Art gives us the ability to speak freely without worrying if you are going to get in trouble or not. It’s the freedom of speech.
We’ve all coveted something. Usually, it’s a pair of shoes or an exotic vacation. Maybe an art piece or a movie star. That one thing often belongs to another or seems way out of reach. For Juan Carlos Araujo, San Jose-native raised on the Eastside, the object of his desire was an industrial building on North Seventh near the corner of Empire in San Jose’s Japantown neighborhood. “I was attracted to the brick building,” said Carlos. “I wondered what used to happen here. I waited for a long time to see some activity. One day the sign went on the door, and I wrote the number down and made an appointment. That was it.”
It was the space he was looking for: the space to paint. “It was just for me, for my personal use to paint really big stuff. I’m not the most patient painter. I can’t do small. I do sketches small, but I can’t paint small too well. I’ve got to practice at that,” Carlos says with a low, slow, thoughtful chuckle. The space needed work, and when Carlos wasn’t at his day job, he was there painting, fixing.
“The funny thing is that I leased the building, and it needed a lot of work, so this pretty much has been my canvas for the time that I’ve had it—distracting me from doing my own work.” For two years, Carlos whittled away at the space, and eventually when friend and fellow artist Ben Alexy convinced Carlos to put on a show of Alexy’s work, Carlos had a deadline and the space came together.
Naming the place was as hard as the prep work. Carlos recalls that it took some time. “Jimmy Choe, David Choe’s [San Jose artist of recent Facebook fame] brother, named the place. I gotta give him full credit. They were hanging out, and he came up with a great idea to name it after the neighborhood, which means more,” says Carlos.
Since that first show, over five years have passed and Carlos figures Empire Seven Studios has had maybe 36 shows in the space. “I think it really opened up everyone’s eyes that you can take a place like this one and put white walls on it and some art work and you’ve got a place to showcase people’s work,” he explains. “It’s not your typical gallery. When I go to some galleries, or even a museum, I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb. You get a different vibe from different places. I’m not a stuffy person. I talk to anybody and everybody. As long as you’re not crazy, I’ll take a moment and talk to a stranger anytime.”
Carlos never went to college and certainly didn’t intend to start an art gallery. He was just a guy working in a paint store by day, looking for a place to make really big art—his personal, industrial-sized canvas—but life had other plans for him. Now he finds himself a businessman, an entrepreneur. “I’m passionate about this,” he says, and that passion can be heard in his voice. “It’s our own craft, so we have to be smart about this and have a business sense. I’ve developed so many skills over the years just from natural, hands-on experience. It’s tough with a space like this. Finances are the key to anything. I pay for this out of my pocket. I pay for it out of love.”
The industrial location of Empire Seven Studios, sandwiched between a plumbing contractor and an auto-body shop, has a certain look. Carlos admits with pride, “If you look at me and I stand outside the building, you’re going to say this is a street venue. But sometimes you come in here and you have these really clean, crisp shows, and it looks like just a gallery, so it feels good to do that, too: to look like a complete, legit, almost museum-like show.”
Curated by Carlos and his partner Jennifer Anh, the shows at Empire Seven are diverse. “We do urban art, street culture… We just do it all. We show the stuff we like, and the aesthetic of the building is how it has developed.” Their latest show was called Day-Broo-Yay. A play on the French word debrouiller, which means to sort out or untangle, it featured the art of three newcomers to the local scene: Carlos Agrillo, Colin Frangicetto, and Drew Roulette.
Carlos has started painting again, finally, after five years of hard work as a gallery owner. His pieces are still big. “The urban landscape, I come from that background. Big is always part of that element.”
He’s seen a lot of change in San Jose, but now he likes the way it feels here “with all the art going on.” His ambitions are rooted in San Jose, but his dreams are not. Exotic locales, exchanging studio space—Carlos is coveting again, and this time his focus is global. “Definitely take it to different countries…to New York. I want to create my own company, my own brand, and bring people from all over the world to Empire Seven Studios. Art gives us the ability to speak freely without worrying if you are going to get in trouble or not. It’s the freedom of speech.”
Interview and photography by Daniel Garcia
Written by Mary Matlack
Article originally appeared in Issue 4.1 “Power”