By Joyell Nevins
Local entrepreneur brings kindred spirits together
The “dreamcatcher girl” has finally caught her own dream; local artist and businesswoman Aimee Baca went from selling her dreamcatcher art on the streets of Santa Cruz to starting her own art marketplace here in San Diego.
From its humble beginnings — seven artists and less than 20 customers a day in 2015 — Creative Crossroads, located at the northeast corner of University and Fifth avenues, now hosts 50 artists and brings in up to 200 customers a day.
“We’re becoming a community presence and a family of artists,” Baca said.
The vision for Creative Crossroads began just after Baca graduated college. While attending University of California Santa Cruz for studio arts and visual culture, Baca fell in love with the art of printmaking and found her niche in ink transfers on wood.
Once a 2015 graduate, she wanted a way to continue printmaking and make an income as well.
“I was 22 years old; I wanted to do art, but I wanted to pay the rent, too,” she said.
Baca scoured festivals, farmers markets and the online marketplace called Etsy, searching for like-minded artistic souls, and eventually invited 20 different artists to join her in a storefront retail operation.
Though some may have been put off by her age, her gender, or her style, six of those artists took a chance — two of them are still with her today. Baca handles the management of the two-story property, and the artists pay booth rent and design their own small space within the collective.
Although Baca still keeps an eye on Etsy when booths open up, several of the artists in the marketplace have come to her — sometimes literally walking in off of the street. Baca’s main requirement is that the participating designer or artist live within San Diego County, and have a passion for what they do.
“I look for art that’s a little bit scandalous or unique,” Baca explained. “And for people who do this because they love it.”
She also tries to highlight the work of LBGTQ artists, but those who stop by to browse will find that the art featured at Creative Crossroads runs the gamut of both mediums and styles. On any given day, a customer might find printed art, paintings, pottery, greeting cards, accessories, clothing, soaps, upcycled jewelry frames, doggie leash holders, and even lamps made out of antique cameras.
Those looking for a more personal gift this holiday season will definitely find them here.
Welcome to Hillcrest
Although finding a building and the artists to fill it was initially quite a conundrum, there was never a question of where Baca would locate the marketplace.
“I’ve been obsessed with Hillcrest since I was a kid, taking the 11 [bus] from Skyline to check out the neighborhood,” Baca said. “The community, the culture, the vibe. It was so exciting, so scandalous and mysterious. I just thought it was so cool, even before I knew I was gay.”
Baca said she never really “came out” — it was more of a natural process; she went into college identifying as straight and left identifying as something else. While labels are not her preference, Baca said she has chosen to identify with the term “lesbian,” one that is not always popular in her Filipino and Chinese heritages.
She said over the years her cultures have become more accepting for men to be gay, but for women, “homosexuality” is still seen as more of a “rebellious thing.”
“Why can’t I be as gay as a gay man?” Baca mused, adding that a lot of her art comes from that conflicted place and exploring that side of herself. She calls it a paradox of “beautiful but scandalous, shameful but proud.”
So Baca has created a safe, encouraging and explorative space in Creative Crossroads. She credits Eddie Reynoso of the San Diego LGBT Visitors Center, also located within Creative, for mentorship in the business and social media side of the store.
“Aimee has always been a shy and timid person and as the challenges of owning a small business have popped up on her journey, she’s been open to my sometimes not so gentle nudges to show her how those are just opportunities for growth under another name,” Reynoso said. “A year ago, when cash flow was more of a challenge, we were able to sit down and come up with a plan to maximize floor space. Today that’s one of the store’s biggest assets; we went from a being small artist community of about 30 artists to well over 50, plus several more on consignment only.
“As an artist myself, I thrive on creativity and the more I’m surrounded by it, the more I thrive,” Reynoso continued. “Naturally, having a packed store has been beneficial for both of our bottom lines, but it also inspires us and hundreds of other artists who come in and see the creativity of our peers.”
One of their favorite ways to promote the business is their “Meet the Artists” nights, which not only attract a large crowd in the store all at once, but give the artists a chance to experience “the why behind their what.”
She sees these nights as empowering for her artist clients, helping to cast aside any doubts and encouraging them to keep at their craft.
“Hearing what their art means to someone else – those are the moments when they realize it’s worth it,” she said.
Baca had her own moment the first time she saw someone stop, see and then walk out with one of her art pieces.
“Something I created mattered to them,” she said. “That’s what made it worth it to me.”
“At a time when chain stores and small businesses around the nation are disappearing under the pressure from online competition, little by little, we continue to grow,” Reynoso said. “Shoppers are becoming more aware of the ‘shop local’ movement and as more people have become aware of Creative Crossroads, they have fallen in love with the stores unique, one-of-a-kind handcrafted gifts.”
Has the “creative crossroad” always been easy for the young entrepreneur? Not even close. Are there days when Baca herself just wants to throw in the towel? Of course. Above all, she knows she has found her life’s purpose and refuses to give up. She loves what she does and the opportunity to encourage others while doing it.
Her advice to those daring to put their toes in the deep water of their dreams?
“Do it — even if it’s scary,” she said.
Creative Crossroads is located at 502 University Ave., just steps from the Hillcrest sign. To learn more, call 800-685-2513 or follow them on Facebook.com/creativecrossroads.
— Editor Morgan M. Hurley contributed to this report.