Night owl Yepes and his equally nocturnal partner, painter Courtney Reid, were frustrated with the slow pace of art-by-committee, grants, and proposals, and were chafing at the restrictions of political correctness, so they brainstormed over a series of afternoon breakfasts. Eventually, they came up with a proposal of their own.

The idea is intriguingly simple: For six months, Blue Star will provide lofts where all manner of artists can come to live and work, for a weekend or a week or a month, on the project of their choice. No one pays or is paid to participate. Artists provide their own food and transportation, but get a rent-free space in which to live and work with artists of other mediums. No one's work will be censored.

Yepes and Reid, now living and working at the Blue Star, began circulating an e-mail detailing their vision for "Art Dacha" (dacha: a Russian word for "gift, land, country villa"): a mecca where sculptors, painters, musicians, actors, writers, dancers, and artists of every stripe can gather, create, and exchange ideas and inspiration. "For instance, a sculptor, a painter, a welder, doing their individual things in the main studio while a writer works on their new play/poems/book in the one of the live-in lofts ... And an experimental dance/performance group work out a new piece on the roof ... An experimental musician works on a piece in the satellite studio, or we use it as a photography studio," explains Yepes.

The public will be invited periodically to observe the creative process; artists are encouraged to set up shows, performances, clinics, lectures, and demonstrations. Yepes and Reid envision a whirlwind of activity: "This will be more for the fire-jumping spirit than for peace, tranquility, solitude," says Yepes. And this is all to take place in the old grain warehouse, Studio 357, Blue Star.

Can it happen? A painter from Buenos Aires thinks so. So do a photographer from Paris, a sculptor from Colombia, a filmmaker from Salt Lake City, a poet from Schertz, a printmaker from Australia, and a local punk band. So does a New York writer for United Press International, who is planning to visit San Antonio to do a story on it. So does a non-profit organization in Houston that arranges cultural exchanges for artists across the Americas. So do more than 70 other artists who have signed up for the "Woodstock for artists," as Yepes' e-mail dubs it.

On the First Friday of December, Yepes held an open house at the space which is to be Studio 357. Visitors on the cold night were greeted by a bonfire in an old oil drum at the front entrance. Inside the huge corrugated metal building, bare light bulbs hung from industrial wiring, eerily illuminating the crowd of young enthusiasts. Yepes led the grand tour, describing the space's pending transformation.

"This wall will be insulated and sheet rocked. People will live and sleep in these loft areas. And don't you think this room might be good for music?" His enthusiasm is palpable, his mental image tangible; and soon his listeners begin to see the space as Yepes sees it, as a fertile breeding ground for creative interaction. Later, I ask him who is providing the space.

"I am. This is my studio," he says, motioning to the half of the cavernous space with the highest ceiling.

What about logistics? What if, for example, one artists needs three days of the entire facility for a project? What about conflict, what about scheduling? "We'll try to accommodate. We'll work it out as we go along."

What about bad behavior? "We retain the right to throw out assholes," says the former boxer and gang member, who looks as if he could do so without any difficulty.

A rent-free mecca for artists is an ambitious project. "If you build it, they will come," Yepes replies dryly.

Yepes was born in Tijuana and grew up in poverty on the streets of East LA. Now his paintings are bought by people like Cheech Marin, Sean Penn, and Madonna. Hollywood movie stars commission his portraits. His murals grace buildings in Los Angeles, Barcelona, and Rome. He founded and funded a free school where hundreds of inner-city kids have learned the art of mural painting. Eight of his paintings presently hang in the Smithsonian.

Can he make the Art Dacha happen? Time will certainly tell.

January through June 2003
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