One of the aspects of the art community that tends to be under appreciated is how much artists, especially visual artists do for themselves; taking care of business independently, often with a scrappy, can-do attitude. It happens often out of necessity, because social infrastructure and municipal support for such projects can be hard to come by, even in a city that prides itself on generations of support for local artists, but it also has always been a part of the counter-culture identity embraced by many younger artists, one in which integrity is equated with struggle.
I’m not sure that Lisa Frye and Britany Baker had any such thoughts in mind when organizing Art Sanctuary, the artist’s studio space located at 1433 South Shelby Street in the Germantown neighborhood. The current President and Vice-President, respectively, are overflowing with war stories of the constant uphill battle to make the dream a reality. But I guess if it were easy to build a vision, everyone would be doing it.
Frye, a visual artist, founded Art Sanctuary in 2004. Her first efforts were pop-up exhibits, or ‘art soirees’, as they became know, at locations such as River Bend Winery, Felice Vineyard, Flame Run, Petrus Nightclub, Main Street Lounge, Mellwood Arts Center, and many more. “That was back when art shows in coffee shops wasn’t even a thing yet,” remembers Frye. An attempt to secure a permanent space led to collaborations with The Alley Theater when they were occupying various spaces at The Pointe on East Washington Street, but the uncertainties of that circumstance led Frye to believe that Art Sanctuary needed to follow its own path. “We applied for and were granted non-profit status in 2006, but we still found ourselves with no place to show on a regular basis.”
It was in this period that Frye became involved with the Va Va Vixens, a neo-burlesque, vaudevillian style performance troupe who mount extravagant shows of music, dance, and acrobatics. Original founder Christiane Nicoulin moved on to other creative adventures and left Frye as Producer/Manager, writing and producing shows such as the upcoming yuletide holiday show, Va Va Festivus, at Headliners Music Hall, December 8 -10.
Enter photographer Frankie Steele, who was looking for a building to develop as a “maker space.” It’s a phrase that has gained currency in the intervening years, but Steele had managed Ice Box Co-Labs, an earlier co-working space on Main Street, long before the trend picked up steam in Louisville. He met Dennis Becker, who in 2008 had purchased the wedge-shaped building at 1433 South Shelby Street to use as a warehouse for his business, Voit Electric. Steele made a formal presentation to Becker outlining his vision for the building, and began work on the first spaces – studios for he and his wife, Baker, independently. The need for a non-profit organization to structure fundraising seemed important, and Baker reached out to her friend Lisa Frye about Art Sanctuary, which had no brick and mortar location. A union was born, and Steele and Baker joined the AS board in 2012. Scott Slusher joined shortly thereafter, and the first formal lease was signed as Art Sanctuary.
It is where Art Sanctuary now makes its home. The 26,000 square foot space seemed well suited to the two-fold mission to house individual artist’s studios and rehearsal/performance space. It came equipped mostly with potential, and multiple loading doors into a wide, high-ceilinged space and a second floor. The group started with just a few spaces, but it wasn’t long before landlord Becker opened up more space for them, until, in stages, they had a lease on the entire building. “Dennis has been terrific,” remarks Frye. “It really feels like he is on our side, and wants us to succeed.”
Baker estimates that Steele has personally been responsible for about 90% of the work that has been accomplished: “He envisioned the space as what it has become, built the stage, installed the fire-rated doors, designed and built the rolling gallery walls. He fixed everything that needed fixing, found deals on what we were missing, did all the heavy lifting - literally.” Frye concurs wholeheartedly: “Without Frankie, we would not be a fraction of what we are today.” Now the board numbers seven, with approximately sixty visual and performing artists involved.
The current entrance is from McHenry Street, on the southeast side, and this half of the building is devoted to visual art, with a spare gallery space and photography studio for rent by the hour on the first floor, and individual studio spaces upstairs. Many of the occupants are painters: Rita Cameron, Sabra Crockett, Victoria Klotz, Brittni Pullen, Kelly Rains, Shahn Rigsby, Nancy Ann Sturdevant, and Charlotte Pollock to name a few, mixed media artists Michael Braaksma, and Kate Mattingly, ceramicist Sarabeth Post, photographers Frankie Steele and Tony Dixon, can also be found there, and even one playwright and free-lance journalist who also works the arts and culture beat, Eli Keel.
On the Shelby Street side, a high and wide space that aches to be performed in stands idle while various permit issues wait to be resolved. The entry doors open into a suitable little box office nook, which spills into an ample lobby where Frye and Baker see a permanent gallery space. Beyond that stands an ample proscenium stage and floor that could likely accommodate several hundred seats. It will someday make a perfect home for Va Va Vixens, but for now it settles for prep space for multi-media artists like Ryan Daly, who is working on the upcoming Louisville Ballet production of Swan Lake.
How long it will take to fully realize Art Sanctuary’s potential in this facility is difficult to estimate. One of the challenges in adapting such an old building with so much history, and repurposing it for multiple uses, is that the past is revealed layer by layer, excavating a crazy-quilt legacy of zoning and renovations that did, or didn’t follow, regulations. “I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far,” exclaims Frye. Baker is slightly more philosophical about this moment for Art Sanctuary: “ It also feels healthy. It's like how you can intentionally stress a plant, by picking off the earliest buds or breaking branches to encourage a stronger, more stable foundation, then it flowers more beautifully than you ever thought it would.”
Art Sanctuary will once again be participating in Open Studio Weekend, November 5 and 6, sponsored by Louisville Visual Art and the University of Louisville’s Hite Institute. Participating Artists will include Britany Baker, Michael Braaksma, Rita Cameron, Sabra Crockett, Jada Lynn Dixon, Victoria Klotz, Samantha Ludwig, Kate Mattingly, Brittni Pullen, Shahn Rigsby, Frankie Steele, & Joseph Welsh. Three artists who have moved in since the original deadline for the event will also be working in their studios during those times. They are Nancy Ann Sturdevant, Charlotte Pollock, and Sarabeth Post.
This Feature article was written by Keith Waits.
In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, www.Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.
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Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2016 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.