Art pioneer

Jeff Claassen Gallery in SLo.  photo Jayson Mellom 8-4-10
Jeff Claassen Gallery in SLo. photo Jayson Mellom 8-4-10

Just like its owner’s colorful art, the Jeff Claassen Gallery exudes a cheeky, cheerfully irreverent vibe.

Spray-painted records in shades of purple, orange and green hang from the ceiling. A turquoise bed crown tops a television stand like a tiara.Claassen chats with customers while seated on a teal leather couch under a chandelier of dangling light bulbs draped with multicolored tulle. Meanwhile, the San Luis Obispo shop’s mascot, a fuzzy French Angora bunny named Pascal, hides behind houseplants potted in paint buckets.

Equal parts art supply store, gift boutique and art gallery, this space is more than just a shop. It’s proof that a 32-year-old artist with a unique contemporary style can survive on the Central Coast.

“He is probably the pioneering factor in the underground scene,” said Neal Breton, artist and owner of San Luis Art Supply in San Luis Obispo. “When people saw what kind of art he was doing, they were probably scoffing at him, saying he would never survive. Look at him six years later.”

Claassen’s love of doodling developed at an early age.

“For some reason, all through grade school, junior high school and high school, I always had a pen in my pocket,” Claassen recalled.

Using ballpoint pen gave his work an air of permanency.

“Any time you make a mistake, you have to deal with it,” explained Claassen, who has been painting professionally for 12 years. So the young artist would create figures with exaggerated features, purposely drawing one eye larger than the other.

After graduating from San Luis Obispo High School in 1995, Claassen attended Cuesta College before moving to Los Angeles in 2000 to pursue art as a professional.

“I was maybe ignorantly ambitious. I had big dreams of solo shows at prestigious galleries,” recalled Claassen, who encountered a fiercely competitive scene ruled by art school connections. “I was getting pretty jaded about submitting things to galleries and getting rejection letters.”

“That’s when I learned that if something’s not happening, you have to go and do it on your own,” the artist added.

Months after moving back to San Luis Obispo, Claassen opened his own gallery in November 2004 – setting up shop in a 100-square-foot office upstairs from what is currently Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

The Jeff Claassen Gallery has moved twice since then, spending two years at a Morro Street space before moving to its current location at 785 Marsh St. in July 2009.

Over that time, Claassen has learned plenty about art and business.

At first, he said, “I was pretty ambitious about selling original artwork. I thought that’s what professional artists did.”

He’s gradually expanded his inventory to include T-shirts, trucker hats, buttons, books and other merchandise.

Spray paints cans in every color of the rainbow line a long wooden table alongside jars stuffed with latex gloves and specialty spray caps. Display cases for ink, markers and paint mops fill a couple antique china hutches.

“There’s guys who drive up from Santa Maria just to buy (this) spray paint,” Claassen said, noting that, “All of the products are things I use myself.”

Claassen’s personal style has evolved as well – from huge screen-printed collages of pop culture icons like Princess Diana and JonBenét Ramsey to smaller, more intimate works painted on plywood or pine blocks.

A typical work, done in house paint, spray paint and India ink, might feature bold-outlined faces floating on a pastel background of abstract “drips and splatters.”

“Paintings definitely take me longer than they did 10 years ago because I’m getting into the details,” Claassen said.

Over the years, he’s painted everything from skateboard decks to plastic cell phone cases to an antique bathtub. Claassen has even created artworks on living canvases, decorating models for the annual “Embodiment” event at Native Restaurant and Lounge in San Luis Obispo.

Although most of the art currently hanging in the Jeff Claassen Gallery is his own, several other artists have graced those walls.

Past contributors include Arroyo Grande tattoo artist Jason Hudson, Atascadero photographer Richard Fusillo and graphic designers Jimmy apRoberts and Brian Christopher of apRoberts Arts in San Luis Obispo. “There are a lot of super-talented artists in this town, but there’s not a venue for them,” Claassen said. “There’s definitely a scene. It’s just hard to find it.”He sees the Central Coast as a community of collaborators, not competitors. “If one benefits, they all benefit,” he said.

According to Breton, Claassen has had a major influence on the local art scene.

“Above all he’s proved that there’s a viable market for contemporary graffiti-informed art,” Breton said. “A lot of people don’t own their own galleries. To be successful is the breaking point."

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