All I Want Is A Room Somewhere

by John Bloner, Jr.

The ancient Greeks defined temenos as a sacred space, a sanctuary, governed by its own special rules. Carl Jung thought of it as a meditative space in the mind, while modern usage refers to areas distinct from the hubbub of commerce.

Temenos describe 16th Street Studios, an artists’ enclave, located within the Racine Arts and Business Center, on this city’s southside. In their spacious studios, known for their soaring windows, providing an abundance of natural light, and well-trodden wood floors, over 60 artists engage in drawing, painting, graphic design, sculpture, printmaking, mixed media arts, and other disciplines.

A frequent guest, Terry Evans, provides a list of why she adores this place, “I love the fire doors with the lead weight pulls, the steel floor running down the middle, the wooden flat bed carts with iron wheels, the barn door at every studio, and the service elevators with their pull-down gates. (How fun it that?!)” She continues, “I’ve read about artist co-ops in San Francisco. I’ve been to Mitchell Wagon Apartments in Racine and Karcher Artspace Lofts in Waukegan, but nothing comes close to the 16th Street vibe. When Trace Chiodo (of Chiodo Design) told me he walked the rounds for three months with the security guard, exploring every nook and cranny in the building, I was more envious than I dared to show.”

Racine Carriage and Company constructed this building at the end of the Civil War for the manufacture of surreys, carriages, and delivery wagons. Fifty years later, during World War I, it became the country’s first business incubator. Many companies rented space and grew their businesses here, including Modine Manufacturing, Webster Electric, Dumore, and Marini Tool & Die.

By 1955, 46 companies operated from this site, under the ownership of Fran von Schrader and H.D. Rench. Rench’s granddaughter, Emily Rench Montgomery, says, “My grandfather envisioned a place with affordable space to get entrepreneurs out of their basements.”

Affordable space brought artist Jerry Belland out of his home’s basement. “I arrived [here] when Peg Lukow offered me the use of her studio while she was traveling. After her return, I simply could not go back to my basement studio. I signed a lease and never looked back. I believe the ghosts of 1,000 factory workers still haunt this place. They bring a day-laborers’ sense of discipline and productivity.”

Jerrold Belland at Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, RAM Artist Fellowship Exhibition, 2013

Jerry’s latest project is a series of drawings and paintings, rendering the urban landscape as seen from his fourth-floor window. “I  have really felt the need to draw some real stuff lately,” he says. He admits to challenges in capturing images on canvas and paper, as weather conditions and the light are in flux from hour-to-hour and day-to-day.

Just as Peg Lukow made it possible for Jerry to become a 16th Street Studios resident, these two artists were among the first to greet Samira Gdisis when she sought to relocate her business, The Black-Eyed Press, from Racine’s downtown. Samira’s artistic journey began in the performing arts with ballet and concert flute. She didn’t draw until she was in her 30s, reentering higher education where she studied under David Holmes at UW-Parkside, and fell in love with printmaking.

Samira’s become a well-known figure in this artists’ haven, where she’s served as coordinator for the Gallery on 16th Street, provided press time for fellow artists Kelly Witte and Mark Price, hosted art adventures for adults and young people, including a Book Arts Guild, Artist Trading Card group meetups, and a youth arts collective called Pocket Renaissance.

She welcomes everyone, 16th St. artists and community members, to Artists’ Coffee Hour every Thursday morning so they may discuss new projects, play in their sketchbooks, or just enjoy the fellowship. The coffee hour took place in-person from 2018 to early 2020, before going virtual via Zoom. There’s hope it may return to her studio once the pandemic becomes history.

Her new project is a 7-week workshop, The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprentice In Creativity, based on exercises created by British artist and author Nick Bantock. (I’m enrolled in this workshop and will report on it in future posts.)

On a recent visit to her studio, Samira showed me several of her transparencies – acrylics painted on plexiglass – and demonstrated how their colors come to life when light is projected through them.

Joseph Vignieri is a professional life model, working at his craft for almost six years in southeastern Wisconsin and other parts of our State. Last month, he completed his 1,000th session.

He opened the Draw Joseph Studio in the Racine Arts and Business Center in August 2020 with Whitney Darling as its first model. In November of that year, he moved to a larger space on the fourth floor where he installed a UVC light irradiated and air filtration system, along with plexiglass dividers, so artists and models could safely gather in-person during the pandemic. He also created a hanging gallery to display framed artwork from many life-drawing artists.

Joseph’s mantra is: If figure art is being created, the studio is a success! His studio is open for tours. To schedule a visit, contact him at drawjosephstudio@gmail.com.

