PaperCity Magazine

December 2014 - Houston

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DECEMBER | PAGE 81 | 2014 "JON [DEAL] INVITED ME IN LATE SUMMER OR EARLY FALL [2004] TO MEET HIM AT WHAT WAS THEN AN OLD WAREHOUSE ON RAILROAD TRACKS ON A STREET NAMED WINTER — BUT IT HAD NO SIGN." — SANDI SELTZER BRYANT May 2003 at the Summer Street/David Adickes complex and upped the ante of the area with shows such as "Touch and Temperature" and "Camp Lucky," which, respectively led to acquisitions by the MFAH and drew crowds of more than 1,200 for opening-night happenings. The final unique aspect of the building is its close proximity to the historic, now-protected Victorian-era cottages of the Sixth Ward, a charming enclave dating to 1858, and the under-siege First Ward, established 1840. With its 86-year-old art-centric structure, Winter Street provides a bastion of authenticity and community to both neighborhoods. Those early days now seem like another eon in Houston's urban timeline. Deal recalls, "When we purchased the building in late 2004, the area was raw. It was perfect, not a red brick town home in site." Even then, there was something compelling about the old building. "Winter was the special place, the place to be, the place to make art. Still is … We built staying power through community." Is he surprised by the outcome of the big leap of faith he and Bryant took a decade ago? "I had visions of the area becoming what I thought Houston lacked: a true working arts district," Deal says. "The First Ward was the last great area west of downtown that was in such a raw state that its redevelopment could be influenced. Our influence was natural, organic and at the grassroots level. Other developers watched and were intrigued by the thought of taking old buildings and turning them into cool places to work and make art. Those same developers are now my partners in making it all happen." CUE SPRING STREET While Winter Street's success was significant, the ultimate game-changer was when Jon Deal and business partners Todd Johnson, owner of Aztec Events & Tents (whose mother-in-law is Art League Houston Patron of the Year, Stephanie Smither), and Scott Sullivan acquired another historic First Ward property. Conveniently sited blocks and minutes away, the 80,000-square- feet, circa-1950 structure was where Harris Moving & Storage had relocated after leaving Winter. The deal for the property, now known as Spring Street Studios, was sealed in 2010. Its 72 studios have been fully occupied ever since, including spaces built out to host performances by avant-garde groups Mildred's Umbrella, Stark Naked Theatre Company and Amy Ell's aerial VauLt Dance. While Winter Street has artists such as photorealist Michael Arcieri, minimalist abstract painter Nicola Parente, nature-based painter Joan Bohn and the aforementioned colorful abstractions of Sandi Seltzer Bryant, Spring has always tilted towards the avant-garde. The complex is home to a healthy talent pool, including internationals Soody Sharifi and Fariba Abedin, mid- career artists of Iranian descent who make, respectively, collaged photographs and geometric canvases alluding to their cultural heritage. The dual art warehouses soon formed a healthy competition based on synchronicity, geographical proximity and shared ownership. Second Saturdays ramped up, with open studios the second weekend of every month drawing current and future collectors. Abedin, among Spring's original tenants says, has leveraged her 400 square feet to great advantage. "I was the first artist to choose a studio. Spring Street created a great opportunity to exhibit and works as my personal gallery." C ollagist Jane Eifler, monochrome painter Kristen Cliburn and Hana Shoup of the 18th-century-styled figurative canvases are some of the other talents whose studio visits I've done at Spring Street. Also, I'm a fan of Spring's micro gallery, The Tank Project Space, where Nicola Parente's site-specific video/installation homage to the vanishing honeybee in 2013 was a high point for the artist. Now up: Jane Eifler's collages, through January 10.) Houston's nonprofits have also had a field day with both venues. Intriguing benefits of nearly legendary status have been staged here, including Hope Stone Dance's PJ Party Breakfast at Dinner Gala at Spring, and Fresh Arts' raucous Space Ball costume revel and the always anticipated collecting op Art on the Avenue, both iconic Winter Street events. SILVER STREET'S PUNCTUATION POINT The third jewel in the crown is Silver Street, which owner/ developer Steve Gibson acquired in 2004. Gibson originally sat on the 112,000 square-foot property and waited for a sign about what to do with it. An early patron of Angelbert Metoyer, he had offered the artist studio space at a previous development; once he took over the former headquarters for Silver Eagle Distributors, there was even more space for Metoyer, who created a studio out of the industrially scaled beer cooler, with its 22-foot-tall ceilings and seemingly limitless expanse suitable for making work with no boundaries. P erhaps Metoyer planted a psychic seed, along with the booming viability of Spring Street. "I get excited about creative energy, and there seems to be this great magnifying effect when gifted artists and talented entrepreneurs work in close proximity," Gibson says. He brought on his brother-in-law, Paul Hobby, as partner (they also work together on the Genesis Park private equity firm) and Jon Deal as project consultant; the latter is also a partner in the studio aspect of the complex, which Gibson dubbed Silver Street Studios. The campus includes an impressive blank-slate events space, which has hosted diverse entertainments ranging from an Indian wedding worthy of Bollywood to last spring's Alley Theatre Ball, headlined by Gladys Knight. But perhaps most notable about Silver Street is its singular arts anchor — one recognized around the world by those in the photo firmament: FotoFest. FotoFest officially inaugurated Spring Street Studios as an arts destination when it relocated there last spring from its previous downtown digs at Vine Street. Gibson, Deal and Hobby delivered its buildout days before the opening of the International Biennial of Photography and Photo-Based Art; tremendous crowds flocked for programming focused on the Arab world, which also spilled over to FotoFest-organized exhibitions in Winter Street and Spring Street. Silver Street's pristine space, with unheard-of ceiling heights of 24 to 26 feet and perfectly honed white walls, provided an astounding staging area for one of FotoFest's most topical Biennials ever. Silver Street has also filled up with a lively mix of creatives, with high-tech energy firms and an architectural studio alternating with art-makers such as Justin Garcia, whose rapidly selling canvases tilt to the decorative. