‘Art ghetto’ the latest addition to local scene | SierraSun.com

‘Art ghetto’ the latest addition to local scene

Call it an art exhibition, block party or studio tour, but whatever you call it, one thing is for sure – Truckee has never witnessed an art scene like what took place last Sunday.

From 3-9 p.m., artists, friends, invited guests and members of the public lucky enough to stumble upon the scene on Riverside Drive celebrated the “official opening of the Off the Tracks artist colony,” as Luthea Thomas put it.

Thomas and her partner of seven years, George Zaffle, were concerned about the lack of a truly alternative arts scene in Truckee. Apparently, so were a lot of other people, as the most often repeated comment at last Sunday’s reception was something along the lines of “you won’t see any bears or pine cones here.”

Instead, guests had the chance to see everything from pottery to paintings, metal work to custom-made candles, all displayed within the artists’ actual studios.

Alanna Hughes, one of the visionaries of the event as well as a participating artist, estimates that more than 300 people stopped by the studios, all of which lie along the Truckee River, to celebrate what organizers hope will be the first in an ongoing series of art exhibitions.

Zaffle and Thomas are landlords for the three historic Riverside buildings that now serve as studio space for the Off the Tracks artists. They moved to Truckee in 1999, Zaffle from San Francisco and Thomas from South Africa by way of Austin, Texas.

The couple met in San Diego at a class Zaffle was teaching. “We commuted back and forth from San Francisco to Austin, and realized that wasn’t going to work for our relationship,” Zaffle said.

After ruling out living in Texas, and unable to find a house in San Francisco for a reasonable price, the couple came to Truckee in 1998 around Thanksgiving time and discovered the house that they now live in on Riverside Drive.

“One day we came down here for a walk after a snow and saw the house for sale and thought, hey, what the hell, let’s buy that and we’ll move to Truckee,” Zaffle said.

The yellow house, by the bridge over the Truckee River, needed quite a bit of work, but it was ideally suited for Zaffle and Thomas, both of whom specialize in interior design. Their company, Zaffle Painting Studios, has created a number of murals both in and on public and private buildings throughout the area, and Thomas also designs custom furniture for other interior designers in town.

Pleased to be living by the river within one of Truckee’s historic neighborhoods, Zaffle and Thomas both worried that someday the undeveloped lot next door as well as the two buildings adjacent to that lot would someday be sold and turned into some sort of ugly new commercial development.

In order to at least be notified if the owner of the properties was ever going to sell, Thomas rented a unit in one of the historic buildings next to their house along with artists Alanna Hughes and Chris Bomely.

Just over two months ago she received notice of the owner’s intent to sell the properties. “Because I was the owner’s tenant, they had to notify me of their intent to sell the property, so we were basically the first people to know it was for sale. So it never really went on the market officially. We just called them right away and said ‘Please, can we have the first option?’ and they said yes,” Thomas said.

When they became owners of the two buildings – one of which had been an old radiator shop (Troy’s Radiators) and currently is one of two top-rated historic buildings on Riverside Drive – Zaffle and Thomas, along with Hughes and Bomely, started thinking about the possibility of turning the area into a kind of “art ghetto” along the river. They wanted to make studio space available to artists who had mostly been working out of bedrooms and garages until that point.

Currently, seven artists rent working space from Zaffle and Thomas including two painters, a sculptor, a tattoo artist, a candle maker, a metal worker and a ceramic artist. All seven of them opened their studios to visitors for the Off the Tracks exhibition on Sunday, with a number of guest artists also displaying their work.

“A lot of these artists used to work out of their garages or their living rooms, so it’s just a lot of fun,” Thomas said about seeing them open up their work spaces to the public.

Most people in the neighborhood seem pleased to see a proliferation of the arts spring up in the area. “We’ve had some opposition from the neighborhood saying we’re bringing in bad elements. But other than that it’s been very cool,” Thomas said, noting that they have spoken with many businesses in the area that are very supportive of their vision. “We’re trying to get away from this downtown, traditional, expensive watercolor type of thing, and we want to create a venue where artists can display their alternative art, whatever it is they do.”

“It’s trying to just be real art rather than hustling to the tourist trade and marketing what’s popular – pine cones and grizzly bears,” Zaffle said.

“Yeah, none of our artists do pine cones and grizzly bears,” Thomas agreed.

The name Off the Tracks came about somewhat by mistake. It makes reference to the nearby railroad tracks, but according to Zaffle, “‘Off the Tracks’ wasn’t really the title they intended. It was going to be ‘Over the Tracks,’ but it kind of got lost in the translation and they printed it as ‘Off the Tracks,’ which I think is cool because it’s kind of edgy. It’s dangerous – it went off the tracks, it’s out of control, you don’t know where it’s going. So it’s like a derailment.”

The artists working in the newly created studio space were all thankful for the opportunity to find a place to create their art in Truckee. Many were also excited about the new opportunities for artistic collaborations and the mutual inspiration that has been taking place since they all started working in such close proximity to one another.

The public also stands to gain if Zaffle and Thomas’ vision for the properties becomes a reality. They have discussed plans on opening up access points to the river with possibly a sculpture garden and space for weddings or other events being established.

“We want to create a place where people can go to the river, have a sandwich, and look at some good art,” Thomas said.

There is one studio space that is currently unused within the Off the Tracks buildings, and interested artists should contact either George Zaffle or Luthea Thomas. Perhaps the best way to get in contact with them or any of the working artists in the neighborhood is to just stop by, or leave your name and contact information in the notebook hanging outside of the old radiator shop at 10025 Riverside Drive.

(Editor’s note: Next week we will feature profiles of the artists working within this newly created arts scene as well as a couple of the guest artists who exhibited their work at the Off the Tracks reception Sunday.)

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