I would wager that most first-time or even repeating weekend-getaway travelers to Las Vegas never make it north of The Wynn on the Strip, maybe excluding a jaunt over to the Hoover Dam. Many think that Las Vegas Boulevard from the Encore to Mandalay Bay is what the city’s all about. Though Vegas casino resorts are undeniably what make this city as a major tourist destination in the U.S., each year there are a growing number of reasons to escape the 4-mile stretch of road and explore more interesting events and locations where the true Las Vegas lives. I’m on a mission to uncover these places.
This month I ventured into Downtown Las Vegas for First Friday, a monthly street festival of art, music, food, and general liveliness held on the first Friday of each Month in the neighborhood that has become known as the Arts District. The art galleries, vendors, food trucks, performers, and bars can be found just north and south of Charleston Blvd. between Main and Casino Center. The streets are closed off for pedestrians, and many residents open their converted homes, trucks, campers, and trailers—serving as galleries, stages, and shops—to the party.
Here are some highlights from First Friday November that made my night. If you’re in Las Vegas on the first Friday of the month, put off a show on the Strip for the next night and cruise up a few blocks by bus or cab to the Arts District for some local flavor.
1 . Art Square
The Art Square Las Vegas is a new location completed in June 2012 that is made up of 3 smaller mid-century buildings typical of this neighborhood. It’s compartmentalized into different spaces that host art galleries, boutique stores, vintage collections, a bar lounge, and a theater. Walking through it feels seamless. It has an organic floor plan and makes for easy maneuvering through all there is to see.
2. Walter Jacques Taieb, “Portraits Through Books”
I chanced upon his work in the Art Square, and it struck a chord. Recently, I worked on a project called From Earth to Heart, a photographic journey. A small group of thinkers from all over the globe wanted to explore the subjective concept of home. One of my photos is of my bookshelf, reason being that my books have traveled and will travel wherever I go and not until they are unpacked on a shelf am I at home. They are very much a part of my identity. In Taieb’s description of his conceptual art project, he proposes that “nothing is more revealing than the personal library.” He also states one goal of his project as getting the viewer to ask him-/herself, “Why do we need bookshelves?…Will the next generation see them as objects of the past?” I feel passionately about books and bookshelves and questions, so I’ll have a go at it:
Why do we need bookshelves?
Because books are nice to look at on a shelf versus stacked in various precarious formations next to the bed (as in my world) or all over the house. Arranging books on shelves to look at might be like hanging a map of the world on the wall—setting your world in a constant, framed, arranged view, perhaps as a reminder of what’s out there or in an attempt to bring out there in here.
Are they just decorative?
No and a little bit yes. I don’t shop for or build a shelf just to fill a space because it’s nice or creative but instead to fill a need for a house for my books, like the bird lady who needs a birdcage for her bird, I guess. Yet, there are some creative and cool bookshelves and gorgeous books that are not only beautiful for the words or stories they contain but for their appearance, and I can appreciate thoughtful furniture and publications. I believe in the book as art and can find inspiration in a well-designed book.
Will the next generation see them as objects of the past?
Please no. Not in my life. My 4-year-old daughter has had her own bookshelf in her room since infancy (and a map of the world for that matter) and has raided mine since she could crawl. She finds books to be journeys, complete other worlds outside her tiny house—as I have throughout my life—and the bookshelf is her go-to place for dreaming. When her face is in a book, I see her imagination fly. She’ll pick up Ezra Pound (or whichever of my books is falling apart the most as those are the ones she’s attracted to), sit herself down on the couch, and “read” aloud—which sounds like an amalgamated page-turner of every story we’ve every read to her (since she has yet to learn how to read for herself).
I found only one of Walter’s pieces (photo above), and it truly scared me. I thought someone had broken into my parents’ home and shot a photo of all the books of theirs that I had donated to Goodwill in a recent attempt to declutter their lives—from Linda Goldman’s Love Signs and Deepak Chopra to opera compendiums and finance quick-reads that appealed to young parents in the early 80s. I felt like I was in a fantastic Twilight Zone moment looking at his artwork. The title was missing, so I didn’t know whose “portrait” it was until I checked out his website. I preferred the mystery, since it was better to recall the shelves of my childhood than try to guess who’s Caroline Cooper.
3. Cockroach Theatre
A black box theater! Black box theaters are exciting. When I see them I think possibilities. Perhaps it’s because they’re dark and contained and so pull me down to explore and then create from the inside out, or maybe because they’re without clear borders, having no true demarcations of where is “on stage” or off. In this way they blur boundaries of the theater experience. How can you not love feeling a part of the show when in the audience and vice versa? With exposed walls, pipes, stairway, and loft, this intimate space is an exciting urban site for performance art in largely suburban Las Vegas. The Art Square Theatre, that seats 75-ish comfortably, houses the Cockroach Theatre company currently running their show season through May 2014. The Chalk Boy opens Dec. 5. I spoke to Levi who manages the Cockroach and got nothing but positivity for new, local talent to perform there—lots of love for this space!
4. Food Truck Row
This gathering of food trucks offers wings, sausages, green juices, coffee drinks, fried anything, burgers, and snacks for everyone. I walked down to check out the art vendors with some garlic fries but there are plenty of tables and chairs to post up at. A live band and a DJ serenade the crowd at different points along the truck trail.
5. Brett Wesley Gallery
Mid-century modern homes are found scattered throughout the Arts District. This building, although newer and brighter with its walls of glass, is a fitting nod to the traditional American architecture of the area. I dig the style of this place and feel it is a promising sight in an area that is undergoing positive transformation. Las Vegas artist Kevin Chupik’s exhibition Head Space currently fills the gallery. This collection has lots of soft round edges and full lips. I love the atomic-era allusions of his Femme Fatale collection and found “MiG Helmet” in the Art Square.
6. Mobile Drum Circle
A drum circle on wheels was thundering down Casino Center. You could hear it from blocks away. Passers-by would rotate in for a while. Anyone was welcome. With steel drums to bongos to traditional ones, the resounding beat—changing as random drummers switched in and out—was strong and full of life, as is this concept from Jeffrey Trower of Community Productions, “promoting collective consciousness.”
7. BURSES = book + purse!
I love these and hadn’t seen anything like them before. I find it a creative way to salvage or reuse old books that need to be rebound. This local vendor Burses by Ammy makes textile purses framed with front and back book covers, usually with the spine intact. She takes the pages of the original book and rebinds them into a new cover for you, so if you by a burse from Ammy you get the corresponding book as well. At $25-$55 for both a purse and a book, it’s a fair price. She had great titles in her in-stock collection growing thin that night. Ammy knows how to Rock a Novel and takes custom orders as well.
Piqued your curiosity? I’ll post more pics from the night on Reading the Road’s Facebook page. There’s lots to discover at First Fridays Las Vegas. Mark your calendar; next one is on December 6.