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect about Silver is its egalitarian nature. Conceptual art may be spoken throughout the Washington Avenue Arts District (as in the case of Winter Street's Fresh Arts gallery space), but there's also a place for a wide array of painters, sculptors, furniture designers, glass artisans and craftsmen — some worthy of the Whitney, others appealing to beginning collectors and denizens who strictly want to decorate their homes. The Silver Street building has organically developed as a lure for jewelry makers and metalsmiths and now feature nearly a dozen who ply that trade, a popular draw during Second Saturdays. Today, the three majestic preserved buildings hum with activity, and nearly 300 artists are in studio in the newly branded Washington Avenue Arts District, which was officially designated such by the State of Texas as of this past April. Winter/Spring/ Silver entered a new phase post-FotoFest with the hire of Susannah Mitchell, whose MBA blends business expertise with curatorial experience in artist-run spaces; she was on the team of the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia. Working for Silver Street's development team of Gibson, Deal and Hobby, Mitchell oversees special events and also organizes exhibitions while serving as executive director for the arts district. Mitchell embraces the latter, a big-picture role that extends to community outreach (a family film evening is planned for the neighborhood), public murals (including one for PaperCity's 20th anniversary) and stimulating, broad programming showcasing the studios' residents. I n the six months since FotoFest, the Silver Street area has much changed from the almost desolate street where I parked my car with slight trepidation and walked to the last Biennial. Orderly rows of landscaped parking and cool metal signage commissioned from art car artist/metal man Mike Scranton now welcome cultural visitors. Across the street, developer Frank Liu is going great guns on a retail/restaurant Mecca transforming a dilapidated warehouse into Sawyer Yards. 'Round back, a path now connects Winter and Silver, and a handsome deck at Silver Street is already the site of many post- opening gatherings, such as FotoFest's big reveal this past March, where artists from Cairo, Dubai and Beirut rubbed shoulders with Texas followers of photography. Mitchell compares the area to Miami's Wynwood district, which is a big draw during the Art Basel fair week in South Florida. Fresh Arts director Jenni Rebecca Stephenson — whose nonprofit now combines Spacetaker and Fresh Arts and holds court in the first-floor space of Winter Street — likens the studio complexes to Brooklyn's DUMBO. Notes Gibson about the corridor he helped pioneer, "On a trip to Beijing last summer, as I looked through my tourist guide book, the top five attractions were the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, Warehouse 798. Warehouse 798? What the heck was that? As we arrived, it was an old warehouse complex housing art exhibits, working artists, cozy cafes and assorted retail shops. I got chills as I realized it was Silver Street." THE ULTIMATE: SUCCESS SILOS But the best is the final chapter, for Success literally looms upon the horizon. Adjoining Winter Street Studios, the area's most visible landmark is the Success Rice silos, 38 towering bullet- shaped structures that will soon hold art installations. Deal, with partner Todd Johnson, has just secured them after a complicated three-year negotiation with the silo complex's owner and the land's owners, respectively, Riviana and Union Pacific. Railroads in the area extend back to the original 1858 tract of 20 acres, while Riviana through its predecessors owned the site since 1906. Sandi Seltzer Bryant told us she's nostalgic for the aroma of processed rice, which was cooked weekly and smelled like breakfast cereal, when she first moved into Winter Street. (Naturally she selected the Success Rice studio view; her husband, John Bryant, is a Rice economics professor.) The railroad's cooperation in creating a silent zone around the buildings, negotiated by Gibson and in force since 2011, has also played a part in fostering a place where creatives work in serenity, undisturbed by the screeching whistles of freight trains, which were once so shrill and long-lasting that entire conversations had to be suspended for five or 10 minutes. T he Silos on Sawyer, which going forward will be capitalized and branded as another studio complex, are another Deal coup in preserving and repurposing one of (by estimate) only four remaining grain silo complexes in town. (Another one also being employed for arts usage is in the East End and was just showcased in Houston Arts Alliance's Transported and Renewed programming this fall.) During our final photo shoot, Deal, Bryant, our photographer Max Burkhalter and I walked the complex, a honeycombed configuration whose signage, deep in its interior, states that is was "Built by Texas Concrete Silo Co. 1960." All around, the Silos are bracketed by heroic warehouses, the first of which will form approximately 16 artists studios; the first of those warehouses will become 18 artists' studios, opening next spring. Burkhalter and I also individually joined Deal in a harrowing ride to the top of the Silos, in a tiny open-grated elevator Deal called the "man lift," which threaded its way between the rice storage stacks — relics of another time when agriculture defined Houston. The view was worth it, overcoming my personal fear to experience the developer's dream of one day having an eatery or observation deck atop the Silos. Studio Red architectural firm has already been brought in to strategize on ideas, which include opening a new restaurant along the Silos' wide dock adjoining the railroad tracks (Bryant and I both begged for the return of Pig Stand); the firm is also in discussions for master planning and branding the entire arts district. What's next for these old buildings and a group of artists that these developers took a wild-eyed chance on? Deal predicts, "The area will become a destination not only for Houstonians but for travelers from all over. We are building an entertainment campus for the arts." Winter Street Studios from back in the day, circa 1951. Silo signage establishes its date — 1960. From rice storage to places for art-making. From agriculture to art: Success Rice Silos stand ready for their next role. A quote from the Declaration of Independence saved from the Houston Post building by Paul Hobby, now graces Silver Street's exterior. Success! The silos are now part of the new Washington Avenue Arts District.

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