Judy Gittelsohn has dreams for Watsonville. The longtime painter and teacher relocated to the area in 2016 and is making herself at home by creating a new multi-use art studio right downtown.
The studio, called Art For Well Beings, is envisioned as the second edition of something Gittelsohn created in Palo Alto in 2014 – a place to paint, sure, but also a place to follow her passion of teaching painting to people with special needs.
“The idea is that in the morning we will have special needs groups and individual classes,” she says standing in the middle of her new space, surrounded by her paintings. Recently, they are either pieces of her “family tree” (Gittelsohn’s mother and uncle were both recognized painters) or large acrylic color studies of words and letters. “I want to champion people in their creativity,” Gittelsohn adds. “The special needs community is my favorite to teach, recognizing people for how unusual they are, for all their idiosyncrasies.”
The space will be used by Gittelsohn herself as well. “In the afternoon, the blinds will go down,” she says. “There is a little raised area there to paint, and I will change into an artist.”
In this vision Gittelsohn has the support of her younger colleague, Emily Reynolds, who will help with community events and be the face of the gallery. The door is not open yet because they are waiting for a zoning permit; officially, no art galleries are allowed on Main Street. But Art for Well Beings is more than a vanity gallery and Gittelsohn built her case, so far successfully, around that claim. In the meantime, she and Reynold are promoting “Why Watsonville” – which, until recently, was just a slogan from the city’s Economic Development Department.
“That’s the name that I have for partnering with local organizations and farms and natural places and highlighting things that are local,” Gittelsohn says. They are working with the Friends of the Rail and Train and Coast Futura on raising awareness about the possible train coming to the area.
“We have the art contest open right now trying to get kids, adults, people with special needs to contribute to raise awareness for how good the train will be for the community,” Reynolds says. “Our goal is to promote creativity within a low-income community.”
Coming from 20 years in Palo Alto, Gittelsohn was relieved to leave the materialistic, code-writing, overpriced world behind and plant some trees. “I love the climate and I love nature. Everyone in Watsonville owns a truck,” she says. “It’s a working town. It’s not fancy yet.”
The Art For Well Beings studio is not Gittelsohn’s only project in and around Watsonville. She and her husband also built an artist retreat called the Git Gat Gîte at their property 10 miles outside of town. One of Gittelsohn’s dreams would be to turn Watsonville into a kind of Marfa, Texas, a known writing retreat – but without the people wearing $300 scarves around their necks.
“I think about it as a sort of tiny artists’ retreat incubator,” she says. “If you are, for example, working on a book, you could come and present it here, chapter by chapter, and we would provide you with an audience.”
None of these projects are about money. Gittelsohn has presented her pieces in many galleries and has collectors near and far. She is happy to sell her art in Los Angeles for Los Angeles prices, but sees her studio in Watsonville as a space to share.
If things go their way, what will a typical Friday night at Art For Well Beings look like in a couple of months? Gittelsohn and Reynold both smile. They’ll have an event going on, with maybe 25 people. It could be an exhibit, a visiting guest curator. A little chamber orchestra playing in the corner. Or a jam-tasting event because there is a lot of cross-pollination between art and agriculture. “We want to stay connected to our rural community,” Gittelsohn says.