Chattanooga WorkSpace vibrates with creative energy
As many savvy Chattanoogans are aware, an enclave of artist studios first opened its doors on March 1, 2013 after renovating the old St. Barnabas nursing home building on W. Sixth Street, across from the YMCA.
On the first Friday of every month, the downstairs gallery comes alive with music, dancers, and other artistic samplings from Chattanooga WorkSpace members as well as honored guests. Chattanooga WorkSpace was open last week for a holiday Pop-Up Shop, where busy shoppers could take a break from the crowded chain stores and support local artists instead.
The December “Deck the Walls” Open Studio event was particularly festive, thanks to holiday treats from cooking/catering company, Dish T’ Pass; a Christmas showcase from WEAVE conceptual dance company; and regular favorites: resident musician Rick Rushing collaborating with Ali Kay for a mesmerizing display of speed-painting. Weaving among the crowd, it was a pleasure to get lost in a kaleidoscope of colorful canvases, wine, and a richly textured soundscape.
Chattanooga WorkSpace’s large main floor gallery provides an ideal setting for community events on festive nights or a centrally situated trading post for pop-up shopping. Currently, the gallery displays highlights of original work by member artists, making it easy to linger amid the colorful displays.
But what keeps drawing me back to Chattanooga WorkSpace are the studios themselves. Director Kathy Lennon is a gracious hostess and advocate for each artist renting a studio here. I was lucky enough to have her guidance during my exploratory tour.
Lennon beams with enthusiasm and pride when speaking about the work members create here daily. “It’s not just the beautiful art they make and sell, although that’s important of course,” she is quick to point out. “The artists have a community here if they want that. They can and do work separately, but collaboration is definitely easier in this environment.” Just walking through the halls gives visitors a sense of the kinship members enjoy here that would be difficult for isolated artists to sustain. Right away, you notice a pleasant bustle around the building, like the productive buzz of a thriving beehive.
Many artists mention the motivation and value they derive from “taking the leap” and signing up for a workspace. The camaraderie is palpable. Like shared studios in so many cities, the Chattanooga WorkSpace building provides an instant network. If a painter needs a critique on one of her murals, she can pop next door and ask. If one fiber artist discovers a unique yarn supplier, that source may be shared with a weaver upstairs or across the hall.
The artists who work here may have begun as pioneers, trying out a new environment for their craft, committing a portion of their hard-won earnings to studio rent. But the seriousness that comes with putting one’s money on the line can be stimulating. Now that the studios have an extensive waiting list, it appears their initial risk has paid off.
Melissa Siragusa, marketing and PR director for Public Markets, Inc. explains that the Chattanooga WorkSpace was incubated under the umbrella of the Chattanooga Market, and the relationship has been symbiotic from the start. “Local artists had trouble finding local, safe studio space,” Siragusa says. “Back when renovation started, the building was this empty canvas that has now totally come to life.” For artists pulling double duty as vendors, holiday sales are essential.
Kathy Lennon agrees that many Chattanooga WorkSpace members enjoy the direct link to outlets like the annual Holiday Market at the Convention Center as well as the Pop-Up Shop model. “It’s one of the things that works so well here, as the artists will tell you,” she says.
Sofia Arnold is one of the first artists I met at Chattanooga WorkSpace. Her door was cracked open, and I was drawn in by the colorful paper drying all over the walls. She was measuring and cutting samples of paper to sell as origami star garland kits. “Well, I haven’t been working here all that long, but it’s great,” Arnold says. She likes the way the residents have both seclusion and exposure.
“I just make sure I have something to do with my hands while people are coming through,” she smiles. “I want people to see the work, but also takes a lot of energy, not knowing exactly what to say.” As Arnold creases and cuts, I peruse the oil paintings on her studio walls. That’s the joy for Open Studio visitors: meandering and watching the artists put their hands to work in the environment where the fruits of that labor grow and ripen.
