- Photo by RJ Brooks
Down in the canyon, a gust of wind swept under the cargo parachute hanging from the tall trees, causing the side nearest Kiersten Puusemp and RJ Brooks to blow open. The uncanny welcome elicited laughs from the co-founders of A Ship in the Woods, an artists’ retreat and event venue at a private residence they rent in Del Mar’s suburbs; inside the makeshift tent, Puusemp motioned to where the fortune teller sat at their last party, on Halloween.
“That was my first time, actually,” Brooks says about having his fortune told. “She was pretty right on with a lot of people.”
The two are full of stories about the experiences they’ve had and the people they’ve met right in their own backyard.
Brooks and Puusemp met on craigslist two years ago when Brooks, who’d been living in San Diego for eight years, finally found the ideal location to set up an artist compound, along with A Ship in the Woods’ third co-founder, Dan Fauchier. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Puusemp, a Los Angeles-based artist who’d recently moved to San Diego to escape the smog and the dismal effect the recession had on the art scene in L.A., she says.
The stylish midcentury home at 1660 Lugano Lane sits on an acre of property overlooking a canyon. Driving through the neighborhood, you wouldn’t expect to find such a place nestled among all the modern homes and golfcart-crossing signs, but at the bottom of a long, curvy driveway, the bright-white, triangular edge of the roof juts out, and you know you’re there.
Inside, the living room serves as a gallery. There’s art on the walls and quirky decorations throughout, like the wooden goat-head sculpture hanging above the fireplace that Brooks carved for a Halloween party—it wound up getting repurposed for their Pagan-themed Krampus event— and, at the head of the dining-room table, there’s a 7-foot-tall stuffed Yeti who looks ready to eat. The adjoining music room is where bands perform, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows along the back of the house face a deck that came with sunken, amphitheater seating. There’s a 10-by-14-foot screen onto which Brooks projects films and images of bands as they perform inside the music room.
“They’re tearing the house down,” Brooks reveals. “We moved in because we knew we could do anything here.”
It’s taken a lot of work to make their temporary home livable. Brooks has done a bulk of the work himself, and Fauchier’s background as a construction facilitator has come in handy. The house was built in the 1940s as a summer home for actor George Brent; the next owners had a theater company, which explains the amphitheater and the three freestanding studios on the property where actors once stayed. Now, two of the studios are rented out. One is Puusemp’s; another belongs to a fourth roommate, Jake Moss, who shapes surfboards and has an organic-landscaping business. The third studio is a shared space when there isn’t an artist-in-residence using it.
“We just want to be able to live in an environment where we can do what we want, explore, create and allow others to do that,” Brooks explains.
“And support people who are doing things that we believe in,” Puusemp adds, “things that are interesting, as a way of keeping our lives interesting.”
Right now, A Ship in the Woods is a retreat for artists, a gallery, performance space and commune of sorts to the people who live there full-time. The idea, Puusemp says, is to create a model that can be reproduced at the next site. For her and Brooks, A Ship in the Woods is simply a lifestyle, a reaction to the fast-paced world around them. The eventual goal, Brooks says, is to create a sustainable-living environment for artists, where they can grow their own food and record music in a solar-powered studio. It’s a far-off ideal, they acknowledge, but they’re dedicated to seeing it through.
“We want to give artists a reason to continue working, without the support that may have been there in the past,” Puusemp says.
Puusemp and Brooks aren’t a couple of idealistic hippies. Brooks is a photographer and a furniture and interior designer, and Puusemp, who got her master’s degree from USC, is a mixed-media and performance artist who traveled in 2008 to the middle of the Indian Ocean as part of her solo exhibition, Whole Wide World, that showed at The Box in L.A., the gallery that represents her. Currently, both are working freelance gigs as they gear up to make A Ship in the Woods a nonprofit organization. In the meantime, they’re getting exposure by hosting intimate art shows that double as salons. In doing so, they’re constantly adding to their network and building a community, which is why Brooks wanted to start doing all of this in the first place.
“The art world is in a real state of crisis right now; the economic downturn hurt it pretty badly,” Puusemp says. “There’s always been a need for alternative spaces, but I definitely think we’ve seen an increase in self-initiated spaces and experimental ways of showing artwork.
“The idea is to have more shows that are more salon-style, use some of the formal elements of the gallery world, but kind of blow them open. When we have shows, we make a map; we’re pretty serious about having a piece list so people can walk around and understand what everything is.”
“We call it ‘A ship in the Woods’ because it’s this vessel that you wouldn’t expect to be in this neighborhood,” Brooks says. “A lot of people are surprised that this house is even here.”
On the roof, there’s an anchor pointing toward the sky—Brooks says the house is anchored to what “could be.”
The artist-in-residency program is designed to be a weekend-long retreat so that artists can take a break from their day-to-day work. It’s inspired by the first show they ever had, Experiments in Radical Leisure, which has been an ongoing theme at A Ship in the Woods, based on the idea that it’s hard to own your own time in contemporary society. The idea of free time being a luxury is what Puusemp and Brooks are trying to change, if only at their oasis.
“What we’re doing,” Brooks says, before pausing, “it’s kind of profound in a way.”
“We’re making something out of nothing,” Puusemp says. “A Ship in the Woods has become a gathering place, a mingling of the minds.”