CMA to host Tierra del Sol artists

Supporters of the lush, sometimes eccentric and always wholly original First Street Gallery—which unexpectedly closed in July—have reason to celebrate.

The Claremont Museum of Art will host an opening reception Saturday evening for “Vanguard: Origins of Tierra del Sol Arts in Claremont, featuring Helen Rae,” from 6 to 9 p.m.

The studio’s most acclaimed alumnus, Helen Rae, will be showing new work in the main gallery, with 14 other artists from the studio showing in the atrium at CMA, 200 W. First St., Claremont. The show is up through April 11, 2020.

While it’s true First Street is no more, the silver lining is its closure, after being in the same Claremont spot since 1989, spawned two new locations: the Upland Art Center, 134 N. Second Ave., Upland, and another in Sunland, both operating under the same nonprofit Tierra del Sol Foundation umbrella as First Street once did.

Rebecca Hamm, artist, curator, professor and beloved First Street Gallery director, then program director from 1991 until is closure, had planned on a 30-year retrospective show.

“And then what happened is last spring we heard from the Good Luck Gallery [in Chinatown] that they were closing, and that’s when we started to discuss options for acquiring them and hiring their director, Paige Wery to work for us,” Ms. Hamm said.

All that art maneuvering came to pass in July, when the Tierra del Sol Gallery opened in Chinatown, also under the Tierra del Sol Foundation umbrella, as First Street was closing. “So the plans for celebrating First Street Gallery kind of just went to the side. Then this opportunity popped up.”

That opportunity came in the form of the dual purpose CMA show. “For one, to help people understand where we went, because many people think we just went out of business,” Ms. Hamm said, and the other to celebrate the artists that made First Street what it was.

It’s not complete chronological survey or retrospective of First Street’s time in Claremont. “But it’s definitely a very good nod to the years from when we opened to current day,” Ms. Hamm said. “It’s a great opportunity to celebrate our 30 years.”

The CMA show is another in a long line of inclusive art showcases that the Tierra del Sol Foundation has championed since its 1971 founding.

“What we typically work with are the low expectations society has for people with disabilities,” Ms. Hamm said. “We ask people to open their eyes and redefine that, because our folks have no limitations. It’s about what they’re up against when they’re working in communities and finding limitations imposed on them.”

The power of inclusivity is a concept Ms. Hamm peppered throughout our hour-long  conversation. She is downright evangelical on the subject, and for good reason. But after nearly 30 years on the job and hundreds of success stories, one might argue that she need not make her case.

The art world, Ms. Hamm contends, is in the midst of a transformation in which it is questioning what it means to have unschooled, self-driven artists included in the mainstream conversation.

“It’s also the right thing to do,” she said. “And these artists are professionals. And they’re being recognized as such, and that’s the exciting thing about this era.”

Claremont resident Ms. Rae, 81, has had solo shows in Paris and New York, been featured and reviewed in national and international art publications, and her work is now in prestigious private collections. She arrived at First Street in 1989 with no previous formal art training.

“Not only is she a woman, but she’s an 81-year-old woman, and she’s an 81-year-old woman with disabilities,” Ms. Hamm said. “And she’s knocking it out of the park. She’s just powering on, making her work,” Ms. Hamm said. “She’s very involved with her openings. She goes to her receptions and greets all the guests who line up to say hello to her. She’s just amazing. She is a champion.”

Much has changed in the nearly 50 years Tierra del Sol has been around, and even more so in the past decade, Ms. Hamm said.

“Over last 10 years we’ve seen people come in knowing what their rights are,” Ms. Hamm said. “Prior to that, a lot of our work was to help people through issues of health and safety, and problems with their support. There’s been so much change and forward motion to help people. We are not done, to be sure. We have a long way to go.

“But yes, there’s a generation that comes in having been in inclusive situations, aware of their rights. There are still people who fall into the fringe categories, and there’s always the place where there’s these subtle, very hard to recognize areas of discrimination that keep people, sometimes under the guise of saying, ‘Let’s make sure they’re safe,’ when you’re actually limiting somebody’s independence and ability to grow. So those things are still there.”

The Upland location is open to serve folks from both San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, differently abled or not.

“We have professional artists on staff who are here to support and offer professional information, technical information, guidance in art, or you could also just be an artist just working on your own. You can go through the Regional Center system, but we’re very open to anybody, not just folks with disabilities. It’s a community art center.”

Other First Street Gallery artists included in “Vanguard: Origins of Tierra del Sol Arts,” are Anthony Barnes, John Boyer, Jose Del Rio, Mary Lou Dimsdale, Leon Fuller, Michael LeVell, Jackie Marsh, John Maull, Dru McKenzie, John Peterson, Hugo Rocha, Vicente Siso, Isabel Vartanian and Joe Zaldivar.

The Upland Art Center, at 134 N. Second Ave., is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., or by appointment. Call (909) 758-7317 or go to for more info.

—Mick Rhodes


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