Feels so real

After a decade of disappointments, the Surreal Estates artist colony is a virtual reality

Artists in residence: A dozen prospective Surreal Estates artists wait for the sound of the starting pistol.

Artists in residence: A dozen prospective Surreal Estates artists wait for the sound of the starting pistol.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Ceramics artist Robert Charland can’t quite bring himself to say it, but Surreal Estates, the artist-owned live-work community he has been trying to establish in North Sacramento for 10 years, finally seems to be happening.

Sewer lines for the Surreal Estates property, located behind the North Sacramento Unified School District office, will be in place by mid-April. Painter Kim Scott, one of Surreal Estates’ founding members, even has the construction site’s portable toilet dolled up with flowers, a pathway and a sign.

But Charland won’t celebrate just yet. He has been disappointed too many times.

The first setback was in 1995, when the original property chosen for Surreal Estates, a vacant city-owned lot at 58 Arden Way, was condemned as a toxic site. Its underground oil and gas plume was so hazardous that, as Charland put it, “even artists couldn’t live there.”

Next came 501 Arden Way, occupied at the time by City Tow and originally the site of an RC Cola plant. Just when Surreal Estates seemed to have the purchase all worked out, the property was sold to Limn Furniture.

Not even the November 2004 groundbreaking ceremony at the current site was enough to convince him. After all, Surreal Estates had already held one there the previous April. “At the first one,” recalled Scott, “we had a big party, a band and a light show.” They just didn’t have enough members left in their group to be able to proceed with construction.

At the more subdued November ceremony, Charland and Scott dug into the soil in front of local television cameras, only to hit hardpan a few inches down.

“I’ve watched this project struggle along for a dozen years,” said Doug Austin, vice president of the North Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, who attended the groundbreaking. “I don’t think there’s another project like Surreal Estates. If there is, I haven’t heard about it.”

Veteran members Kim Scott and Robert Charland keep hope alive.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Austin is thrilled to see a project that keeps artists in his neighborhood. The chamber long has promoted North Sacramento as an arts district in order to attract business, particularly through Phantom Galleries, its 12-year-old program of making empty commercial buildings available to artists for studio and exhibit space. But as businesses move in to occupy the buildings, artists have had to move out. “The problem with Phantom Galleries,” admitted Austin, “is that it’s guaranteed to work itself out of spaces. We’re down to three vacancies remaining that are suitable (for exhibit space).”

The current Surreal Estates location reflects a partnership with Mercy Housing California, an organization specializing in building low-income housing developments. Mercy secured funding from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) to buy the property from the North Sacramento Unified School District. When the artists offered to give free monthly art lessons to school kids, the district lowered its asking price below fair market value.

The Mercy partnership comes with an interesting catch, though. Mercy’s specialty is mutual self-help projects, meaning the artists will have to build the units themselves. This may prove to be their biggest challenge of all, but when finished, they’ll each have a home of their own. They will range in size from 800 to 1,200 square feet, and each will have a detached studio.

The possibility that this is all within reach must strike them as, well, surreal. Scott, who was part of the original group of artists back in 1994, recalls the negotiations for the ill-fated first site. Working through the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, they persuaded SHRA to donate the property, which had an asking price of $265,000. “I think we called ourselves 58 Arden,” she said with a laugh. The name Surreal Estates came later, when the prospect of finding a home grew more ephemeral.

Charland joined the group a year later, after Scott persuaded him that “they were about to build” at 58 Arden Way. Only a “potential toxics problem” stood in their way. The actual extent of the problem forced them to abandon the site (which remains vacant today), but it didn’t kill the project. Perhaps paraphrasing just a bit, Charland remembers the SHRA encouraging them to “go forth, my children, and seek ye another space.”

When the effort to acquire the City Tow property fell through, several artists left the group in frustration.

“Everybody thought this was nuts, this was never gonna happen,” Charland recalled. “But I thought this was probably the only way I’ll ever be able to afford to own a place.” So, he scouted out empty lots in North Sacramento in his spare time. When a Catholic church beat him to one he liked, he called it up and tried to talk it into selling. The school-district property supposedly wasn’t for sale, either. But its quiet location, east of Del Paso Boulevard and north of Arden Way, kept grabbing his attention, so he finally asked. Negotiating the sale turned out to be one of the easier episodes in Surreal Estates’ long saga.

Throughout the years, Charland and Scott have been part of a core group of five or six artists—along with painter Skinner, videographer Rik Tillson and painter-ceramicist Val Fernandez—who have remained with Surreal Estates for the duration. Many others have come and gone over the years.

Since forming the partnership with Mercy, they have been required to have 11 members, to match the number of lots on the property. They have them now. According to Chris Glaudel, Mercy’s director of housing development for Sacramento, nine of them are fully approved for housing loans, while the credit applications for the remaining two still are being processed. And just in case problems arise, Mercy is still taking applications from artists interested in joining. (Interested artists can call Charland at (916) 420-2310.)

And that brings up one last catch: Construction can’t begin until all 11 have been approved. Hence Charland’s reluctance to consider Surreal Estates a done deal, despite the optimism he’s feeling these days.

“After 10 years, it’s hard to believe. I think this is really it. I don’t think we’ve ever been closer.” And he loves what Scott has done with the portable toilet (you can check it out at www.surrealestates. org). When construction finally begins, he said, “we’ll pop a bottle of champagne over that thing.”