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Reading: It's Not Just Outlet Malls Anymore
A Former Safety Goggle Factory Puts Pa. City on Arts Map

By John Fidler
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; C02

On a recent Sunday at the GoggleWorks, a converted protective eyewear factory that is helping turn Reading, Pa., into a mid-Atlantic arts destination, you could see the following: pint-size ballerinas scampering beneath the oversize painted eyes in the parking lot; a teenage violinist accompanying a dancer's pirouettes in a second-floor studio; a 2,000-degree cavern of fire raging in the ground-floor glass-blowing studio; and lithographers, painters and sculptors hobnobbing with families, students and tourists.

"I didn't realize how much was here," said out-of-town visitor Stacey Thompson as her two kids mixed it up with the kooky whirligigs in the fifth-floor Outsider Folk Art Gallery, where touching the art is encouraged.

The kids had been happily entranced by the massive studio, performance and gallery facility for hours. Her husband, Doug, was amazed they weren't bugging him to move on.

"It's better than the mall," he said.

If you think all that Reading offers are outlet stores and Monopoly game railroads, think again. This once-gritty city is morphing into an arts hub, where a Keith Haring exhibit is drawing thousands at the local museum, blues and jazz acts tour through and a downtown coffeehouse features poetry readings and acoustic music. Not bad for a city better known for factories than high art.

Antiques lovers will find plenty of shops throughout Berks County. Baseball lovers will want to catch a Reading Phillies game. Top it off with a stay at one of Reading's historic inns and dinner at a hip Euro-style restaurant and you've got yourself a weekend.

At the center of the Reading renaissance is the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, an odd collection of vintage industrial buildings that once housed a bustling safety goggle factory. It opened last September as a place for artists to create not just in the seclusion of their studios, but in front of the public. Artists of all kinds are here, along with classrooms, several galleries and complete pottery, woodworking, photography and glass-blowing studios.

If you've visited the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Alexandria's successful workshop-turned-arts-thing, you already get the philosophy behind Reading's new facility. But what sets the GoggleWorks apart are the score of performing arts groups that call the place home, among them a ballet academy, music school and children's chorus. Where else can you eavesdrop on a new chorale being rehearsed, spy on young dancers working on their pliés and see a glass bowl take shape -- all in one place?

The center also has a cafe, a gift shop and a 135-seat movie theater that features independent and offbeat films. "Junebug" was the inaugural movie. Since then, such art-house favorites as "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "Cache" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" have played. "L'Enfant" just opened, and "An Inconvenient Truth" begins on July 21.

A typical visit starts on the first floor, where special exhibits are mounted. Up for another month or so is a juried show of local artists. After that, an auction of GoggleWorks creations.

But once you've watched art in its finished form, it's time to watch art being made. On the other four floors, you can meet the artists and talk to them. This is art in progress: Wet clay bowls and molten glass vases droop, sketches in pencil become colorful oil and watercolor paintings.

Some pieces lie abandoned. Everywhere, brows furrow.

This is also art that invites repeat viewing. A swoop of color may conjure one idea on Saturday and be something entirely different by the end of the weekend. Visitors -- children especially -- are invited to touch the art, not just be touched by it.

Florida-born Deb Schlouch's studio is filled with variations of the big, wide-open eyes that captured the attention of the tiny dancers in the parking lot. "It feels so good to be surrounded by all this creativity," Schlouch said.

The 40 or so artists must spend at least 20 hours a week at the center interacting with visitors. Many artists do that on Second Sundays each month, when the GoggleWorks teems with activity.

On the second floor, there was a sudden burst of applause, the kind you heard in your college days when a busboy dropped an entire tray full of dishes. There, in one of the studios, a 12-year-old ballerina with white makeup and perfect circles of gray on her cheeks, a white leotard and white gloves danced on a tabletop to live violin. When the 13-year-old musician attacked his instrument, the dancer became a pirouetting dervish; when his playing slowed, she moved with an elegant grace. After the music stopped, she lay down on the table, rested her head on a satin pillow and feigned sleep.

Around the corner is Peter Stolvoort's studio. A lithographer, Stolvoort best personifies the controlled collision between the determined industry of Reading's past and the spirit of renewal you sense at the GoggleWorks.

This Old World-style artisan works slowly, carefully producing one print at a time on his 1 1/2 -ton Charles Brand press. With an easy but intense bearing and soft features, he could be the subject of a Rembrandt portrait.

(If you want to see another side of Reading art, make time for an exhibit of native son Keith Haring at the Reading Public Museum. "Journey of the Radiant Baby" is on display until Aug. 6. Haring, who died in 1990, jolted the art world with vibrant murals and simple figures that remain popular today.)

You might even see someone actually wearing goggles at GoggleWorks. Penny Rakov often does; she manages the kinetic glass-blowing and ceramics studios at the center of the facility.

"The GoggleWorks is an incredible opportunity for young artists," says Rakov. "There is an energy here, a feeling that things are happening."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company