Downtown Waco artist studios provide space, foster connections

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Posted: Thursday, July 11, 2013 12:01 am | Updated: 11:10 am, Fri Jul 12, 2013.

Location, location, location goes the real estate adage, and for a slowly growing number of local artists, downtown Waco is their preferred location.

In clusters found in repurposed business buildings, they create, swap ideas with other artists, display their work and connect with local businessmen and clients. And, though surviving as a working artist in Waco is often a dicey proposition, they hope they’re planting seeds for an arts-friendly downtown culture.

For the past three years, the floor above the Croft Art Gallery at 712 Austin Ave. has provided a space for working artists, most of whom work in visual media such as painting and printing.

Tanner Freeman, 24, juggles duties as manager of the studio space and the first floor gallery with his own work with Deuxtone, a design and illustration company that he and 22-year-old partner Andy Anzollitto run.

The Croft studios presently provide space for about 14 artists and most of those slots are occupied, Freeman said.

Artists in the Croft Studios spaces run the gamut from full time to those who show up largely on weekends or evenings. Personalities and social needs create a somewhat fluid community. Artists who enjoy chatting with others or soliciting input tend to work at the

same time as others similarly minded; more solitary types stick to their own spaces or work at quieter times.

“It’s constantly growing, like an amoeba,” Freeman said.

Windows face Austin Avenue on one end of the rectangular space and an alley between Austin and Franklin avenues on the other. The Deuxtone pair and woodworker/graphic designer Harrison Connally share the studio with the Austin Avenue view while painter Erica Wickett works at the opposite windows. Fluorescent lights illuminate the workspace in between, punctuated by some small skylights.

Deuxtone’s Freeman and Anzollitto stand as they create, with Wi-Fi access, desktop computers and tablets, and surface space their primary studio needs.

Their Austin Avenue window catches the afternoon sun, which can cast a glare on their computer monitors that makes it difficult to work. When that happens, Deuxtone’s downtown location shows another, potentially distracting advantage. “We grab our bikes and go mountain biking in Cameron Park,” Anzollitto said with a laugh.

Behind a fabric curtain in an opposite corner, Harrison Connally plies woodworking, flanked by his grandfather’s handtools on the wall. They’re a legacy that reminds him not only of his grandfather’s Christian faith, but a philosophy of simplicity that shapes his craft. Connally does own power tools but keeps them at his home workplace.

Connally splits time between his handcrafted inlaid tables, shelves and art pieces and graphic design. His digital tools for the latter share the same wall as Deuxtone’s partners and the three often talk about their business and design work.

Human connections

For painter Erica Wickett, 23, the Croft studio space offered natural lighting, like the galleries at which she exhibits, and a space she could make messy, all at an affordable cost. “I’m at a point in life where I don’t have a house or a garage,” she explained.

Wickett, who studied art at Baylor University and a Yale School of Art summer program in Europe, currently works in highly textured painting with a palette of black and white. Although there’s no formal connection between the artists who rent Croft studio space and the artists who show in the first floor gallery, getting an opportunity to do so, as Wickett did this spring, is valuable.

“There’s nowhere to show your stuff in Waco,” she noted.

For 28-year-old graduate art student and painter Stefan Robinson, who works in the long area between the windows, a shared downtown studio allows him to learn from others. Robinson works in strong color, but has learned a lot in design, lighting and color balance from fellow artists.

“I think it strengthens my work and painting in a wonderful way,” he said.

Human connections and conversations with the Waco business community and like-minded artists make the downtown location valuable, Anzollitto said.

“There are a lot of opportunities we’d miss if we weren’t here in downtown,” he said.

Network of artists

A fertile exchange of ideas among those who work downtown is one of the goals of the Waco Chamber of Commerce’s director of urban development Chris McGowan, who has worked to weave a network of artists, businessmen and professionals to stimulate downtown Waco’s creative juices. The Waco Arts Alliance, an informal group representing Waco arts organizations, arts advocates and business people, also has a goal of increasing the number of working artists in downtown Waco.

That interaction between creative types drives Peter and Summer Ellis, the couple behind the Anthem Studios of the Praetorian Building. After graduating from Baylor, the two moved from buying and renovating vintage homes in Waco to revamping the 1915 Praetorian Building, devoting several floors to loft apartments, but reserving the fourth floor for studio space for artists and other creative professionals.

That space, called Anthem Studios, opened this spring. It provides individual working spaces converted from the building’s original offices and common meeting rooms, plus a break room.

Each studio has exterior windows, allowing natural light, but it’s the building’s period trim of octagonal tiled floors, mahogany window and door frames, and marble wall panels that enhance, the Ellises said, another aspect of an artist’s life: attracting clients and buyers.

“For the business of art to flourish, you have to have a good platform for the buying clientele and public to view,” Peter said, noting that one of Anthem Studio’s occupants is a screenwriter who uses her space to meet with potential backers and producers.

Summer has worked in jewelry and creative design for 13 years and her Bijouterie takes up a corner studio. Anthem Studios’ current renters represent a range of interests: writers and web designers, painters, jewelers, a wine merchant, a creator of art paper and a photographer.

The Ellises are intentional in creating that diversity as they feel it stimulates a broader creativity.

“I think one of the visions we had was to bring all these people together and bring encouragement to them,” she said.

Big-city contacts

The couple cite their childhood contact with big cities — Toronto, Canada, for Summer; New Orleans for Peter — as shaping their view of how art and culture can make a vibrant downtown. That’s what they hope their Anthem Studios will help do for Waco.

Not only do they provide exhibit space for local artists — paintings by artist Abigail Mayfield presently dot the walls and alcoves of the Praetorian’s fourth floor — but they, like Croft Art Gallery, hold First Friday gallery get-togethers each month for artists, musicians, downtown professionals and other creatives.

“I think we’re drawing that creative cultural crowd. I think the word is getting out to the right creative crowd,” Peter said.

“The challenge is that Waco is not an art mecca city like Austin or Santa Fe,” he continued.

“But we could be,” his wife interjected. “Waco just needs to give a reason for (artists) to stay.”

A third cluster of working Waco artists can be found on the far fringe of downtown in the Art Forum of Waco, located at 1826 Morrow Avenue in Sanger Heights. Owner Jesus Rivera reworked a former doctors’ building in a residential neighborhood into a hub for artists needing affordable space, a place to show their work and rub elbows with other artists.

The Forum opened in 2012 and has 12 studios, half of which are rented out, with rental rates ranging from $150 to $200 monthly depending on whether the space offers a sink or bathroom facilities.

Like Anthem Studios, the Forum has attracted an artistic diversity, with ceramicists, painters, photographers, videographers and musicians among its clientele, said spokesman Arthur Huron.

The studio space, open to the public, also provides an opportunity for artists to put their current work on display with regular shows planned for the future.

“We want to have exhibitions for the artists who are there,” he said.

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