A newcomer to 16th Street Studios is Enzo Ray Daniel, graphic designer and illustrator, who first visited this location during an open house event in 2019, when residents Juli Janovicz and Colleen Steenhagen provided tours of their spaces. He was smitten. He soon rented a 100 sq. foot studio, before moving into a shared space with Joseph Vignieri. With Joseph’s help, Enzo was able to relocate once more into his current location, joined by his Mom.

In addition to working in his studio, Enzo operates his EnzoRayArts Etsy store, where you can pick up his enamel pin creations of dinosaurs, Bigfoot, a cat-shaped octopus, Queer Pride buttons, and EnzoRayArt holographic stickers.

Like many of the artists at 16th Street Studios, Dan Simoneau learned about it from a fellow artist. In his case, Maria Lee. “The thought of joining a group of artists each with studios in one building was quite appealing to me at the time [2006] but I held off pursuing the lead,” Dan told me. “Finally, several years ago, I drove [there) and met with Arthur {Montgomery} to see what was available and to inquire on pricing. I was amazed at how affordable it was.”

Dan paints large-scale oil portraits and is also a photographer. 16th Street Studios gives him plenty of space to engage in both disciplines. He recently took occupancy of two rooms: one for work and another for exhibitions and photography.

Dan has also led the effort to incorporate 16th Street Studios as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and serves as its President. The artists’ community is grateful for his leadership.

“I love the community, the friendliness of the artists, the willingness of the artists to help each other out with either advice or instruction on a medium or technique, and the tremendous staff at the building,” he adds.

While I was writing this article, a song from My Fair Lady was on repeat in my head.

All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the cold night air
With one enormous chair
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?

I also thought of Virginia Woolf, who wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” and Robertson Davies, who said, “Every man needs a study. Not to study in, of course, but to retire when the pressure of domestic life is too great. He needs his study to sulk in.”

Like the artists I’ve mentioned here and the many more who inhabit 16th Street Studios, I pined for the walls, windows, and floors there, daring not to dream I would one day inhabit a space of my own. It seemed an impossibility. Early last year, though, I accepted an invitation from mixed-media artist Crystal Neubauer to share a studio with her and Jennifer Evans. I’m forever in Crystal’s debt for this opportunity, even though the Covid outbreak forced a change in our plans.

Today, Jennifer and I continue to share space on the building’s third floor. She’s the owner/operator of Periwinkle Studio, where she teaches in-person and Zoom classes, offers paint parties and workshops, and creates her own colorful bouquets and vivid abstracts on canvas. According to her website, “After years of designing on the computer, [she] picked up a paintbrush after a long hiatus to create holiday gifts for friends. She found this process of making art had been missing from her life, and she launched on a tour of mixed-media exploration.”

I prefer mornings for spending time in our studio. It’s quieter then, allowing me time to sulk, listen to podcasts or music, write these articles, and put pen to paper or brush to board or canvas. I’ve been creating illustrations for a short-story, penned by Kenosha writer Jodi Diderrich, and engaging in portrait paintings, inspired by Deb Weiers, George Condo, Lyonel Feininger and Charles Bragg. I also take inspiration from fellow 16th Street artists Jerry Belland and Diane Levesque. I love art that makes me grin and their work brings a lot of joy to my soul.

Emily Rench Montgomery, Samira Gdisis, Diane Levesque, and Juli Janovicz

The word incredible may be overused, but it’s appropriate to describe not only the physical space at 16th Street Studios, but the people who inhabit it. The sense of community is palpable. The above photo shows a few of the faces there: Racine Arts & Business Center owner Emily Rench Montgomery; Samira Gdisis of The Black-Eyed Press; and two of my third-floor neighbors, artists Diane Levesque and Juli Janovicz.

Here’s another one of my neighbors: watercolorist Carlotta Miller. Her paintings and her presence are luminous.

16th Street Studios recently lost a dedicated abstract artist, Christopher Johns. He was omnipresent there. We often passed each other in the hallway, exchanging hellos. I wish I had been able to get to know him, learn about his years of teaching at Louisiana State University, his first solo show in New Orleans, about the many books he read, and his techniques in painting. I think of him each time I pass his doorway with its ship’s bell still positioned there.

Chris was a 2020-21 Racine Art Museum (RAM) Artist Fellowship award recipient.

Here’s hoping we’re living in a post-Covid world by the end of this year and 16th Street Studios is able to open its doors to the general public for their traditional December open house. I hope to see you there.

See you next week.

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