Study underway to see if Chattanooga needs more spaces for artists to work, live

Study underway to see if Chattanooga needs more spaces for artists to work, live

April 15th, 2014 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Ali Kay's paint brushes and paint sit out as she works on a painting of Chris Thomas during a live painting at Chattanooga WorkSpace, which hosts an open studio night every Friday for the public to view artists' work and to check out the studios.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

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To learn more about Artspace and to take the artists survey, visit www.chattanoogaartspace.org.

Painted guitars are among the pieces at Chattanooga Workspace.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

Artist Alexa Lett says getting her own workspace away from her home may have saved her marriage.

She's only semi-joking.

An artist who makes pieces out of recycled and repurposed items, Lett moved her studio and all the supplies she uses out of her already crowded home and into a rented studio at Chattanooga WorkSpace when it opened almost a year ago.

This particular day she is joined around a large table in a room on the first floor of the four-story building by nine colleagues, and when she mentions the marriage thing, most nod in agreement. Improving life at home is just one of the advantages of having an off-site dedicated workspace. Another is being in a building surrounded by fellow artists, they say.

"For me," says photographer Ever Flanigan, "the advantages are there are fewer distractions, there is a supportive community and there is accountability. Seeing others working and making amazing things makes you want to work."

Fantasy and comic book illustrator/painter Julia Morgan Scott says other people seem to take her more seriously as an artist since she moved her operation outside of her home and into a studio space.

Chattanooga WorkSpace is located in renovated spaces that were once examination rooms and medical care rooms at the old St. Barnabas apartment and assisted living complex on Sixth Street across from the downtown YMCA. It now is home to painters, photographers, mixed media artists and cooks at Dish T'Pass Cooking School & Catering Co.

The shared-artist workspace is a fairly new concept in Chattanooga, but one that is spreading across the country, including a move to use such workspaces as a way to revitalize neighborhoods. Artspace, a Minneapolis-based organization, develops housing and studio spaces for artists and has built 35 such complexes in 14 states over the last 35 years. The projects attract creative people with low-priced housing and, in return, the artists provide a spark that often leads to improved neighborhoods, according Wendy Holmes, senior vice president of consulting with Artspace.

Last month, Chattanooga's ArtsBuild hosted an information gathering meeting of area artists as part of a three- to five-year process to determine if the city would be a fit for a similar art complex. Part of the early process involves conducting surveys of local artists, arts groups and agencies to determine the local need or desire for an Artspace facility.

In the Artspace plan, the rent for the artist is determined by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development parameters and, though it is reevaluated yearly for each renter, it is designed to remain low in order to keep the creative types living there to prevent gentrification, according to Holmes.

Various types of artwork from different artists in Chattanooga Workspace cover the walls during an open studio night.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

"We were the first organization to use the HUD formula for low-income artist housing," she says. "It came out of a bill in 1986."

Part of the idea behind Artspace is based on "the Soho effect," Holmes says. The New York neighborhood was transformed during the 1950s, '60s and '70s from a rundown industrial neighborhood into a trendy bohemian artist community only to see properties bought up by developers who turned it into a shopping center, displacing the artists.

Holmes says communities across the country are discovering the impact that having several artists living in one space can have on the area at large.

"A lot of cities are reinventing themselves and realizing that creative people are an important part of what makes a healthy ecosystem in a community," she says. "They are worried, though, about losing a lot younger people, who are often artistic, and they are finding places where the artists can continue to live and create. It has become a trend nationwide."

James McKissic, Chattanooga's director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, believes the impact that artists can have on a community can be seen in places like Main Street and North Chattanooga. For almost a decade, the city, via private agencies like Allied Arts of Chattanooga (now Artsbuild), CreateHere and Choose Chattanooga have been recruiting artists through programs like ArtsMove, which offered such financial incentives as forgivable mortgages and reimbursement for moving expenses to artists if they would relocate to certain neighborhoods, including Southside.

"A lot of times we see that artists and creative types are pioneers," he says. "I think they do make a difference and they bring an energy and an artistic feeling to an area."

Artspace complexes have retail shops on the first floor, and Holmes says there are 350 different businesses selling everything from coffee to frames in their 35 facilities. Upstairs are studio-style apartments with attached workspaces for the artists. Each complex also has a large space available for performances and exhibits "or whatever they need to sell their art work," Holmes says.

While most of the residents are younger, some - maybe a newly widowed individual or retiree who wants to finally pursue a career in art - are into their 70s and 80s, she says. Many facilities also have playgrounds for the children who live there.

Of the newer facilities, about half are new construction and half are renovations and a few are a mixture of both.

Because the government is involved, Holmes says the process, which involves determining if a city like Chattanooga has enough artists and interest to support such a facility, takes between three to five years before a new Artspace project can be opened. Chattanooga is in the beginning stages.

Chattanooga WorkSpace, which does not have living spaces, has 36 studio spaces ranging in size from a couple hundred square feet to more than 1,800 square feet. Monthly rent ranges from $95 to $2,950, with most spaces going for around $600.

Olga de Klein, a textile and mixed media artist, works on a piece with recycled plastic during an open studio night.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

It is run by Chattanooga Market, whose executive director, Chris Thomas, originally thought it would be a developing project, with three floors renovated right off the bat, then the fourth floor renovation taking place in year two. But the demand was immediate and high, so plans were fast-tracked and the entire building has been refurbished. A few of the original tenants have moved out and one of the larger spaces is still open, but there is a waiting list for the studio spaces, Thomas says.

Muralist/painter Hollie Berry, owner of Art Instinct, as on the waiting list for a small studio space for several months. She now splits a 400-square-foot area with Donyale Groves impressionist painter. Two days after moving in, she was standing barefooted at an easel, working on a design for a large mural she would be painting for the McCallie Walls Mural project, "a drive-through art project" featuring the works of six artists who are transforming the sides of buildings along the thoroughfare.

As an aside, Berry is the artist who does the large animal figures in the dew, something she calls "dewdles," at Coolidge Park that appear randomly in the grass.

Before WorkSpace, she "was working out of a one-room studio apartment, and it was a little living room to begin with," she says. "I had all of my supplies in there."

Down the hall is Ali Kay, a decorative painter. Kay moved here from Houston with her husband, Jason. Among other things, she paints large murals on home ceilings and walls and has also created works throughout the WorkSpace building, including on the walls/ceilings in the ladies bathroom.

"I like the networking opportunities that are here and I am more productive when I'm outside of the home," Kay says. "That is the No. 1 advantage to being here is it got me out of the house."

While Chattanooga WorkSpace hosts a monthly open house on the first Friday of the month, it is not set up as a retail outlet for the artists. But that idea came up as a wish list item for the artists gathered around the conference table.

Thomas says that would be something to look at for the future.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.