Artist lofts

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Artist Lofts

Where talent has room to bloom

Artists Lofts

Where talent has room to bloom

Published on September 25, 2014

High ceilings, light-filled rooms, bargain prices and like-minded neighbors would be attractive listing details for any apartment. But when it comes to special residences reserved for artists, these aren’t just lines in a Realtor’s advertisement — they’re critical elements of the creative process. There are four buildings in the Washington area with apartments or condos set aside for artists to work and live. Artists who score units in these subsidized, sought-after buildings consider themselves lucky, and some credit the spaces for fostering their success. “I really like to make big paintings,” said artist Lisa Marie Thalhammer, who lives in the 52 O Street Studios. “And if you’re going to make big paintings, you’re going to need a big space.” Marty Youmans, who owns 52 O Street, says he accommodates artists with live-work and work-only spaces that are below market rates, and occasionally waives or reduces security deposits. “It’s not always about the dollars and cents,” Youmans said. “There’s a little bit of a higher responsibility.” For Mel Davis, manager of the Brookland and Mount Rainier Artspace Lofts, which were developed by a national nonprofit, the buildings are more than an affordable place. “How awesome is it to have a neighbor who understands what your struggle is, and understands what it means to be an artist?” she said. Residents often must show a portfolio to prove their bona fides — “If you just do finger paint, that’s not going to work,” said Davis — and work on group exhibitions and open houses. They do not have to be full-time artists, but art has to be their primary passion. Owner Youmans enjoys the creative approach the artists take to their surroundings. “You step through the door, and you don’t know what the place is going to look like from the last time you’ve seen it,” he said.

Painter Lisa Marie Thalhammer says the high ceilings in her live-work apartment in 52 O Street, a Truxton Circle artist complex, have given her the ability to create large-scale works. Her art, as well as pieces by friend Thom Flynn and souvenirs from travel, are on display throughout the four-room apartment. When she needs a break from painting, Thalhammer relaxes in her hammock.

Painter Lisa Marie Thalhammer

In 2005, when Lisa Marie Thalhammer moved into this long-established residence for artists, “a third of the block was vacant. There were corner boys on the street at night. My partner once was held up by an 8-year-old at gunpoint,” she said. “I’d tell taxis where I [was] going. They’d say, ‘Are you sure?’ ”

52 O Street Studios
Truxton Circle, Northwest Washington
Units: 35, a mix of live-in and work-only
Rent: Varies depending on unit size and purpose, from $500 for small workspaces to more than $1,600 for larger, live-in units.

Nearly 10 years later, the block is full of neighbors, and the building has a waiting list. The change inspired 33-year-old Thalhammer and her partner, DJ and interim Fringe Festival general manager Ebony Dumas, to upgrade their apartment. Youmans, who has an unusually liberal policy of allowing his renters to remodel, approved the work, which included demolishing a bedroom wall that had been covering a window. Now “when the sun rises, it just shines right into my bedroom at 8 a.m.” Thalhammer said. “I don’t even need an alarm. It’s really lovely.”

The neighborhood isn’t the only thing that’s different.

“The vibe of the building has changed a bit,” Thalhammer said. When she moved in there were more painters; now the tenants include textile designer Virginia Arrisueño of DeNada Design and the graphic designers of Typecase Industries.

“It’s wonderful that I can have an appointment with my printer, and I can just walk up one flight of stairs,” said Thalhammer, referring to designer/printers Furthermore.

Thalhammer’s 2,000-square-foot live-work space with 12-foot-high ceilings on the first floor is decorated in the main living space with art by her and friend Thom Flynn, and in the kitchen with prints from travels and artist friends.

She redecorates constantly. “It’s very rare for someone to visit me twice and have the space be the same,” she said.

A mannequin of former first lady Betty Ford given to her by a friend who works at the Smithsonian presides over Thalhammer’s bed, and an oversize crystal-shaped plaster sculpture, built for an exhibition at the Artisphere, where Thalhammer used to work, protrudes from a corner. A hammock is slung in her studio.

Maintaining a work-life balance can be difficult for some artists who combine their studio and living space, but not for Thalhammer. Her portraiture subjects include Dumas, Thalhammer’s mother, who lives in her home town of St. Louis, and, in a recent “Rainbow Warrior” series, herself.

“My work is … so integrated into my life, and vice versa, that it works for me,” Thalhammer said.

More of Quest Skinner's studio apartment at the Brookland Artspace Lofts is dedicated to art than to living. The painter has outfitted her space in the vibrant colors and feminine materials, like glitter and feathers, that she uses in her work. The longtime Eastern Market artist also collects work from friends in the building, with whom she frequently collaborates. To her, Brookland feels like a large extended family of artists.

Painter Quest Skinner

Quest Skinner thought she had a handle on what it was to be an artist — after all, she comes from a family of painters and photographers, and she has sold her artwork out of Eastern Market for 14 years. Then, she moved into Brookland Artspace Lofts in 2011.

Brookland Artspace Lofts
Northeast Washington
Units: 41 
Rent: Studios $950, one bedroom $1,011, two bedrooms $1,205

“I never understood what an artist was without an artist community,” said Skinner, 36. That community, for example, has enabled her to walk down the hallway fully body-painted and ask her photographer neighbor to snap a quick photo of her handiwork. Or to ask her costume designer neighbor to help her craft a perfect dress for a painting demonstration.

“I looked at this as a massive explosion of family possibilities,” she said.

Skinner serves on the building’s livability committee, which addresses building-wide issues, such as neighborly disputes, and in May received Artspace’s Steve Kramer Award for Community Service.

