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Visiting the Continental
Spring Open Studios — Again
Story + Photographs by J R Compton
e like to think places where art happens has some sort of permanence, but they rarely do. The Continental Gin Building, for one intriguing and major hunk of instance, has been home or studio for a lot of great and terrible artists in between over the decades, though it's the good ones we remember.
Artists come. Artists go. In dribs and drabs and mass exodi, like when major rent leaps or management squabbles threaten. For which the Gin has been widely known. The venerable old building that retains many of the accoutrements of the major cotton gin it once was has had a long and colorful history of personality and financial conflicts. Though the place seems calmer for now.
What remains is that it has a lot of space for comparatively less expense, and in large format art renta studio places (of which there are darned few), space is king.
Margaret Rattelle has been in the Continental Gin Building since 1989, so she's seen many artist in and out flux, but she's got her stuff packed up, in boxes, wrapped in plastic, and ready to go. Like many before, she's graduating to a new, probably smaller (this space is 1,300 square feet) studio nearer home.
Over those 17 years, Margaret has amassed a reputation as both an excellent artist and a solid community participant. The ones who stay tend to get better and interact well with the constant flux of neighbors.
She also had stacks of small, $10 and $20 paintings. I got two of the former, one very similar to a piece of hers I'd published previously on this site, and another piece that really seems strange to me now, but in the moment was just right. Anna took more time with the cart of $10 pieces and got a fine little painting I hadn't seen, but envied.
I've been attending Continental Gin Building Open Studios for decades. Most of those artists are gone now — Tom Orr and Frances Bagley, Sherry Owens, Bert Scherbarth, James Michael Starr and Nancy Ferro, among many others, but Bob Nunn's been there a long time.
And it's still fun to see what he's into lately. There's an extended cylindric organic three-dimensionality and vivid color-ness to much of his work that's distinctive, but every time I visit, he's off on a new, intriguing tangent.
Steve Larson is one the newer artits at the Gin Building. Many of his muted color paintings, that looked like they were of old snapshots, lined his space. But it was this large drawing that grabbed our attentions.
Marsha Moser wasn't in attendance, but we admired her upholstered office chair as much as we have previously admired her mixed media work and paintings.
I don't now know where this suite of rooms was. I'm thinking it's off to the left facing the big front porch/loading dock. It may be on the main floor. The building is so labyrinthine, with at least four separarate front entrances and snaking long hallways, mostly up at least one set of stairs, it was difficult to fully navigate without GPS.
I liked about it that it was so serene. Not sterile, but designed to simplicity, and carefully color coordinated. Even architecturally so, though usually on an obvious shoestring.
I'm pretty sure this is some place else. It was easy to lose track of place in that immense space, especialy at night when there's no easy view out the window to position oneself. This may be on the second floor. I know the next shot was. Note the color-coded bins.
We poked our heads into every opened door at the Gin, although we didn't always go in. In some I entered, quickly the circled the room and looked around, then split. Others, like Karla's, we spent some serious time talking and perusing the art.
Karla had at least two areas of work — walls of it — that piqued my attention. Her new nudes were interesting. But her visions of rural industrial America, with some of the better aspects of Charles Sheeler mixed, perhaps unconsciously with her own, reveal marvelous deep shape dimensionalities, loose colors and amazing textures.
I have been documenting similar objects most of this century, so I'm an acute observer, and I am drawn to these drawings and, I hope eventually, paintings. As a photographer, I'm largely stuck with what's actually where I shoot. Karla can move stuff around, change colors and tonalities, etc. But there's a strong reality base in her newer work that beckons, and what I perceive as the direction she's heading with these projects.
I imagine her sitting at her high desk staring into the spaces of these drawings. I used to use walls that way, now I fiddle my visions inside computers. But there's something so pensively temporary about pinning progressive renderings to a nearby wall. Baby steps on the way to whatever comes next. I always admire artists whose successive steps are not always in the same direction.
There's much to be discovered in the creative gaps we let us think and art through.
This busy studio may be that of painter Sally Pryor. It was the next open door down the hall from Karla's much smaller, lower ceilinged studio.
Simple, light, geometric buildings on simplified two-color landscapes, yet an unwillingness to entirely let go of early explorations. We're all caught in it. And when we open our studios to roving eyes and thinking minds, we lay ourselves open to discoveries we may not yet accept.
These numbers — counting feet — were left from a former tennant of these two adjacent
studios, then one, who painted them on the floor to measure his large work — the gin has major elevators and hallways and doors, but just because one builds it inside doesn't mean it will ever get out. Now the numbers start in one studio and finish in the next.
The artist in the first studio — I can't remember if those were the high or low numbers — had no idea where the numbers came from, but she liked the incongruous texture and she was keeping them. The artist in the second space told me all about it when I asked. Now I'm wondering whether they might have been part of Tom Orr's extended spaces there way last century.
One artist's excess may be another's not nearly far enough. Though I may not always appreciate the individual expressions, that they are being expressed is always beneficial to the community.
And the seemingly sudden and strong contrasts of decor and art styles and executions from behind one door to the next down the long upstairs hall were amazing, although these stark details leave much to be filled in later.
From the doorway, this large, corner studio almost looked like a cabaret with candles and imperceptable furniture. Could there possibly be a restaurant up here, I asked myself as I stared uncomprehending into the chiaroscuro abyss.
This slow shutter photo makes it look brighter than it was. Wandering around inside, I tripped against the raised dance floor. Caroline promised a performance at nine, if she could find her guitarist. Such wild and loud expression would fit well in that contrasting colorful space.
Throughout the building I was so busy taking photographs I didn't take notes to identify what we saw and where, that night mostly lost in the immense Continental Gin.
If you have corrections or artwork identifications that I missed in this story, please email them to me, and I'll update this story.
Continental Gin Building
Annual Spring Open Art Studios
Friday, April 28th 5-9 p.m
Saturday, April 29th 2-8 p.m
Participating artists: Julia Alcantara, Donna Ball, Fannie Brito, Isaac Brown, Eli Browning, Artyce Colen, Henry Dees, John Dyess, Michael Francis, Ricardo Paniagua, Andrea Guay, Ineka Guerra, Josh Hightower, Anne Hines, Steve larson, Karla leaphart, Ty Miner, Marsha Moser, Bob Nunn, Caroline Shaw Ometz, Sally Pryor, Mark Quintana and
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