When one gets to enter the doors of Regina Barton, one is transported into a cultural history of Venice, that revels in art, politics, music and poetry. This woman has been in the thick of the local culture for decades and has much wisdom and stories to share.
Let’s return to Venice in the early 80’s. The wind is blowing the clean air through a relatively empty, undeveloped beach town. The rents are low, there are few fences, and the slow paced town is a refreshing breath of air from the LA hustle. Bohemia is ripe and on full display; it is evident that artists and musicians rule the roost here. This is the Venice I hold dear to my heart. And where I first met the legendary Regina Barton. Seeing her again after all these years, I couldn’t help but remark on how well she looked. Still the same Regina; curious and eager to know the latest trending artist, the best cafe’, the latest cultural event. This woman has her hand on the pulse of Venice still! She lives enshrouded by a cultural museum of art that documents her past on the Westside. Full of life and color and and herstory; full of a time when Venice was a thriving cultural hub like none other. A beach town that distinguished itself by setting the trends, instead of following them. And Regina made sure their work was given the respect they deserved, and that she got to throw yet another successful, fun filled soiree’ Regina Barton has maintained her local legend status since her descent into the Venice Art world. She met a lot of local artists through the Venice Chamber of Commerce back then. Legendaries like Adrienne Prober, Ginger Drinkwater, Gil Borges, Cathrine Andrews, Susan Sarnez, Harry Drinkwater, Annie Siqueiros, Kathy Sullivan, Ray Packard, Jeff Hirch amongst others; artists of the active Venice Beach scene from the mid 70’s through the 90’s; some still working today! They chronicled the beach that they loved, where they lived, worked and raised their families.
They proliferated and documented their unique moments each day being in Venice. They could afford to gather at one of many cafe’s during the day, where they exchange ideas on their work, only to return to work and the cafe the next day. There was a real intimate connection to a time and place. Venice was a complete planet of its own back then. It was a rare, inspired gem, not recognizable from the contemporary scene of the day. But then, the Culture was a big wave that swept over and intersected all aspects of life in Venice. This was the Venice that the high rents have ravaged and decimated but for a select few of a certain class or clique. It’s unique, instead of rampant. But there was a time, the Spirit of Venice wasinfectious, and Regina Barton was one of those at the helm of the movement. A movement that was a confluence of social change, including anti war and feminist ideology, and the need to do art all day long and not just dabble along side a corporate 9-5. This was a time when one could afford to live, eat and breathe art and still maintain a lifestyle of sitting in cafes and eating out at restaurants. Where art openings were published weekly and there was always somewhere exciting to go locally, even for those of limited means. And where rich patrons went and lingered and mingled with the bohemian creators and supported them. It was a different time; where change was palpable as the crashing of the waves on the shore. Regina, who worked part time running a preschool in the valley, opened a gallery to show off the works of her new friends. She first exhibited at the Venice Library : “20 Years of Life in Venice”. It was successful enough to get her to start her own gallery running. She continued her work as a part time preschool teacher in the Valley to secure the funds. After all, it was all about art and socializing, rather than making lots of money; in those times, culture was the currency of the day! And true to her distinctive classy style, she opened it right on Market street, next to the Louver and across from then 52 Market Street, the trendy celebrity spot of Tony Bill, who happened to have been a roommate of her then husband back in college at Notre Dam.
Now the artist had real, local representation. Many also sold prints and cards of their work on the boardwalk and local shops. Back then the Ocean Front Walk was full of talent and these artists would come out with their easel and spend their time working and recording the curious, colorful world around them.
Originally from Scarsdale NY, she left her conservative parents with her Harvard Law graduate. But early on, like most men of the day, he was sent to VietNam with the US Navy. He told Regina he would marry her when he got back if she learned how to cook. So, in the glam style she is so famous for, she flew to Paris to learn how. As Regina puts it, “He went to Viet Nam to kill people and I went to Paris to learn how to cook. ” But before arriving at her destination, Regina traveled to 8 other European countries. While in Paris, she lived with a French family and learned about wine and cheese and french pastries, cafes, galleries and museums. Her love for art fostered and she knew she found her lifestyle and calling. And yes, she learned how to cook and she learned to speak French, mostly from watching their soap operas.
