Additional reporting by Avery Amaya-Adle.
The crowd outside the newly renovated art gallery stretches into the middle of 6th Street, blocking traffic. It’s First Thursday in September, and the throng of people, a mix of teenagers, their parents, some local dignitaries, and Port of Los Angeles High School staff, are anxiously awaiting the grand opening of Pixels, a new art gallery and creative space for POLAHS students.
POLAHS representatives soon join San Pedro Chamber of Commerce Board Chair John Bagakis as they snip the ribbon with the ceremonial scissors, causing the large gathering to burst into cheers. It’s been a while since Downtown San Pedro has seen an art gallery opening with this much enthusiasm. With beautifully arranged balloons lining the entrance and plenty of hors d’oeuvres inside, the Pixels grand opening is the hottest spot in town on this First Thursday, and for good reason. The gallery’s objectives to showcase POLAHS students’ work and provide a creative learning space is something POLAHS’s Senior Development Director Erin Loveridge and Digital Photography Instructor and now Pixels Gallery Coordinator Erick Miseroy have been working on for more than a year.
Located in the 3,800 square foot gallery formerly owned by the late famed seascape artist Violet Parkhurst, Pixels serves “as a creative space for students to participate in workshops and studio sessions with live models and a gallery for them to gain industry experience by displaying and selling their work,” says Loveridge.
Before they were able to find a space of their own, Miseroy would showcase students’ work on First Thursdays across the street at the Arches on 6th. The networking for students was a success, which led Miseroy to the idea of securing a permanent gallery for the high school that he could also use as a remote learning location.
He approached Loveridge about having their own gallery for students, an idea which coincided with her work in helping the school’s facilities planning. The space fit the requirements that Miseroy envisioned: needing to be close enough to POLAHS for students to be able to walk from the school to the gallery and for the gallery to be within San Pedro’s arts district. This would allow the gallery to participate in the First Thursday ArtWalk every month, the only day the gallery is open to the public.
While the idea looked great on paper, one question remained: How was the school going to pay for it?
Since POLAHS is a charter school, they needed to seek private funding and grants to secure a permanent gallery space. As Loveridge explains, “District public schools and charter schools receive the same amount of funding from the state based on Average Daily Attendance, but there is one key difference. Unlike district schools, charters don’t receive funds for capital projects/construction. We rely on grant fundraising to embark on projects like Pixels or renovating classrooms and existing facilities.”
Luckily, the California Community College District’s K12 Strong Workforce Program grant was accepting applications. According to the California Community Colleges website, the grant is “designed to support K–12 local education agencies in creating, improving, and expanding career technical education (CTE) courses, course sequences, programs of study.” CTE coursework prepares students to transition from high school, to college, to employment through hands-on skills training.
According to Loveridge, POLAHS offers six elective pathways within its CTE Program: welding, construction, marine transportation, video production, graphic design, and digital photography. “Students may enroll in these pathways alongside their academic high school courses,” she says.
The charter high school’s graphic design and digital photography courses were a perfect fit for the K12 Strong Workforce Program grant to fund the Pixels project. Loveridge quickly applied, and POLAHS was awarded $265,000, which was enough to fund a year lease, cover much-needed renovations to the building, and purchase the latest digital photography equipment for the students to use.
During the 2020-21 school year, POLAHS served 49 digital photography students, with seniors graduating with industry certifications from Adobe, the software company behind applications like Photoshop, giving them a much-needed leg up when entering college and the workforce.
The high school also belongs to the Nikon USA Ambassador Program, where students receive mentorship from Nikon industry professionals and participate in workshops at Pixels. “POLAHS is the first and only high school in the nation participating in the Ambassador program, which is typically reserved for colleges,” adds Loveridge.
The gallery itself is spacious, modern, and clearly forged out of the deep desire to showcase the work of the charter high school’s pool of talented teenagers.
During September and October, Pixels hosted the digital photography work of two students, Michele Lee and Paige Dillihunt, who were chosen to travel abroad to Iceland on the National Geographic Photography Expedition in July 2021. The two-week trip, funded annually through a private donor at the cost of approximately $15,000 per student, included tuition, camera and travel gear, a laptop, meals, airfare, and lodging. Each summer, the school donor sends more than 10 students on study abroad trips around the world, including Africa, Japan, and France, the list goes on.
For Dillihunt, who graduated this past summer, it was her first time traveling outside of the United States. In Iceland, she witnessed glaciers fall and molten lava up close and interviewed locals to understand the culture of the country she was visiting. Even though she was a fish out of water, she loved every minute of the trip and came back with hundreds of photos, many of which were framed and hung for sale in Pixels for the grand opening. Like most students, this is the first time she’s had any of her photography up for public display, which she found both exciting and terrifying.
“I love the fact that when you look at someone’s photos, there’s always a discussion behind it, even if it’s criticism or some people don’t like your photo, that means it’s a good photo because people are talking about it,” explains Dillihunt, who also sold several prints during First Thursday.
“To see people actually wanting to know more about my photos was so surreal to me,” she adds. “And to hear them say ‘Oh, this is a good photo,’ and ‘I like this one’ and have them take it off the wall to buy was just unbelievable. I just love that feeling of people wanting to talk about my photos and my photos being more than something to scroll by on Instagram.”
EXCEEDING THE DREAM
Miseroy and Loveridge agree that a place like Pixels is what the charter high school was created for. Originally focused on maritime studies, POLAHS has expanded its electives to include trades like welding, video production, and digital photography, among others.
According to Loveridge, Camilla Townsend, POLAHS founder and Board Trustee, spearheaded the school’s opening in September 2005 to prepare students for college and careers within and around the port and to provide greater opportunities for students in the community. POLAHS would help stimulate Downtown San Pedro’s economy, too. Pixels’ downtown location and relationship with the art community seem to perfectly align with Townsend’s vision.
Pixels’ installations will change every month, with the public invited to check out the students’ work each First Thursday evening. The gallery also has space set aside to feature the work of other (non-student) local artists.
The next public opening will be on First Thursday, November 4, with a Dia de los Muertos theme, which promises to be just as unique and inspired as the previous installations. The gallery will be open from 5-9 p.m. Expect music, appetizers, and free portraits and prints.
Looking ahead, Loveridge and administrators have plans to expand upon the Pixels concept for other career pathways at the high school.
“We’re aiming to both fulfill and exceed Camilla’s vision for the school,” says Loveridge. “As part of the next generation of leadership at POLAHS — and through Camilla’s mentorship — we have an incredible team who can help her vision evolve and take form into the future. There’s creativity and freedom in that.” spt
Pixels is located at 439 W. 6th St. For more info, call (310) 832-9201 or visit polahs.net.