You might say painter Dana Ellyn is never more at home than when she’s sidled up to her easel. In her case, though, that’s more than a figure of speech — where Ellyn lays her paintbrushes to dry is just across the paint-splattered room from where she lays her head to sleep each night.
The 39-year-old artist lives and paints in Mather Studios, a downtown condo building at 9th and G streets NW. Developed by the District’s Cultural Development Corporation, whose mission is rooted in providing affordable housing options for artists, Mather houses 12 condos that were sold at reduced prices to qualified artists via random lottery. (Ellyn paid about $160,000 for her 860-square-foot condo in 2003.)
Before she moved into her sunny Mather studio, Ellyn rented a cheap but “unsavory” apartment in a then-rough area of Shaw. Buying a house in an equally less-than-ideal — but affordable — area of East Baltimore seemed a probable next step. But then she got the call that her lottery number had been picked for a spot in Mather — and that’s when, she says, everything changed.
If Ellyn’s tale sounds like a Cinderella story, she would have to agree. “I wake up daily and think, ‘This pretty much rocks,’” Ellyn says. “I’m so lucky, and I still can’t believe I got it.”
The blessing eased her checkbook and creative process. “Just the sanity that I own something is huge,” she says. “The ownership value relaxed and freed up my brain, which made my paintings better.” For Ellyn, the confidence that came with ownership — and then with paying off the condo — spurred an emboldened approach to her work that she says didn’t feel possible previously. “My art got gutsier,” she explains (see: “International Blasphemy Day,” a recent solo exhibit of hers).
For many artists, paying rent or a mortgage on a place to live — not to mention a studio to work in — means teetering on the brink of financial solvency. (The term “starving artist” is more than a cliche.) But subsidizing artist housing strengthens communities, too.
“At its core, artist housing is good planning,” says Anne Corbett, executive director of D.C.’s Cultural Development Corporation. She cites public safety reasons (think of legendary sociologist Jane Jacobs‘ “eyes on the street” mantra, which lauds neighborhoods where residents come and go at all hours) and small-business growth. “Never mind that, anecdotally, artist community housing that I’ve observed has really just an amazing sense of community — they have a sense of connectivity to one another that you don’t get if you just rent an apartment and move into a building.”
Of course, a creative community doesn’t have to exist within common walls of a condominium complex. More often, artist enclaves sprout in neighborhoods with inexpensive housing stock, such as in places such as Greenbelt and Mt. Rainier, Md.
Mt. Rainier sculptor Margaret Boozer, 44, hangs up her welding tools in an artist zone called the Gateway Arts District, which extends east to Riverdale Park and north through Brentwood and Hyattsville. Perks of living and working in the zone include tax benefits (no income tax) and being near both the District and the University of Maryland.
“It’s an energy of proximity, and we have a really high concentration of good, serious artists, too,” says Boozer, who founded Red Dirt Studios in Mt. Rainier in 1996 and five years ago bought a house two blocks away. Up the road, artists and entrepreneurs are descending on the work-in-progress Arts District Hyattsville, an EYA-planned community of townhouses, galleries and the new Lustine Community Center, plus local businesses such as a coming-next-spring Busboys and Poets, and Yes! Organic Market.
Affordability tends to be the common denominator of artists’ live-work spaces, but other home features can help, too, such as high-quality ventilation. Corbett extols a straightforward rule of thumb: Artists need at least an extra 250 square feet outside of living space to allow room for creativity, though she’s quick to point out there are few absolute prerequisites other than accessible price points. “It’s a great population to try to support because being industrious is part and parcel of who they are,” she says.
But artist clusters are more than a byproduct of cost. Often, the sense of community contributes to the creative process in meaningful but decidedly hard-to-measure ways. “Sometimes, you need to work all by yourself, but you can’t do that all the time,” Corbett says. “You need to engage with other people to get inspiration, and to learn new things and to evolve. Being an artist can be an incredibly solitary vocation, so the community you choose to live in is integrally connected to how you evolve over time.”
For Kirk Waldroff, 36, who lives at the other end of the third-floor Mather hallway from painter Ellyn, the built-in artist community was a huge draw.
“I knew living here would be a really big deal in terms of making connections,” says Waldroff, who was living with his parents previously. “It’s kind of the other side of the universe from living in your parents’ basement, in terms of getting into the art world.” His art has benefited, too: Thanks to help from a neighbor who runs the Washington Glass School, Waldroff introduced glass casting to his printmaking.
Rental options for artists — especially young and just-starting-out artists — are equally crucial as ownership opportunities. At 52 O St. NW, a large historic brick warehouse houses a gaggle of creative types, from poets and DJs to painters, printmakers and video artists, who share rental units that often double as live-work spaces.
“After you leave art school, it’s hard to find that critique or that support to talk about and discuss your work, share ideas and talk about the creative process,” says Lisa Marie Thalhammer, a 28-year-old painter who has lived and created in an O Street apartment for the past five years.
A live-work space cultivates a commute-free lifestyle that’s convenient but, more significantly, crucial to an integrated approach to art. “When inspiration hits you at any time of the day, you can approach your work — it doesn’t have to be so scheduled,” Thalhammer says. “Living and working in the same space always allows for that spontaneity.”
» A look at live-work art spaces available in the area.
Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Kevin Dietsch for Express