Escondido, CA

BIZstory: Distinction Gallery: known internationally

The façade of the Distinction Gallery during one of their receptions. Photo by Kurt Lightfoot

The Distinction Gallery at 317 East Grand Avenue in downtown Escondido is known for showing highly skilled artists from around the world. The Gallery represents 16 painters who have regularly scheduled exhibitions. 

The Gallery also houses ArtHatch a 501(c)(3) not for profit organization that provides artists working in all media a place to create, exhibit and blossom. Studios are available to visual artists, photographers, writers, designers and similar creatives or hobbyists. Wall spaces are available to visual artists.

In 2003 Melissa Inez Walker was happily working in a gallery as assistant director for Joseph Bellows. But when she learned a 7,000 square foot building, close to home, had come on the market, a concept began to form. She arranged to meet the real estate agent at the location, the space was in dire shape and literally every inch of it needed a makeover. The first look was in the dark as the agent could not figure out how to turn on the lights!

Melissa Walker and her kids, Dune & Callia. Photo by Joseph Stein

Undaunted, Melissa asked Sam (then her boyfriend of three months) if he would quit his job and join her to buy the building. Sam asked what we would do with it and Melissa said “Make it a high-end gallery and studio complex.” She was confident that between her ideas and business savviness and his attention to detail and construction skills they could make the concept successful.

Melissa was so sure they could make it work that she says they signed the documents to purchase the building on the spot. “Between credit cards, an equity loan on my house and more we were able to put together a down payment and money to rehab the building.”

Sam and Melissa worked 24 days for three months straight to remodel the space (sometimes sleeping in one of the upstairs studios). During those three months, they converted the dilapidated building into a gallery, fourteen studios, bathroom and a partial kitchen. 

“Distinction Gallery has become far more known globally, than I ever thought was possible in my wildest dreams,” says Melissa. “We sell artwork to every state in the US as well as regularly to clients in Europe, Asia, Australia, Mexico and Canada. Unfortunately, February of last year my hubby, best friend, business partner and father of my children, Dune and Callia, passed away from a very rare form of cancer.”

A painting by June Stratton. Sixteen artists have regular exhibitions at the gallery.

She adds, “It is hard to imagine what might happen when a person becomes a widow or widower. I had always assumed that they would get plenty of love and support, but now being part of this very real community I have learned how incredibly rare support after the death of a spouse truly is. I am still not sure why, but my guess is that most of it revolves around the extreme discomfort that surrounds dealing with death, almost as if some people feel that if they get to close to you they might catch it and their spouse will die too! I am so grateful that this has not been my experience. I receive lots of support and I have become closer with all of our family, friends, clients and staff.” 

She describes how, the January before last, when she found out Sam was sick, “one of my best friends. Melissa Ralston, called to ask how she could help. I was on my way to the gallery when she called and at that moment I said, ‘Actually if you can work my hours – starting today – that would be a huge help.’ Within the hour she was at the gallery, running the business.”

She describes another colleague who came to her aid. “Melissa Ralston owned a gallery, Shiva Artistic Collection on Grand Avenue,” she says. “I met her fifteen years ago as we opened our businesses during the same month. We remained friends over the years and got together with our husbands regularly.

Melissa Ralston, Jana Brike, Ken Hakuta and Melissa Walker. Photo by Stephen Davis

“Melissa has truly saved me over the last fifteen months. She selflessly gave her time to me and the gallery, often working late nights and weekends. She instantly took on a management roll and our staff, artists and clients have connected with her. I will be forever indebted to her. She is truly one of the kindest, selfless, most energized people I have ever had the pleasure to meet and without her I honestly could not have made it through this unexpected life turn.”

ArtHatch continues Unleashing Fierce Young Talent on the World. Visit the gallery on the second Saturday of every month to support ArtHatch artists who are often working live.

The Distinction Gallery has created a great following, sense of community, and family with the artists within our space and the public – many fans have been attending monthly shows for the past fifteen years and they have visitors from all over the world. 

As Sam said, “Life is short, make the best of it!’ and Melissa Inez Walker is accepting his challenge to do just that!

Good business. Great people! 

(760) 707-2770


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