ShockBoxx gallery draws inspired crowds to Hermosa Beach’s thriving industrial arts district

Self-taught artists and owners on a mission.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Sara Debevec
  • Photographed by
    Kat Monk

Ever since Laura Schuler and Mike Collins began hosting events at their ShockBoxx art gallery in Hermosa’s Cypress Avenue District, a robust audience has been spilling out onto the streets several times a month. Nestled among design studios and surf factories in this industrial patch of Hermosa Beach, the pop-up-style gallery brings together both established and aspiring artists around themes you might not anticipate in the relatively bucolic beach community: addiction, eating disorders, gun control—but also homages to other contemporary artists.

Their first show, Break the System, invited local artists to cover their walls in graffiti paint, setting an openly experimental tone for the gallery. Two years on the block and their openings have broken out of the bubble—drawing people from all over the South Bay and Los Angeles with shows fronted by notable artists such as Bob Dob, Brent Broza, Dennis Dugan and Patti Astor.

Laura, who left her career in engineering to become a full-time artist, and Mike, who brings his long-standing profession as a therapist to the mix, are both extremely talented and mostly self-taught artists who are not afraid to take risks. When they got the gallery space back in 2017, they felt like they won the lottery. They didn’t know exactly what they were going to do with it, but they knew for sure that the gallery was going to be a space for the community—just like Studio 637 across the street and the historical surf manufacturers that had been fixtures on Cypress Avenue for decades.

“We wanted to be a part of that history and be here for other artists to show their work, which I feel we have accomplished,” explains Laura, who admits that ShockBoxx has already exceeded her expectations. Their art too reflects the evolving energies of the Cypress District itself. Laura and Mike both agree that if they were creating art in a studio above Pier Avenue, it wouldn’t have that same edge.

Laura, who used to live in Arlington, Virginia, and worked in systems engineering, admits that her colleagues never knew she was artistic. It was only when she moved to Los Angeles that she decided to fully commit to her passion.

“People out here know I am an artist, and so whenever they find out I am also an engineer they are shocked. And I say, ‘Actually it is very similar; there is a lot of process, there is a lot of discipline, improvement and changing direction. There’s really a lot of overlap.’”

Laura implements a lot of her engineering background into her art practice, and there is a beautifully scientific angle to her aesthetic. Among the scattered and frantic explosion of bright colors on canvas, one can experience energy, movement and a system at work. Her authentic mark lies between the spray paint, the texture, the lines and the drip.

Her work has recently gotten bigger, and she is more aggressive when it comes to experimentation. She also began using a broader range of colors and exploring different ranges of negative space.

“I think the inspiration comes from trying to capture energy on canvas,” she says. “Can you look at something and know that there is some level of energy, some level of movement on the canvas? How did that work?”

Mike claims he wasn’t creative until he encountered a sunset—and not just any sunset but the kind that only happens after a fire. It was February 2006, and Malibu was on fire. There was a fire in Palos Verdes, there was a fire in Anaheim, and as the sun was setting the whole world turned orange. Every person in his practice stepped onto the balcony to see this sunset.

“The world just stopped to watch this sunset. I was with a client. We sat back down, started doing therapy, and the only thing that was going on inside my head was, ‘You need to paint that.’ And I was like, ‘That’s weird because you don’t paint.’”

He bought some acrylics and started painting on cardboard, but every time he tried to paint it was getting worse and worse. Then one day he called his friend Robb Havassy, an accomplished surf artist, who told him, “Don’t paint what you saw. Paint what you felt.” And that’s when it all started.

Shortly after, Mike’s paintings took on a life of their own. The blackwashed O’s and X’s and abstract forms filled large canvases that not only made their way onto the walls of his home, his friend’s homes, yoga studios, art galleries and stores around town, but they also found space on the walls of his practice—bridging the gap between art and therapy.

“As a psychologist it can get a little heavy sometimes because you just carry around stories that can’t be repeated. For me, art is a way of putting that back out. People imagine that when you paint you are all serene. I am not in any way, shape or form at risk of picking up a paintbrush when I am calm and peaceful. I am painting when I am agitated,” he explains.

“Mike’s work is at the back. He is working on 8-by-5-foot canvases. I can’t help but stay a while and look at his work and try to figure out what is going through his mind,” shares Laura. “You’ll see on one side of the room there is a story he is telling through this girl in the pink dress and this canary, and now he’s added in these turtles. He can tell you what all those mean to him, but there is this progression and this narrative that is happening in his work that is very interesting and dream-like.”

Although Laura’s work and Mike’s work are very different, they both agree they are sounding boards for each other. “Laura’s process is so different to mine, and I have watched her process grow and evolve,” says Mike. “I have watched her get confused last year just like I did. I have also watched her come out now, and that is Laura 2.0—like she’s there but she’s next-level.”

With their own work they have been through a series of gates. They are experimenting and growing, and in terms of physical space the gallery is experiencing that too. “We are just in a line of a lot of people who came here creatively before we did. There is this evolution taking place here that we want to be so respectful and careful about because we are not trying to change Cypress. We are trying to fit in.”

ShockBoxx operates a very artist-centric ethos, and their goal is to help collectors and locals bring something original into their homes. Artists love taking part in their shows because they’ll curate a show and then sit back, letting the art speak for itself. Laura and Mike want to ignite a passion for original art in people.

“I have walked along The Strand, and there are a handful of houses that I can tell have prints from major companies that sell furniture. They are not bad prints, but they are also not original art. I want there to be … not necessarily hype, but I want there to be this feeling that you can get something that somebody made that there is only one of in the world … and that alone is a story,” says Laura, who compares collecting art to looking at someone’s bookshelf. “If you go to someone’s home you don’t necessarily have to talk to them, but just by looking at their bookshelf you’ll know a lot about them.”

Collecting art is all about forming a relationship with the artist and using their art as a means of telling your story. “It’s fun to watch people buy original art—especially from an artist they can meet and connect with in person,” adds Mike. “I have bought art from artists who have shown in our gallery, and it’s just a different experience when you hang that on the wall.”

Consequently, in the first part of this year they are putting together their Art Collectors Start Up Show to bring attention to the benefits of buying original art. ShockBoxx enjoyed many popular and well-attended solo and group shows in 2017 and 2018. They have hosted highly engaging installations, multimedia performances and even immersive dining experiences.

This year their focus is on building programming around some of the “superstars” who have shown their work at ShockBoxx regularly. The Program consists of eight to 10 artists who are producing work consistently.

“We like their vibe and how they show us their ideas, and we want to grow with them,” explains Mike. Some of the artists in The Program, alongside Laura and Mike, are Brent Broza, Bob Dob, Dennis Dugan, Jack George, Chip Herwegh, Mazzy MacGregor, Theodosia Marchant, Scott Meskill, Emerald Pagdett, Preston M. Smith, Sarah Svetlana and Kymm Swank.

“We want to lift them up, and we want to create a community through The Program that shows we are serious about their art. We are hoping our program artists want to leave us,” says Laura. “We want them to be like, ‘Sorry, we’re off to another gallery. We’re off the charts now.’ We want them to do that! In our minds, that would be the best scenario: for them to get so big that they are gone … but always remember where they started.”

Check out Laura’s solo show on March 9 and Mike’s solo show on March 23 at ShockBoxx, 636 Cypress Avenue, Hermosa

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