The Brookland lofts are one of 35 projects across the country by nonprofit developer Artspace; more are in development. Unit prices are determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s guidelines for subsidized housing. The building shares a first floor with Dance Place, and gives residents access to a gallery downstairs to display their work. Residents also have turned the hallways into a gallery, with a rotating display of their latest creations.

Skinner’s studio apartment — which, if you removed the paints and easels, would resemble a typical D.C. apartment — mirrors the vibrant colors and femininity of her work. She frequently uses materials such as glitter and feathers, which also adorn her hair.

“We should come home to feel as if that is the one space to express your joy and femininity and love,” she said.

Her workspace, which is covered with a paint-splattered dropcloth, takes up much of the apartment. She shares the space with her Yorkiepoo, Ginger Rogers; her cat, Egypt; and a flower-covered mannequin sculpture titled “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush.” She has little furniture other than a bed, sofa and large cabinet she bought from a monk’s residence across the street and DIYed into a glass mosaic counter. The art on her walls that is not her own comes from family and other Artspace residents. It’s just the right amount of space, she says, and she can tell that it was designed with artists in mind.

“The layout, the setup — everything is really made for us to get it done and just have that little bit of privacy,” she said. “It’s perfect for work. It’s perfect for living.”

Toni George uses the main room of her two bedroom loft at the Mt. Rainier Artist Lofts to display her collection of tribal African masks and sculpture. The mixed-media artist, who also works in textiles and film, has devoted one bedroom to her workspace, stacked high with bolts of African cloth.

Mixed-media artist Toni George

Of course Toni George likes her neighbors — she gets to pick them. As a member of the artist selection committee at the Mount Rainier Artist Lofts, George sits on a panel that interviews applicants. Building manager Davis jokingly calls them the “American Idol Panels.”

Mount Rainier Artspace Lofts
Maryland
Units: 44 
Rent: Studios $753, one bedroom $806, two bedrooms $968

“You’re not evaluating in terms of whether somebody’s good, bad or indifferent,” George said. “It’s: Are you committed to your art? Are you actively pursuing it?”

Managed by the same nonprofit developer as Brookland, the lofts sit squarely in the heart of the Gateway Arts District. The artists can hang out or perform at the Urban Eats Cafe and sell their work in the building’s gallery, as well as the ArtIz Gallery Lounge furniture/fashion/salon/shop on the first floor.

George’s mixed-media art explores race and current events. Previously, she made documentary films. She’s also a fabric artist, designing her own clothing from tribal African textiles.

George takes advantage of the 19-foot ceilings in her two-bedroom apartment by stacking bookshelves and bolts of African cloth high in her workspace. Her home is full of shag rugs and fringed throws, which contrast with the African patterns in her fabric and on her walls.

She is a collector of African artifacts and masks, which she displays.

The lofts have a large number of singers, dancers and musicians, which calls for more neighborly flexibility than your typical building.

“You can come in sometimes, and there might be a band practicing, and it might be very good,” George said. When she gets working — during the time off from her day job as a carpenter for trade shows — that tolerant atmosphere comes in handy for her, too. “I like to play music when I work,” she said. “And I might be working late into the night.”

Jon Gann, founder of the DC Shorts film festival, uses his condo in the Mather Lofts for screenings and filmmaker parties. All of his furniture -- especially his Murphy bed -- is easy to rearrange to open up the room to accommodate more people. Gann says that he and the other artists on his floor have become a tight-knit group, earning the nickname &ldquot;The Mathers&rdquot; from other artists in the city.

Filmmaker Jon Gann

As a filmmaker and the founder of the DC Shorts Film Festival, Jon Gann works on location and on the silver screen. In his 870-square-foot condo at the Mather Studios, he has perfected a different art form: entertaining.

The Mather Studios
Penn Quarter, Northwest Washington
Units: 12
Price: $150,000 in 2003.

“You’re supposed to use the space for your art. But I’m a filmmaker, so I’m not really going to shoot here,” said Gann, 48. “I voted for parties.”

From screening parties to winter solstice fetes, Gann has hosted it all. His furniture is modular and can be moved around to open up the room to throngs of filmmakers and artists. He even has a Murphy bed, which can be lifted away to convert his bedroom into a sitting room and bar, a design featured on the HGTV show “Small Space, Big Style” in 2005.

Twelve artists were offered a rare opportunity, via lottery, to buy affordable units through a partnership between nonprofit CulturalDC and private developer PN Hoffman (the 50 other units are market rate). Gann bought his apartment in 2003 for about $150,000, under the stipulation that he couldn’t resell it for market value for 10 years. Last year, it was appraised at $500,000, he said.

“I had thought years ago, come December 2013, everyone’s going to be the hell out of here,” he said of the building at Ninth and G streets. “And now it’s like Disney World outside; it’s crazy. Why would I ever leave?”

When he first moved into his unit, “everything was beige,” he said. “And I don’t do beige.”
It has since taken on more color, thanks to the art he has accumulated — some from neighbors Dana Ellyn and Tim Tate — and the DIY upgrades he has given to the space, such as a column that he frequently paints.

“When I first moved in, it was this beautiful orange color,” he said. “And then I had a partner that wanted it to be blue, so I changed it to blue, and that was a disaster and so was he — so he left, and I painted it red because I was angry, and it looked really good, actually. And when I was over the anger period, I painted it yellow.”

He and his partner, Michael Shankle, have formed a close bond with the artists who live around them. Other artists nicknamed the group “The Mathers.”

Said Gann, “We sort of want to be neighbors forever.”

He also credits the building for his founding of DC Shorts. Artists in the building were given access to the Mead Theatre Lab downstairs, which is where he hosted the first festival in 2003.

“This condo made my career,” Gann said. “Knowing that you have a roof over your head that you can afford, you can really work on your art.”

Maura Judkis is a Washington Post reporter.

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