Faith in Blind Whino

An old church is reborn as an arts space, bringing theater, music and other events to Southwest

September 12, 2013

The desanctified church at 700 Delaware Ave. SW looks like 1,000 cans of paint sneezed on it: The exterior is covered in black-and-white polka dots, Jackson Pollock-y splashes and undulating ribbons of neon.

Georgia-based artist Hense spent two weeks composing the trippy mural wrap on the building — which, after sitting vacant for more than 20 years, is now home to the Blind Whino arts club.

Founded by Shane Pomajambo (executive director of National Harbor’s Art Whino gallery) and Ian Callender (principal designer at Suite Nation, a D.C.-based events firm), the nonprofit event space features a performance hall, art and gardening classes for children, and a gallery annex for exhibits such as the G40 Art Summit, which opens at Blind Whino on Saturday.

“The opportunities for what we can do here are endless,” Callender says. “I’m picturing an R&B crooner with an old-school microphone. I can see plays being performed on the stage. And if Jay Z wants to come down, we’re open to that, too!”

Despite its audacious exterior (with a mural-drenched interior to match), the 15,000-square-foot property is surprisingly hard to find: It’s tucked away on a residential cul-de-sac away from major thoroughfares.

“Among those who are aware of it, we’re very excited,” says Kael Anderson, president of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and organizer of the SW ArtsFest. “It’s a great addition to an area with a lot of potential for creative development that’s been underutilized.”

The discreet little corner won’t stay that way for long: Directly across the street from Blind Whino sits a former junior high school that was purchased in February 2010 by art-world royalty Don and Mera Rubell. The Rubells — who also own the Capitol Skyline Hotel — plan to turn the space into an extension of their private museum in Miami.

“When the Rubells bring that passion and level of quality to Washington, this neighborhood is going to explode and transform,” says Lisa Gold, executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts. “Along with Blind Whino, it’s going to invigorate the neighborhood.” Though Pomajambo says he’s open to collaborating with the Rubells should the opportunity arise, he’s focused on getting Blind Whino off the ground.

Pomajambo and Callender are relying on private funding and corporate sponsorships from Heineken and Ciroc to keep events and space rental at Blind Whino absolutely free.

“The idea has always been to make this space accessible to everyone,” Pomajambo says.

With five Metro stops within a mile radius and at least four bus lines serving the property, people all over the city can easily visit this new, vibrant addition to Southwest — which is nothing to sneeze at.

G40 Art Summit: Blind Whino will host this year’s G40 Art Summit, a monthlong exhibit founded by Shane Pomajambo featuring more than 300 works by 250-plus artists. The opening reception with DJs and dancing will take place Saturday from 7 to 11 p.m.


Whino’s Hidden Quirks

Blind Whino is housed in a former Baptist church designed and built by James A. Boyce in 1875. Including an annex that the congregation added to serve as office space decades later, there are 11 rooms (including two bathrooms) open to the public. As you meander around the property, see if you can spot these hidden design features:

There are 23 red stars, 16 butterflies and two pencils spray-painted on the walls and floors of the first-floor lounge. Can you find them all?

One of the murals in the lounge features a burly, tattooed man. What does his ink say?

Locate a mural of Pinocchio with Jiminy Cricket telling him, “Don’t lie!”

Try to figure out what function the DJ booth used to serve. Hint: A blessing ritual was conducted there when the building was still a church.

Find the lamp that looks like Aladdin’s embedded in a stained-glass window in the performance hall upstairs.

Blind Whino, 700 Delaware Ave. SW; G40 Art Summit opens Fri., through Oct. 6, free. (Waterfront)
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