When her husband’s ship came into California from Vietnam for repairs, Regina flew in to meet him. There she flaunted her skills as a cook; he was duly impressed. But at 22, they were very young to tie any knot. So she went off to the Bahamas to vacate. He called at 3 am and she was out dancing. He was trying to reach her to propose but she didn’t respond till 5 am. She got married and flew off to San Diego and got pregnant, and then went to Hawaii and she got pregnant with the second. When he finally finished with the Navy, he decided to go to law school. So she wound up in Cambridge where he attended Harvard Law. She recalls that time,coming fresh from Hawaii she had a lot of long mumus, long Hawaiian skirts, but being the 60’s, the mini skirts were coming in. She started a new trend wearing her mumus , cut to the knee and then to the thigh, as style would dictate. By Christmas, she was in Vogue!
While her husband was at Harvard, Regina sought out ways to engage with the community outside of her motherhood. She became president of a women’s club. She had learned, from the Navy of all places, of childcare coops. So she started a law school childcare co op for the law school wives. The wives were so grateful to be able to gather and socialize and get quality care for their kids. Regina would take them to all the best cafes and galleries.
Eventually, her husband graduated and landed a position in Los Angeles. They drove across the country while she was pregnant with her third child. They first rented a house in the Echo Park/Silverlake area. Then the Manson murders happened, and she did not feel comfortable in that neighborhood anymore. While he got work in Century City, they were directed to the Fairfax and Pico area, as being the ‘family friendly ‘ place of Los Angeles. She moved to get her kids into a particular liberal school. Once settled, she again got socially involved with issues of fair housing, and joined the legal women’s society. A natural organizer, she met a lot of poets and artists through the schools and started doing some art dealing. Again she created a child care co-op called the San Vicente co-op.
The women’s movement in Cambridge had a big influence on her life. In 1970 she joined the Crenshaw women’s center and became a speaker. Riane Einsler, author of Chalice and the Blade, gave a lecture there on Woman and the Law. Regina became a student of hers and then was hired as her private secretary. She booked her at various speaking events, attending alongside her.
She was inspired to get an AA in general studies taking classes in what she like-.geology, puppetry, nonsexist child rearing. She spoke at her college on the latter subject. She joined the Crenshaw’s Women Society and started booking speakers from all over. Next door an abortion clinic popped up. She remembers the awful night when the police raided it, and put the woman in charge in jail for five years. After that, the Crenshaw Women’s center was closed. So her group went to the Westside.
She and her husband had only one car. So one day she decided, to get some more freedom in her life, to drive him to work in the morning so she could have the car the rest of the day. The moment she got that steering wheel in her hand, she went directly to Venice Beach. The ocean breeze, the open, unfenced homes, the ease of pace, the influx of bohemia transported her and she knew at once this was her town.
Back then the Rose Cafe became her meeting spot along with that of many local artists. That’s where she met legendary Cosmo, an artist and local character, who ran the first skate rental company on the Ocean Front Walk. Regina recalls that besides the Rose Cafe’, the Comeback Inn and the Midnight Special bookstore, both on Abbot Kinney, then called Washington blvd, as well as a local jazz place and the Front Porch Gallery were hot spots for gathering of artistic people and local culture. So she rented an apartment over on Rose ave and hosted grand soiree’s there with artists. She recalls a local sculpture garden where there were parties every Sunday with artists’ gatherings. She describes it as a vortex of creativity, spontaneity and fun; truly magical! Venice was a social network of artists, poets, gallery owners and patrons. There were dance clubs and even the Union organized lots of parties. That’s where she learned about another aspect of politics with progressive unions organizing professional jobs and organizing teachers.
Regina was active on the Venice Arts Council for many years and was instrumental in getting the mosaic on the benches that adorn the boardwalk. My particular favorite is the one across from the synagogue , which gives you a glimpse of the interior of the place. One of her clients…published a book on Venice documenting the bohemian spirit of the time.
Regina did 29 years of art tours for the Venice art walk, but the year google came in, and she couldn’t make the 30th year. They didn’t want locals. Too much has changed; too much was lost! The art tours were designed to continue a good time. It wasn’t about the money as much as it was about socializing.Regina’s tours were unique, as one writer of the Argonaut put it, in that she focused on “personally guided tours of whatever aspect of the community interests her clients,though she specializes in theater, music and the arts.” She would also include drives to Hollywood where she would point out the best restaurants and jazz clubs of the day.This woman got around! That was something she learned and kept from her years in Paris; the joie de vivre that still emanates from her, as she continues to be engaged in the local art scene and is rebooting her art tours. What began in the 1970’s still continues. A matter of fact, being an avid collector, her home is now a museum of the world renown artists that have actively graced our local community. And these artists recorded, in an inspired and colorful way, the joy and excitement that percolated under the daily struggle of being in Venice.