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New & Noteworthy


How The Felix Kulpa Art Gallery Remains a Bastion For The Strange

By Mat Weir

Unless you’ve isolated yourself in the Santa Cruz Mountains, never come downtown and never visit a single Santa Cruz Facebook page, it’s no surprise that the city is changing. From multiple new, six story apartment complexes (and soon to be a new 16 story building), to the demolition and rebuilding of the Metro station to possible plans for a new Warriors stadium, Downtown Santa Cruz is currently in the middle of a long term facelift. 

However, there are still patches of old Santa Cruz sprinkled throughout downtown and its surrounding areas. Places that keep the spirit of “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” alive and well. Some of them are obvious while others are hidden gems, tucked away in pockets of hope. 

The Felix Kulpa Art Gallery is one of those gems. 

“It’s a place where we celebrate the quirky and the weird, not commercial art” exclaims Mary Tartaro, gallery director and exhibit artist. 

“We like to have artists that have strong statements on things so it opens the dialogue and gets the public involved. It celebrates art as a vehicle for the expression of ideas.” 

Art like the new exhibit opening for the July First Friday (7/5/24), Rebranding Cruz: Atrocities Present & Past. The solo show by populist painter Russell Brutsché features provocative scenes of well known places around the county and surrounding area juxtaposed with the unseen side of the story. 

“He has really strong feelings about local development and projects going on around Santa Cruz,” Tartaro says.

For instance, the proposed 16 story, clock tower project with a large tent city gathered around its ground floor. Then there’s one titled “Hold Out” with Native Americans–assumed to be of the Ohlone tribe–on a hill overlooking a sprawling, endless sea of San Jose’s electric lights. Another features early loggers transported to the present with no more trees to cut down, so instead they decide to chop the wharf. 

“[Humans] are always thinking, ‘We’ll build it bigger,’”explains  Brutsché. “But there’s a certain point when more nuclear power, more mining and more science and technology is not going to solve basic issues of ‘When is it enough?’” 

It’s art that makes the observer ask important questions about what they want as a future and what they can do in the present. Which is the Felix Kulpa’s ultimate mission: to showcase local artists that make the public question the world around them and what they want it to be. 

“[The gallery] is not Silicon Valley by the Sea,” explains Tataro. “We’re a place where people can go who want to express themselves and want to feel welcome in their different-ness.” 

For over two decades the Felix Kulpa Art Gallery has been tucked away behind Streetlight Records at 107 Elm Street. Yet despite being the oldest gallery in Downtown Santa Cruz, many people walk by the razor wire gate without ever noticing the outdoor sculpture garden behind the fence. 

“It’s such a fun little jewel but people have no idea it’s there,” laughs metal artist Keith Miller. 

“I have an idea to paint a big mural on the galvanized roofing of the record store that says ‘art gallery’ with an arrow pointing to get people attracted to Felix.” 

While the exhibits inside the gallery rotate on a monthly to bi-monthly basis, the sculptures in the garden are permanent. Some of them, like the giant spiders poised throughout the garden, are made with recycled materials. Others–such as the Minotaur or motorcycle–are built from found and welded metal with a well worn, beautiful rusted patina. 

The gallery is owned by Robert Fallon, who is also the proprietor of both Streetlight Records locations (Santa Cruz and San Jose) and several other real estate properties throughout Santa Cruz. 

“He’s such a fun character,” Miller laughs. “And it’s so generous that he shares this space and really wants to promote art, artists and sculptors in Santa Cruz. It’s wonderful working with him.” 

Tartaro says she’s also grateful to work for someone who not only understands, but appreciates the value of having a gallery like the Felix Kulpa. Along with showcasing local, thought-provoking art, the gallery has no membership or entrance fees making it free to the public and does not charge its artists to show their exhibits.

Tartaro originally became aware of the gallery in 2007 when she moved to property in the San Lorenzo Valley. She loved the rustic aesthetic of the gallery and participated in several solo and group shows throughout the years. However, she became much closer to the Felix Kulpa and Robert Fallon when she had to evacuate her home during the CZU Complex Fire. 

“[Fallon] was nice enough to offer me a rent-free place to stay with all of our animals,” she remembers. 

“The gallery had been closed for a couple years because of Covid and maintenance issues. So when he advertised wanting to find someone to reopen it, I jumped on it because I loved it.” 

That first show under her direction–titled Together We Rise: Artists and Responders of the CZU Fire–opened in August 2020. Funded by a $10,000 grant by the city’s Art Recovery Design Program, the show featured six artists from Davenport, Bonny Doon, Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek and Swanton Road. All had lost, or were impacted by the CZU fire including Tartaro, who lost four buildings on her property–including her art studio–but amazingly not her home. 

“A lot of artists I contacted [for Together We Rise] hadn’t even made any work yet because it hadn’t been long enough,” she remembers. “But art also has a healing power. An artist can infuse whatever their working on with their feelings so that the viewer can also experience those feelings of healing.” 

While the Felix Kulpa does not have an open call for submissions, Tartaro encourages artists interested in showing their work at the gallery to submit through their website ( The applications go directly to Tartaro as do volunteer applications, an essential part of the gallery’s daily operations as an outsider space. 

However, it might be a while for new applicants to show their work as the Felix Kulpa currently has different exhibits planned through April 2025. In addition to Rebranding Cruz in July, the gallery will host Humungus Fungus in August, a show celebrating the beloved decomposers. 

“It’s a group show of artists that will create mushrooms of all different materials from fabric and costumes to clay, metal and wood,” Tartaro says. 

Along with attending First Friday events and experiencing the rotating exhibits, make sure to catch one of the many live music performances or indie film screenings hosted regularly by the gallery. 

In fact, music and art lovers can see current featured artist Brutsché perform original music on Sunday, July 14th  from 3pm - 5pm. There is a $10 donation for the special event but it’s the perfect time to explore the gallery in the daytime with the golden hour light illuminating the space through the building’s greenhouse roof and stained glass. 

It’s an experience that allows patrons to pause and reflect on the ghosts of an ever changing Santa Cruz. 

“With the natural lighting, stained glass and welded architecture it’s a sculptural building itself,” acknowledges Tartaro. “It’s a great space and a true relic.”