Patrisse mentioned in one of her poems, “Defund the police so that we can lead with love.”
It's just like a constant practice. We're human and we have flaws. It's really about accountability of making sure that we show up for each other and for others. And it's a really hard thing.
Tich Naht Hahn has his book called “No Mud No Lotus.” He has this metaphor of life in the mud and the lotus. The mud is like the struggling part, really doing the work and healing isn't always pretty. It is a struggle and like it's like how do you embrace that struggle and turn it into something you can blossom? And then knowing when you blossom is like, how do you help others blossom?
It's hard to answer that question because it's very process-based and it's always kind of like a thing that we have to practice every day with even small situations with our neighbors. Or even like how do we even respond during the uprisings? How can we as an art space be part of the movement?
There are difficult moments, you know, especially working with collaborators. Everyone has an idea, you know, too many chefs in the kitchen is like, how do you do this but also educate each other about, like, abolition work? That's part of the framework, this kind of... going with it. Then things are not perfect, but you definitely learn something from that.
That's part of the rules of engagement. It's a learning process and being open to that process and really embracing it.
I want to talk a little bit about something that you talk a lot about on your website, which is related to creating new memories and new ways of thinking about history. So I want to know a little bit more about what this looks like for you guys and why it matters to you.
One of the first things we did as we were getting ourselves situated and speaking with our neighbors. We just asked what did South Central Los Angeles look like? What was the climate of artists? Like what did it look like historically? What is the history of artists in this space? The proliferation of artists in that space was really during the Black Arts Movement. You know, you're looking from the 60s, 80s, 90s and everything.
We just started looking through archives like the Brockman Gallery. Dale Brockman Davis and his brother Alonzo. Like looking at their archives at the L.A. Public Library and being all right, 1967 to 1990. The Museum of African American Art on the third floor of Macy's right now. William Grant Still [Art Center], St Elmo Village which is just celebrating 50 years. It's like looking at these frameworks, how they existed, how they showed up for the community. And how we can use them as models. That's just one thing that we've been looking at and massaging out. We're not new here. You know what I mean? There's been a lot of artists and galleries here. How do we fulfill the imaginations of that legacy? How do we continue that conversation?
We've been archiving. We've been looking when we got here and looking at when this property was built.
One of the things that we looked at was when the building was built. It was built in 1965 and the certificate of occupancy was handed to the first owners the day after the Watts uprising. So that blew our minds. The building was made exactly a hundred years after Juneteenth 1865. So it's 1865 and 1965.The BLM sign called Lighting Up the Skies was inaugurated on Juneteenth this year. Just thinking of those kinds of...clockwork, like, sort of a timeline.
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On Friday, Juneteenth, June 19, 2020, at 8:46pm we inaugurated our new project, "Lighting Up The Sky" Welcome to our little playground. Special thanks to our beautiful team hard at work day to night making this a reality noé olivas @calmatetupedo , our co-founder, had envisioned the first days we entered the Mart. Production led by @treborden of Tre Borden /Co. with funds for the project donated by Azzie Youssefi, co-founder of the Ali Youssefi Project @aliyoussefiproject . Lead Artist, noé olivas @calmatetupedo , Co-founder of Crenshaw Dairy Mart Lead Creative, Patrisse Cullors @osopepatrisse , Co-founder of Crenshaw Dairy Mart Engineering and Technical Consulting by DeSchzunell Catlin @ur_regular_everyday , Founder of Engineering with Purpose; with engineering and fabrication support from Pablo Mendoza @whenthemusicfades , Co-Founder of Engineering with Purpose. Design engineer Darren Aguilar @bgdaglr of Engineering with Purpose. Creative Consulting was provided by Phil America @philamerica . Fabrication assistance provided by Jake Freilich @jakefreilich and Dulce Ibarra Soledad @contemporaryfart . Additional fabrication support provided by Ana Briz @anaextina and additional painting support provided by iris yirei hu @iristheempress and David Bell @visitorwelcomecenter @manzanitachange_ . Research and writing provided by alexandre dorriz @alexandredorriz , Co-founder of Crenshaw Dairy Mart Photo by @fraudfix
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So artists have been there for a while! And I think that reclaiming that history and that lineage is important because these kinds of spaces can be used by real estate in really bad ways. How do you think about how spaces like yours can have this radical orientation and can resist some of these effects of gentrification?
We spent some time identifying what are the agents of displacement and gentrification in this community. We had to pinpoint that this is sports- and stadium-driven gentrification and displacement.
