By: Molly Ressler
The walk from Mission St. to the entrance of R. Blitzer Gallery takes you down a maze of art-lined hallways in the Westside’s old Wrigley Building. The gum factory shut down production back in 1997, but when artist and gallery owner Robert Blitzer first opened his gallery in 2009, the building was still mostly an empty shell, just growing into its new post-factory identity. Today, it’s an industrial-style workspace bustling with innovators from a diverse mix of industries, including tech, genomics, sports, and the arts. “The building has blossomed. We’ve been blossoming together,” says Robert.
When I arrive for our interview on a Friday morning, Robert, a Southern California native with wavy silver hair and a ready smile, is playing acoustic guitar from the gallery’s stage. (The gallery also regularly acts as a music venue for intimate concerts.) Despite my tardiness, he greets me warmly — “You’re late? I wouldn’t know; I’m on vacation!” — and begins sharing his story.
The perfect first job
Through his father’s work in illuminated ceilings, Robert was often around architects and designers as a kid. Both his parents loved the arts, but it was through his first real job at T.A. Greene, a lighting factory in L.A, that the doors opened for Robert as an artist. “Tom Greene, the owner, was my first mentor,” says Robert. “He was a concert violinist, a jazz percussionist, a painter, jeweler, a sculptor, and he went on to do these fabulous lamps that wound up in places like Disney World and Las Vegas. He was my introduction to welding.”
Robert’s welding work is featured throughout the gallery—brass, copper, and steel sculptures that celebrate the grace of the human form. Also a painter, Robert isn’t one to shy away from color. “I go big for color and I’m not afraid of the word decorative. If it’s pretty that doesn’t bother me a bit.”
When I visit the gallery in July, the current exhibit showcasing Robert’s work is a series of abstract paintings in acrylic and oil inspired by a small piece of matter called a neutrino. Countless colorful dots, like tiny pinpoints of light, come together to create hypnotic patterns and shifting landscapes. “I heard a talk by astrophysicist Frank Drake at Cabrillo back in 75 or 76 and he spoke of neutrinos, the subatomic particles that go through everything—the earth, you and me, the sun …” says Robert. “The talk stuck with me a very long time and so a lot of my paintings all try to achieve the particle sense. The idea that this universe is comprised of particles, both the incredibly small and incredibly large, influences a lot of my work.”
Activating the Santa Cruz art scene
Robert first came to the Wrigley Building in 2008 when he was working on a fountain for the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. The concept for the sculpture was 9-feet tall, so he was looking for a large studio where he could spread out and construct the piece. His wife Donna suggested the Wrigley Building, and it wound up being the perfect fit. After renting a couple of different spaces within the building, owner William Ow showed Robert a large, open room that would become the first site of the R. Blitzer Gallery. “When I looked at it I said, this is a gallery,” recalls Robert. “There were so few [art] venues at that time that having big walls was a real plus for the art world so that propelled the whole thing forward. Then we got wind of First Friday as Kirby Scudder was just starting it. Kirby promoted the gallery through his radio talk show and a column for the Sentinel, so he also really helped propel the gallery into the art world of Santa Cruz.”
10 years later, the gallery attracts artists from across the county and the world. Through a partnership with the Catamaran Literary Reader, Robert has hosted artists from across the U.S. and from as far away as England, Italy, and Iceland. Still, Robert says at least 80 percent of the artists are from Santa Cruz or Monterey. “Santa Cruz is blessed with so many fantastic artists,” he says. “I love to see people light up and get excited about their art on the wall and the anticipation everybody has about the show. The role I see this gallery playing is bringing art to the community and showing what a beautiful, talented community we have.”
The R. Blitzer Gallery also works closely with Open Studios, SCRAP, and the Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship. The gallery has hosted a preview exhibit for Open Studios for the last five years, featuring those artists on the outskirts of the county, such as Davenport, Scotts Valley, and Watsonville. Robert is also part of the panel that selects artists for the city-sponsored Santa Cruz Recycled Art Program (SCRAP) and will host the resulting exhibit this December 2019.
The Rydell Fellowship artists have also found a home at R. Blitzer Gallery for the last three years. This year, Robert was invited to nominate artists for the fellowship, an opportunity he considers ‘a privilege.’
Beyond First Friday events, the R. Blitzer Gallery hosts artist talks and music performances. In August, the gallery is showing an exhibit featuring nine women artists titled Creativity Thrives.
Molly Ressler is a writer and content marketing consultant based in Santa Cruz. She lives with her husband and pup in Seabright and loves sharing her community’s vibrant culture through her writing.