By Jess Winans
Erik Benson has a vision. He wants to make Hillcrest pop.
As the newly launched Hillcrest Town Council Arts Committee chair, he intends to “work hand in hand with every other committee, association or activist in Hillcrest to create an ArtWalk-like festival” for artists in the neighborhood.
“We would allow LGBTQ+ artists and allies alike to present their artwork within multiple days,” he continued. “I want to incorporate every local bar and business here, too, so it’s not only the art strip on Normal Street. I want it to be an art pub crawl as well or just include everybody as a town so that it brings income, creativity and hope.”
Benson’s Hillcrest art career began in 2014. After living in California for an internship while he was in college, Benson decided to move to the area permanently to be an event planner.
“I had a job at Stone Brewing where I interned as an event planner and did events, birthday parties, weddings, business dinners and stuff like that,” he said. “From there, I went to work in the nightlife scene here in Hillcrest.”
Benson — who referred to himself as “kind of a secret artist” at the time — hit the ground running in Hillcrest, hosting art nights at #1 Fifth Avenue, which he still does. His first show featured 25 of his own paintings; he sold all but three of them that night.
Benson continued trying to plan the art nights but was unable to keep them operating. He didn’t have the connections needed for the concept to thrive in the Hillcrest area and ended up moving to North County, where he worked as a wedding planner for nine months.
Benson said that after 126 weddings, he felt he had hit his glass ceiling of his wedding-planning career. His decreased passion combined with his yearning for Hillcrest prompted him to take a leap of faith and move back.
“I missed Hillcrest when I left — this is my home … I love everything about this town, even the crosswalk sounds at night,” he said. “When I moved [back to Hillcrest], I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I came back with no apartment and no plan.”
Benson doesn’t remember much from the two weeks he spent homeless, mostly wandering around town from place to place on foot, but also sleeping on the streets for four days. His experience with homelessness makes him sympathetic to the financial struggles of others, particularly artists. He provides materials to these individuals to sell their work for alongside his nonprofit B2 Creative Productions.
“I refuse to charge [artists] for their commissions for the art shows that [B2 Creative Productions] have because I’ve been there,” he said. “I’ve been in situations where money is tight. This [art show] may be the opportunity that changes someone’s life when they get recognized by a certain someone or realize that they have the potential. If I can put a smile on somebody’s face, I appreciate that smile that much more because I remember that feeling.”
Benson said he hopes to bring his expertise in wedding planning and experience in the Hillcrest arts community to help add more color to the streets of Hillcrest, alongside other artists and community members. The HTC’s new arts committee comes during a bloom of arts in Hillcrest. Case in point: The Studio Door recently took over the vacant American Apparel retail space on Fourth Avenue and will be opening on Feb. 1.
The Studio Door, owned and operated by Patric Stillman, is an art center and studio space that hosts art classes, business classes and special events.
Back in July of this year, the gallery had to shut its doors in North Park after its landlord raised its monthly rent from $2,000 to $9,000.
“I was looking all over from La Mesa to Imperial Valley to North County and I just wasn’t finding the right spot for the new location,” Stillman said. “I was starting to feel disappointed that I couldn’t get anything happening. My partner encouraged me to go out one more time to places like [the American Apparel shop] that had been vacant for a long time and try to make a clear negotiation. I found somebody who was arts-sympathetic. This is a family-owned building and they were excited to have me take over the space.”
The space will feature a gallery, museum store and will host classes for not only artists, but art patrons on how to acquire art and support artists in the community.
—Reach Jess Winans at firstname.lastname@example.org.