There's a massive new stadium that's being built two blocks away from us, a Rams stadium. It's like an entire city of itself. There's a history of displacement and gentrification that's led by sports stadiums in Los Angeles. You know, you have the Dodger Stadium. You have the original Forum in Inglewood. You have a Staples Center. You have these waves of stadiums that have been built. The Staples Center changed downtown Los Angeles. So many people were displaced because of the Dodger Stadium.
The language that we've been using and [is about] trying to ensure all of our programming, everything that we're doing is with the precedence that this is a cultural retainer. There's cultural retention and this is Inglewood's retainer. Everything that's happening is for the benefit and for the community of Inglewood. And everything that we're doing is within the conversation of Inglewood and the way that triangulates outward. We've been looking at not importing greater Los Angeles culture into Inglewood, but making sure that Inglewood artists, Inglewood cultural makers that have been neglected or like have historically not been recognized are emanating outward. Emanating outward into the greater Los Angeles.
We got invited to be part of this space, too. Ms. Carla invited us to this area. That invitation, you know, is something, too. Like, it's really welcoming. And also, doing that work of getting our neighbors to trust us whether it's being in connection [or] in relationship. And just having these open conversations with each other.
Going back to that quote of Patrisse's, lead with love to defund the police is something that we take to heart on every project that we do with that care and that love. [Our] advice would be like don't go into a neighborhood knowing that it's a predominantly Black and brown neighborhood if you don't want to deal with these types of politics. You know, it's like we're in it. We're really in it, we're really invested and that's the thing.
And at the same time here at the Mart, my [noé’s] role is the maintenance guy. I clean up stuff outside. If there's, like, shit in front of our building, I'll clean it. I just want to make this pretty for my neighbors.
That connects to the gardening, too, right?
Yeah, it really, really does. I [noé] get to touch nature every day. Like, that's something special, you know? Being in touch with Mother Nature is everything. Being in touch with Mother Nature is also healing. And if we can bring that to this space where it's just like all blacktop, and where we can make it so people walking on the street can sit down? And also just thinking about how we're actually underneath the flight path...that's obviously air pollution. So using the plants to actually clear up the space and have more air that's actually breathable. It's always nice to see the hummingbirds and the butterflies cruise through too. It's all of that.
That's the teaching of care, going back to the soil and making things. That's one of the things that I see happening. We just planted some sunflowers and now they're all sprouting. And it's kind of nice to see it. And also kind of like also kind of align ourselves with that type of cycle, whether it's like a plant or the moon. I remember putting in the seeds [at] the beginning of the BLM project. And, you know, it's just like, oh, wow, there's flowers here. That garden metaphor really fits in what we're doing.
Sunflowers blooming at Crenshaw Dairy Mart
You mentioned a number of partnerships that you have with neighbors and artists. I'm wondering if there's any kind of guiding principles that you think about when you're thinking about forming collaborations. What are you looking for and how do you build ones that are going to be the most kind of like generative and healthy?
The model that we've kind of been going forward with is anyone that comes into the space and offers an idea, we definitely always have a listening session. We're always open to listening to their ideas and what they're bringing to the table. And how do they see themselves collaborating with us and why do they want to collaborate with us.
The listening model has been really great because it's also not necessarily a pressure where we have to make its decision now. More and more we're learning to process things. We take our time. We have this listening session and then we can go to make sure what we heard is right. [And then we ask ourselves] “what do you think? Is this good on your end? This is good on your end? Does this follow our rules of engagement?”
For the most part, we are Inglewood-focused. Like, that's kind of like our main thing; really supporting our neighbors in that way other than the local artists and curators and things like that. So that's the model. If it's Inglewood? Yeah, let's go for this. Let's figure out how we can make this work out.
And we've had to say no to some institutions because it doesn't necessarily follow what we believe in.
Walk me through a little bit about what fall is looking like for you or even the rest of 2020.
That goes back to us responding to each little thing. Listening and responding right now. We do these bursts of moving slow and moving fast. But [we] don't really know. Like we know and then we don't. [We’re] just gonna say things are fluid. [We’re] very flexible and kind of like just listening.
We have our main projects that we have here at the Mart. More greens, we want more murals, things like that. But it's also kind of like we are really feeling it out.
[We’re] looking forward to working with the artists that we're going to be working with the next couple weeks. It's like show me your portfolio. How can [we] support? How can I go back to the core group? How can we create a budget for this? One of the artists that we're always constantly supporting is Oto. And then now, you know, hopefully we get more artists from the neighborhood.
And here is also a stipend for your work. That's the biggest thing. For us, establishing that as one of our rules of engagement as like we've got to pay artists what they're worth. And now on top of that shit, like, you know, I'm going to be the assistant. I'm going to be right there, right next to you. Need me to scrape the wall? We'll scrape the wall. We'll take care of that shit.
Something will come and it will flourish.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.