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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.

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Kristina Bilonick, Nick Pimentel and Sarah McLaughlin

Down the hall from Johnson's studio, one door stands out from the rest. Its opaque glass window is embellished with old-fashioned block letters announcing the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, a quirky touch that reflects Abrams's penchant for salvaged materials. Behind this door is one of the building's most attractive, inviting studios. An airy space, illuminated by a skylight and splashed with color, it bears the fingerprints of art-school types with a secondhand-shop budget.

Kristina Bilonick, Nick Pimentel and Sarah McLaughlin have shared this studio for the past two years, though they rarely see each other these days. Bilonick has a full-time job as a program director for Washington Project for the Arts, while McLaughlin makes ends meet with bartending shifts at a restaurant in Chinatown. Pimentel, whom Bilonick calls "the Renaissance man," occupies himself with a record label, a graphic design firm, his 9-month-old son and Room 11, his newly opened wine bar in Columbia Heights.

These are the artists Abrams points to as Gold Leaf's best example of commercial success. McLaughlin, a graduate of the Corcoran, works on commissioned jewelry pieces, crafting delicate sterling silver necklaces strung with arrows, hooks and hearts. Bilonick studied printmaking in college but trained as a screen printer during a two-year stint at a T-shirt shop. Now, she creates custom T's, shows her art prints in group exhibitions and sells her work at Adams Morgan's Smash Records and annual Crafty Bastards art fair. And Pimentel's bright, splashy posters hang neatly on one wall, advertising tours and concerts at such big-name venues as New York's Knitting Factory.

"I feed off of seeing other artists," Bilonick says. "There's something about this particular building that makes me never want to leave."

In that way, Bilonick hopes to bring more people into Gold Leaf. She's envisioning daytime events, including open studio days, trunk shows, one-on-one classes, and beer or wine tastings, maybe even with a band playing in the background. "We're here, so let's announce it," she declares.

Upstairs, a drum kit comes to life with a series of hesitant thumps. A dusty fan ruffles sketches and swirls warm air around a cluttered studio. Outside, the rusted metal door to the building at 443 I St. NW swings shut, punctuated by a protective click of the deadbolt.

"I think the only people who could really use Gold Leaf right now are artists," says arts organizer Philippa Hughes, "and it's not because artists will take just anything, but because they see things other people don't see."

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Holly E. Thomas is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at thomash@washpost.com.


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