Mike Kassai stands beside a brick wall with a flip book-like display of black-and-white stills from an action scene in “Kahl and Mabbu Save the Universe” — a short animation he spent the past year and a half creating in Adobe Flash.
It all started with the idea of building a world around a superhero with a prominent mustache, he said, and eventually grew to include a bear and a battle with aliens.
A few feet away from the stills and sketches, the story comes to life with Kassai’s voice overs on one of many flatscreen monitors mounted in a station with headphones.
The 22-year-old Rancho Palos Verdes native is graduating from Marymount California University in May with an arts and media degree specializing in animation, and his senior capstone project was one of nine featured at the dedication and grand opening March 5 of the university’s newest facility in downtown San Pedro, the Marylyn and Chuck Klaus Center for the Arts.
After months of renovation, the 4,000-square-foot, two-story former Lad ‘N Lassie children’s clothing store at 430 W. Sixth St. opened as a permanent home for student art exhibits, musical performances, film screenings, poetry readings and more. Its facade was aglow with blue lighting, adding to the colorful landscape of San Pedro’s First Thursday Artwalk.
Eventually, Phase 2 will add classrooms, studios and faculty offices to the second story.
“It’s perfect for our students. It’s got an urban gallery feel, it’s gorgeous, bright and has lots of modular space for shows and performances,” said Michael Brophy, Marymount president.
When the Rancho Palos Verdes-based Catholic college grew from a two-year college to a four-year university and expanded into downtown San Pedro a few years ago, leasing space in the former Northrop Grumman building and using both the Warner Grand Theatre and Grand Annex as venues, student art exhibits were displayed in the historic Arcade Building.
But as the program grew, the gallery space became more crowded. Now, the arts and media department’s 250 students have 2,000 square feet to display their work and give live performances.
“The art students love being on Sixth Street and this center is a breakthrough,” Brophy said, adding that, on any given week, more than 600 Marymount students, faculty and staff are on Sixth Street. He hopes to bring that number to 1,000. “Not only are we opening this gallery, but this also marks the first building we own in downtown San Pedro.”
That ownership was made possible four years ago with a donation from cultural arts philanthropists Marylyn and Chuck Klaus. Subsequent gifts from the Crail-Johnson Foundation, Alan and Liz Johnson, and assistance with construction planning from Marymount board trustee Eric Eisenberg enabled the university to start renovations in 2013.
The space’s exposed ceilings and cement floors give it an open, transformative feel, as if it’s a canvas itself.
“As my students and faculty come in here, they’re excited at the possibilities of what this could be,” said Blue Wade, chairwoman of Marymount’s arts and media department. “Artists love raw space. It’s going to continue to be transformed and that’s the beauty of it.”
Seeing the facility open and come to life Thursday, she said, was a “moving” experience.
After Brophy and other officials spoke before a crowd of students, faculty and community leaders at the dedication ceremony — which included a blessing from university chaplain Mark Villano — Chuck Klaus said he and Marylyn “want to congratulate all the students whose work is being exhibited here today, the student performers, and we hope that this will soon be the place it was intended to be — the home of the Arts Department of Marymount University.”
The night also included performances by music students, video game trials and a live motion capture demonstration rendering the real-time body movements of anyone who stood in front of a green screen into digital 3-D models.
The permanent presence of a university arts department is seen by many in the community as not only a marker of growth for Marymount, but also for downtown San Pedro.
“They’ve injected so much life into a place that had life, but they bring new vitality, and the fact that they have their arts program downtown is really exciting to me,” said Alan Johnson, who is also a university board trustee and the president of Jerico Development, a downtown real estate development and property management company.
“They get a new crop of freshmen every year,” Johnson said, “so it’s not just the same old faces down here staring at each other for 30 years. We have new faces and they keep changing.”