Crickets chirp in harmony outside a dimly lit parking area of a business complex. It is almost 10 o’clock and the complex was seemingly deserted. However, the muffled laughter seeping from one of the offices, is an indication that something is in midst of brewing on a brisk Saturday night in Costa Mesa.
The note on the left window reads, "Law Office." A walk through a narrow hallway found a concoction of artists, photographers, poets and writers sitting in the soon-to-be museum section of AAA Electra 99 Co-op Art Museum and Gallery.
Doodles and words are scribbled all over two large mirrors, which spreads across one side of the room. Clutters of art work and white plastic chairs scatters over the smoke-filled room.
"Art is very important to all the people here even though we look like a bunch of crazy people. This is a very interesting interchange of ideas and creativity," artist Sylvia Volcan said. "We have excellent people and I think that anybody has the right to express themselves."
Volcan, a graphic designer, has displayed her art in AAA Electra 99 for more than a year.
Founded in May 1997, AAA Electra 99 was named after the deceased Adrienne Sudweeks. Former boyfriend and owner Richard Johnson said it was Sudweek’s on-line name and she also used it to copyright her work.
"I was an artist long before this place was opened. I was an artist who got kicked out of a lot of places. I was an artist who needed this place," Johnson said.
Thirty-year-old Johnson leads a tour every time new visitors wonder in the gallery. A humble wooden donation box assorted with various stickers and flyers, lies by the entrance. The corkboard behind the donation box overflowed with political flyers, newsletters, sketches, and cartoons.
Wearing an old wool camel cardigan accessorized with a few pins and a white shirt completed with a thin dull orange tie, Johnson introduced the art works with the charisma of a preacher.
With a loud, enthusiastic voice, Johnson briefly describes the significance and history of the art work and artists.
Johnson said the content of his tours is determined by what he remembers, what people can get a laugh and anything out of the ordinary.
"People don’t understand us because we will take any art. Especially down here, you don’t just take any art. We’ll take anything, we don’t even look at it," Johnson said.
"We don’t make any judgments around here. We just kind of go with it."
Unlike the conventional art galleries, AAA Electra 99 broke all rules on spaces and how the artworks were displayed. Watercolor paintings, photographs, sketches and ensembles of doll heads with metal bodies filled the boarded wooden panel on the walls. For $40 dollars lease, artists have full control of how they want their works to be displayed.
On each end of the corner wall of the gallery, dozens of ice cream sticks with names scribbled on them reflects the number of people who fished out $10 to become lifetime members of AAA Electra 99.
The new museum, adjacent to the art gallery is set aside to display items that are not for sale or art works owned by the gallery. A lounge in the museum is designed to be a place for visitors to sit and wait for the next tour.
Dave Cornelius, president of Runway Productions Group, shares the same business complex as AAA Electra 99.
"I think it is different. It is unique. It is not what you get at a standard art gallery. It’s from the soul, from the heart," said Cornelius, who also is a sponsor of the gallery.
However, not everyone is supportive of the gallery. Because of many letters of complaints from residents, AAA Electra 99 was evicted from its previous location in Newport Beach.
"People hated us down there. They didn’t understand," Johnson said. "People don’t like what they don’t understand. Different people come down here and they are kind of scary looking."
Instead of getting offended by the residents, Johnson decided to display the dozens of letters of complaint behind the door of the gallery. Johnson eagerly recounted stories and people he’s come across with amusement, as he points at the different letters.
AAA Electra 99 is currently trying to achieve a nonprofit status. Charging only $1 per tour and $25 for a space to display art, the gallery has difficulty making each month’s rent.
The artists present however, are grateful for the low rental prices and opportunity to show their art.
"People can get their art work displayed at really low prices in the gallery. I think it should be a right that people can display their art without charging outrageous prices," said Gabrielle Clark, 18, student from Orange Coast College. Clark has displayed her art in the gallery since September and visits the gallery almost every night it is open.
"We’re breaking the mode of any art gallery. This place is needed in Orange County,” Johnson said. “The thing is this place has no bureaucracy about it. You don’t have to know anybody; you don’t have to have a big long resume, or even a portfolio. All you have to have is some art and $25."
First time visitor, Layna Pedersen, 27, said she enjoys the different medium and artistic styles displayed in the gallery. "It is nice to see the juxtaposition to one another. Having something typically beautiful next to something graphic and exaggerated portrait of life or an idea," she said.
Regulars frequent the poetry readings Sunday nights and open performance poetry game shows "The Spinning Head" Saturdays, hosted by the gallery.
"We just continue to get really interesting people. People who have something to say that gets you thinking, people who capture your attention," Dietzel said.
The AAA Electra 99 Co-op Art Museum and Gallery is located at 4320 Campus Drive, Suite 110, in Newport Beach. Interested persons may call (949) 602-1913 for further information.