Inside Gold Leaf Studios

A rundown building in Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown has become a haven for artists and designers. Narrating this gallery are landlord Mike Abrams and artist Tendai Johnson, with music from a US Royalty practice session.
By Holly E. Thomas
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Surrounded by sun-scorched concrete and rundown townhouses, patrolled by the occasional prostitute, the ramshackle auto garage at 443 I St. NW easily blends in among its crumbling and abandoned neighbors. But to the collection of artists, musicians and designers who consider this place, colloquially known as Gold Leaf, their inspiration and refuge, that's part of the charm.

"Spaces like these are a necessity, but they're rare," says Tendai Johnson, a painter ensconced in a second-floor studio. "We as artists help the economy; we contribute more than we're given credit for. We move into neighborhoods that are affordable, and after a while you see a bar crop up, and maybe a restaurant, and then the gentrification process starts."

Mike Abrams has served as the building's landlord for the past 11 years and is a household name among creative types looking for cheap rent and raw industrial space. A graduate of the Corcoran College of Art and Design and landscape-painter-turned-sculptor, Abrams set his sights on this place, with its high ceilings and easily divided rooms, in 1998. He negotiated a break on the rent for the first six months while he built individual studios, and, over the course of a decade, he has turned the building into a rarity in the District: an affordable shelter for young musicians, artists with day jobs and established creatives who have been priced out of other locations.

"Basically, artists have to keep moving further and further afield," says Philippa Hughes, an arts organizer and board member of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. "But artists need to be in the mix, be involved in what's happening. ... Creative people need to be around each other, to run into each other and bounce ideas off each other. With everyone moving out to the suburbs, it's harder and harder to have those conversations that inspire more creativity."

Abrams has dedicated himself to rehabbing the building, turning it into a place where those conversations can happen. "It's the beauty of community," he says of the space's collaborative nature, "and the driving force is the building."

Abrams's role here isn't exactly passive: He's equal parts handyman, scoutmaster and visionary. And in the midst of it all, Abrams sculpts in his own studios, occasionally taking a break to knock quietly on a door and ask for a rent check.

In May, Abrams signed a two-year lease with Demers Real Estate, with a potential third-year extension, to the relief of his tenants. In the meantime, he's planning workshops and classes to expand Gold Leaf's presence in the art community while striking a balance between the encouragement and the management of the youthful, creative energies within the building.

Here three local bands rehearse in barely sound-proofed rooms, a Zimbabwean painter struggles to convey suffering and joy, and the team behind a streetwear label unpacks and displays its fall collection -- all contributing to a sustaining energy that emanates from within Gold Leaf's dozen or so studios.


US Royalty

On a Tuesday afternoon, brothers John and Paul Thornley and their bandmates, Luke Adams and Jacob Michael, are tapping away at their laptops, surrounded by guitars, two drum kits and a handful of amps. Born in Waldorf to musician parents, the Thornley brothers met Adams in college in Indiana, and the three have played together in a handful of bands over the past six years. In December 2007, they met Michael in a bar in the District. Within three months, they had played their first gig as US Royalty: the opening act in a sold-out show at DC9.

Roughly a year later, the Thornleys and Adams were working as government contractors, Michael was waiting tables, and the band practiced in a trailer in St. Mary's County after work. But after meeting Fffever bandmates (and Gold Leaf tenants) Alex Clarke, Justin Rodermond and Aaron Baird, they began trekking downtown most every night to hang out at Gold Leaf, and the lure of working around other musicians was hard to resist. When US Royalty booked a tour this past January and their employers balked, the band members took the leap into full-time musicianship and rented the rehearsal space between Abrams and Fffever. "It just came down to, 'What do we really want to do?' " Paul Thornley says.

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