Painter Ali Kay expresses a similar motive for instigating speed painting as a way to facilitate public interaction with her process. “People would wander into my studio and then feel like they might be interrupting or bothering me,” Kay says. “So I just figured, ‘Why not make my work something they are supposed to be watching, as a performance piece?’”
Now her speed-painting collaborations with Rick Rushing are an anticipated treat as a frequent feature of Open Studio nights. “I see the live painting as a gift to the community; people enjoy watching the transformation.” Kay joined Chattanooga WorkSpace as one of the founding members, moving in on the building’s first day. Back in 2013, the only renovated floor was the second, where her pristinely organized studio is still located. “I’m kind of an anomaly when it comes to my space. I have to know right where everything is,” Kay laughs.
When she moved from Houston to Chattanooga with her husband, she was thrilled to discover Chattanooga WorkSpace online, and says relocating her already-established business would’ve been tougher without the built-in network. “I’ve gotten involved in several projects as a direct result of relationships with other painters here,” she says. Kay participated in the McCallie Wall Project with Kevin Bate because of an introduction made by her friend and fellow member, Hollie Berry.
I watched Berry one morning as she worked on a painting for the Iroquois Steeplechase in Franklin, TN. She is also a muralist, and made her mark in Chattanooga through her Dewdles, temporary wet-grass lawn murals in Coolidge Park. Since then, she’s continued to work out of her fourth floor studio. Berry welcomes visitors into a very different room from Kay’s, and I’m drawn to the vibrant reds and oranges of her canvas as she adds realistic detail to the running horses.
Her studio mate, Meredith Burns, of Meredith’s Silver Designs, greeted me as she busily packed her jewelry for an upcoming trunk show. Meanwhile, on the same floor, I met the very busy duo behind Annie Hanks Ceramics, hard at work in preparation for their Pop-Up Shop event in conjunction with MainX24.
Their corner studio is a bit larger than some of the other rooms, allowing space for the large kiln. Shelves of ceramics line the walls laden with impressively consistent bowls, vases, and cups in varying stages of finish. “We’re busy all the time, which is a good thing,” Stephanie Martin says. Partner Katherine Rogers agrees. “We just love it here, and our door is always open unless we’re in the middle of something more delicate, requiring total concentration, like mixing new glazes.”
Back on the third floor, I could hardly ignore Olga de Klein’s doorway, framed in one of her signature knit sculptures. Silky reds, greens and purples crawl up the wall as if the yarn were alive. De Klein, who is Dutch, spent formative years in Mexico, and her art reflects a panoply of influences from her travels through Latin America.
Another colorful character across the hall, Hal Hembree, is on a similar journey. He’s been making sculptures out of damaged guitars for the last three years. Hembree is retired, and prefers working at Chattanooga WorkSpace, around other inspiring artists. He believes in the studios’ importance for young artists who are striving to make a living with their craft, citing the markets and events as crucial exposure.
Stationed among his tools and miscellany, Hembree summarizesw the studios well: “I’d rather be here than doing this in my basement. At home I couldn’t learn from all these great people! It’s like being back in a college environment again—it’s a kind of dorm for art.”
Browsing the Holiday Market last Sunday, I wandered into the booth of fiber artist Mary Hamby, of Twenty-Two West. Hamby’s sculptural weavings draw the eye immediately. “They are a way for me to isolate particular elements of my weaving, to give the textures pure focus,” Hamby says. The smaller tassel jewelry pieces provide a whimsical balance with the more structural wooden sculptures, which remind me of musical instruments.
Hamby sources her fibers from Reunion Yarn Company, brainchild of her friend Emily Felix, who shares the design-forward booth. Felix shares a connection to Chattanooga WorkSpace because she was recently a guest artist for an Open Studio Night. Watching the pair each present their unique offerings, it is impossible not to be inspired, and proud to live in a city that supports its young (and not-so-young) entrepreneurial artists.
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302 W. 6th Ave., (423) 822-5750.