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Factory Works

The Station North Arts District Finds a New Anchor in Area 405

Bound For Glory: J.L. Stewart Watson hangs ominously in one of the motorized suits that make up David Page's installation "Hopscotch."

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 2/26/2003

For the owners of the new Area 405 arts complex, the journey from closing the deal to opening the doors has been made in biblical increments. So far, it's taken three years, rejections from 12 banks, and 40 trash bins of garbage--and that was just to get the first floor gallery ready. Appropriately titled Open, the inaugural show features sculpture, painting, photography and mixed-media installations from more than 20 artists who have helped transform the dilapidated window-shade factory on East Oliver Street into an emerging anchor of the new Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

It's an old story, but for those of us leading less adventurous lives (and in far fewer square feet), it's a tale that won't quit: intrepid artists carving out high-ceilinged clusters of culture in the inner city. Three years ago, J.L. Stewart Watson and her husband, Jim Vose, both sculptors, were suffering from SoHo Syndrome: Time and again they found themselves priced out of rental studios in the same Baltimore neighborhoods their very presence had helped make habitable for young professionals and high-tech startups. When they finally decided to take the ownership plunge, they picked an area that would likely resist gentrification. West of Greenmount Cemetery and north of Penn Station, Greenmount West is a neighborhood of industrial factories and cheaply built worker housing. Today, the industry is mostly gone, many of the residences are derelict, and crime is commonplace. With neither waterfront nor old-school architecture to lure the yuppies, the neighborhood will not likely turn into another Canton or Mount Vernon, which is just fine with Watson, though she admits, "I'd be happy with a market on the corner that didn't have bulletproof glass."

When they started shopping for real estate three years ago, Watson and Vose weren't exactly in the market for a 66,000-square-foot living room, just a modest live-work space with concrete floors for Vose's welding projects. They quickly discovered that all the decent 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot spaces had been sucked up by dot-coms. Steve Freel, an artist friend, was in the same boat, and the three decided to team up and buy a small building, around 20,000 square feet. It was slow searching for about six months, until Watson chanced upon the four-story brick behemoth on Oliver. The building had been on the market for 12 years and was teeming with trash that the owners, Crown Shade, had left behind when they relocated their window-covering factory to Rosedale.

"When we first saw it, it was freezing cold, there was no light, and it was filled with five-foot piles of old machinery," says Watson. "But there was a glow coming through this south-facing clerestory and I was like, I don't care what it takes, I have to have this building." (For a more in-depth account of Area 405's formative stages, see the story in Mobtown Beat from May 8, 2002)

It only took $170,000, which was less than a third of Crown Shade's asking price, though more than the original trio of partners could afford. So they added two more artists to the ownership team, formed a corporation, and were promptly denied a mortgage by every bank in town--lenders being understandably skeptical of the resale potential of a building that had taken a dozen years to unload. Crown Shade eventually agreed to finance the sale itself, and the new owners took possession in March of last year. Their master plan is to transform it into a multiple-use arts space: sculpture and painting studios, commercial offices, living quarters, and a dedicated art gallery.

Area 405 caught a lucky break when the building fell within the boundaries of the state's newly designated Station North Arts and Entertainment District. "It miraculously worked out for us," Watson says. "We hadn't planned on any help from the state." The arts district designation provides artists who live in the neighborhood a variety of tax breaks and incentives on arts-related development, and should also help draw visitors to the area. Not that Watson is worried about luring art lovers. "I know people will come," she says, "because they already have."

Indeed, the building has already generated its own community. "The doorbell rings all the time. People show up to help. The next thing you know you have them loading sheets of plywood or hauling junk down the stairs," Watson says. "I think we figured out the secret to how five friends can work together and not kill each other. They have 50 other friends helping them out," she says, adding, "Of course, we also have beer."

There was plenty of beer on hand when Area 405 opened to the public on Saturday, Feb. 15. Most of the crowd--a rather diverse scene for an art opening, ranging from the usual art-school types to middle-aged professionals with khakis and kids in tow--gathered in the front room to watch a performance installation by bondage artist David Page. In the piece, titled "Hopscotch," Page zipped up two straitjacketed women, one of them Stewart Watson, into handmade suits which looked inspired by Jules Verne diving gear. The artist hooked his wards up to a motorized apparatus that inflated the suits with air and propelled the women--one through the air, the other on a dolly track--in slow synchronicity with one another. It wasn't as exciting as it sounds. The crowd dispersed.

The back room is dominated by Watson's sculpture, "586 Ounces," which features an outsized rolling pin suspended, via a system of pulleys, over a large pile of half-flattened dough. Watson's work draws connections between industrial processes and traditional "women's work," like baking and sewing, though this piece derives its whimsical power from the rolling pin's resemblance of a child's swing, and seems to advocate play over work. Other standout pieces include Julia Pearson's photographs of the Oliver Street building during its year of rehabilitation. Pearson doesn't stage any of her shots, trying rather to capture moments of accidental poetry, as in a tower of paint cans elegantly balanced on a wooden mover's pallet.

Also on display are pieces by the six artists currently renting studio space in the building. The most impressive of these are Breon Gilleran's welded meditations on organic themes: massive steel leaves with vulva-like openings worked into them and a tangle of twisted metal reminiscent of thick forest undergrowth. Gilleran's large pieces work well in the cavernous space, whose moss-colored walls and drafty interior evokes an almost surreal outdoor feeling that suits the synthesis of artifice and nature in her art.

Not all work fares as well in the space. Jim Vose's handmade "hammers," arranged on the floor like a Greek chorus, are swallowed up by the sheer size of the room, as is David Parker's "Lightship #25," a glowing rocket ship made from reconstituted lighting fixtures, which languishes in a corner, denied its proper launching pad.

All in all, though, the inaugural show augurs well for the new gallery, which is certainly a positive addition to the pockmarked landscape. Area 405's ultimate challenge will be to transcend the tendency of artist-operated galleries to merely showcase their owners' work, and to stage coherent, well-curated shows of serious artists. They've certainly got the space for it.

Look for more coverage of new work in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District in the Art section next week.

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