West End Story — An unlikely union between experimental artists and the City of Eureka


Tricky balancing act: After 8 months of waiting, Carmen Olson (top) and Leslie Castellano of Synpasis in Eureka have secured a permit from the city allowing them to re-open their warehouse for public performances. Photo by Yulia Weeks.
  • Tricky balancing act: After 8 months of waiting, Carmen Olson (top) and Leslie Castellano of Synpasis in Eureka have secured a permit from the city allowing them to re-open their warehouse for public performances. Photo by Yulia Weeks.

The formula was simple: Empire Squared plus The Placebo plus Synapsis equals a flowering of experimental performing arts in Eureka’s West End. Turns out, the equation was missing only one thing — a permit.

In December of last year, the City of Eureka ordered the performing arts collective Synapsis to close its doors to public performances because its building was neither up to code nor zoned for public gatherings.

But after an almost eight-month hiatus, it looks like trapeze artist Leslie Castellano, Synapsis’s founder-director, will soon be swinging her arts collective back into action. At a meeting of Eureka’s planning commission on Monday, Aug. 13, the city granted Synapsis the conditional use permit it needs in order to turn its warehouse into a legitimate performance space.

The planning commission voted unanimously to approve the permit. Member Stephen Avis said he thought the location in the warehouse district was ideal. His colleague, Michael Eagan, said, “It can’t do anything but improve the area.” And Ron Kuhnel joked, “It’s nice to do something good once in a while.” People were expecting the permit to be approved, but the large audience that had gathered for the meeting still breathed a collective sigh of relief when the planning commission members had all cast their votes in favor.

Back at 47A W. Third St., the entrance and loft spaces of Synapsis are a cluttered collection of bric-a-brac. Toward the rear of the warehouse, in a large, bright room, the wooden floors are gathering dust. Two trapezes hang from the ceiling, and a black swathe of aerial fabric is wrapped around one of the space’s white wooden columns.

About three and a half years ago, Castellano and friend Rob Dixon were looking for a rehearsal space in Eureka and ended up renting a warehouse on West Third Street because it was the only place they found with wooden, rather than concrete, floors. The building was already home to Empire Squared, an avant-garde visual arts collective. Over time Castellano and Dixon’s emphasis shifted, and they formed the performing arts collective that would eventually be known as Synapsis. And Empire Squared loaned its space to The Placebo, an all-ages, alcohol-free music club that in years past had a hard time finding a permanent venue.

The name Synapsis comes from the biological term that describes the space between two nerve cells across which impulses pass. It serves as a metaphor, Castellano said last Saturday in an interview at the Synapsis warehouse. It’s an “activity that exists across an empty space.” Of course, not just any empty space. Artists are sometimes blissfully unaware of real-world impediments to their unimpeded creativity. Synapsis is a case in point. They were holding public gatherings in a building designed for storage.

However, if it hadn’t been for Jon Delp at J & L Towing and Transport across the street, who complained about the late-night noise, Synapsis might still be operating under the city’s radar. Reached by phone on Monday, Delp said, “I don’t care what they do over there so long as they don’t bother me.” But Synapsis won’t have to worry about Delp complaining much longer. After 35 years behind the wheel of a tow truck, the Eureka native plans to leave the state for greener (and perhaps quieter) pastures.

Still, Castellano and Synapsis member Carmen Olson hold no grudge against Delp and are extremely positive about the interactions they’ve had with the city since being shut down. “For groups on the fringe, it’s easy to view it as Us versus Them,” Castellano said. But the city has made it clear to Synapsis, Empire Squared and The Placebo that their presence in the community is greatly valued. Just a few months ago, the City Council held out an olive branch by waving the almost $2,000 application fee for the required permits. And to add to their collective good luck, local architect Jon Ash is redesigning their building for free. As a result of everything that’s happened since last December, Castellano said her “sense of belonging to this building and this area” has grown. And she’s learned that “to make a space for expression,” it doesn’t just take creativity — “it takes a lot of determination.”

Over the years, Synapsis has evolved from its roots as an artist collective. Among its various projects is a weekly art workshop for local homeless people. Located just next door to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen, Synapsis also offers its front patio space to people who don’t have anywhere else to go. And it started the West End Cultural Forum, a place for members of the neighborhood to discuss the district’s future. Castellano believes that Synapsis is an important resource for Eureka not only because of its outreach programs, but also because of the intellectual outlet it provides. “For communities to remain vital there has to be something which people with engaged minds can come participate in,” she said.

And Eureka City Councilmember Larry Glass agrees. “The expression of arts, especially from youth, is really important and something we need to encourage whenever and wherever possible within the community,” he said on Monday. As for Synapsis, he said, “I think they are very cool and innovative and I wish them a lot of success.”

In the past, performances of Synapsis’ “Tsirkus Picaresque” have both informed and been informed by the vicissitudes of a real-life artist collective. In one story, an insulated circus troupe is perplexed as to why they can’t pay for their rent in buttons. In another, the same circus troupe tries to cope with a new member who has a hard time assimilating because he doesn’t understand the circus’s particular codes of behavior. Castellano pointed out that shortly after that performance, which took place in Dec. 2006, the space was closed down by the city because of the group’s failure to understand ... not family codes in this case, but fire codes. As for whether or not the next incarnation of Tsirkus Picaresque will be informed by Synapsis’s most recent tribulations, Olson (who was wearing button earrings when we spoke on Saturday) said that there’s nothing in the works yet, but she’s sure that “different aspects of it will make their way into things.”

There’s still a lot of hard work ahead. Olson, who has played a very important role in Synapsis’ growth, is leaving the county to study sign language in the Bay Area. And Castellano plans to go to Mexico to work on a performance project for three months starting this September. That means that Synapsis will have to rethink its nerve center, so that the synapses keep firing even when Castellano isn’t around. In the immediate future, the most pressing issue is money: Synapsis needs to raise it in order to bring the building up to code. To that end, Castellano and Olson will be participating in a 24-hour aerial-a-thon benefit on Saturday Aug. 18 at the Dancenter in Eureka; there will also be live music and a “Yart Sale” put on by Empire Squared. Synapsis has waited eight months for the green light to re-open. In the meantime they’ve received a crash course in local government. There won’t be any mistake this time — they’ll need more than buttons to make their dreams a reality.


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