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Art @ Work
In a building in Chinatown, area artists come together each day to create. And the sense of community there has proven to be its own thing of beauty.

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.

And with risk sometimes comes reward: The band played five shows at Austin's much-hyped South by Southwest festival in March, and was picked up soon after by a booking agent in Chicago. A few months later, the band was signed by an indie label in New York and released its first EP last month.

These days, they spend roughly 30 hours a week in their studio at Gold Leaf, and on this particular afternoon, the task at hand is rehearsing the 45-minute set they'll play the next night at the Black Cat. John Thornley settles in front of the keyboard, surrounded by a harmonica and an assortment of percussion instruments, while Paul Thornley strums a glossy blue Fender Telecaster. Across the room, Michael eases into a steady bass line. Adams drives out tight beats on a drum kit in the back corner. They produce a bouncy, feel-good sound laced with pop hooks, but the underlying influence is steeped in classic rock and Memphis soul.

When the musicians finally take a break, the laptops come out again, and talk turns to the business side of being in a band. The question looms: With the glimmer of commercial success within reach, why stay in the District? Why not join the ranks of their indie counterparts in New York City?

Michael explains that while studio space is abundant in New York, bands pay dearly for the privilege to practice, in some cases as much as $50 an hour. And while there are fewer spaces in this city, what's here is cheap -- the monthly rent for a Gold Leaf studio rings up between $500 and $700.

But it's not just about money. Paul Thornley, Adams and Michael stress a level of contentment and comfort they've found in the District. "It's not like New York, where there's an awesome event every night," Thornley says. "Being in D.C. keeps us in line, and keeps us practicing." And, so far, staying in line has paid off, albeit gradually. "People treat us more professionally," Thornley says. "We used to just get drink tickets when we'd play at venues. Now we get food, and they ask us what drinks we want."

"When you start getting food," Adams says, "that's big."

***

Tendai Johnson

In 2004, Tendai Johnson moved from Philadelphia to Capitol Hill, armed with dreams of becoming a full-time artist and plans to build a studio above his garage. When D.C. zoning laws made that a no-go, he stumbled upon Abrams's notice about an open studio in Gold Leaf and moved into the building almost immediately.

Born to American parents in Zimbabwe, Johnson spent the first 20 years of his life in Africa. His father, a political cartoonist, and his mother, a doctor, illegally enrolled him in an all-black school in what was then known as Rhodesia. Eventually, his father's controversial cartoons earned the family deportation to Zambia in 1975. Johnson attributes the socio-political themes that ripple through his work to a childhood surrounded by turmoil and struggle.

"I remember seeing bombings and bodies in the back of a truck as a child," he recalls, standing in front of a larger-than-life oil painting of his own face. "I had my own ditch to run to in case anything happened, but I never did. I was more interested, as a 10-year-old, in going to the roof."

The air in Johnson's studio is stiflingly hot, circulated by a single pedestal fan. Only the faintest bit of late summer light creeps in through a few small, high windows. One wall is stacked floor-to-ceiling with rows of canvases, many bearing the broad faces and toothy, awkward smiles of strangers. Johnson's technique of applying oil paint to squares of burlap gives these faces a distinctly fleshy, human quality.

There have been shaky times over the past few years, stretches when Johnson was renting month-to-month while developers prowled Gold Leaf, measuring and taking notes for a future sans Abrams and his tenants. Johnson considered looking for a new studio space, convinced that the days of Gold Leaf as an artists' haven were numbered. But then the recession hit, developers fled, and Abrams bought more time. While a guarantee of two more years here seems to have calmed those fears, Johnson is sticking around for other reasons.

"I like that this place isn't just about the fine arts -- you've got filmmakers, musicians, clothing designers," he says. "I love going to wash up down the hall and hearing those guys play their music." He gestures toward the rehearsal studios. "And it helps that they're good."

***

Durkl

On the ground floor of Gold Leaf, sitting on a couch littered with a pair of clown shoes, suction-tipped toy arrows and piles of outgoing packages, Will Sharp props his feet up on a battered trunk and surveys the cavernous space that serves as the home base for Durkl, the streetwear company he launched in 2004.

Sharp's story begins like that of so many other independent designers: He started designing T-shirts in his parents' basement in Kensington, selling them at a few boutiques and online. In 2006, his younger brother Cole joined the business, and the two moved to a 120-square-foot office in Dupont Circle. Soon, they had a full line of clothing, eventually presenting it at a trade show in California.

"We flew to San Diego, went to a small show and left with something like $50,000 worth of orders," Sharp says. "And we had no idea what we were doing."

Last spring, they brought on Lucas Pierce, to handle marketing, and in June they centralized their operation under one roof: a 2,300-square-foot warehouse on Gold Leaf's ground floor, a former taxi garage that required weeks' worth of power-washing, painting and cleaning.

The Durkl aesthetic is built around the motto "Make fun, be alive," and the clothing and accessories convey that youthful energy and streetwise attitude via eye-popping, vivid colors, reflective fabrics and '80s-inspired silhouettes. These pieces don't have fashion-as-high-art ambitions -- they're just fun.

Would it be easier for Sharp if his company were based in a city more supportive of artists, where creative spaces such as Gold Leaf weren't such a rarity? He thinks so.

"If D.C. had its way, this place wouldn't be here. A place like this doesn't exist anywhere else. And we're in Chinatown -- that's like the Times Square of this city," Sharp says of the area's commercial, mass-merchandised feel. "We just needed raw space; we don't want dropped ceilings or fluorescent lighting."

Abrams gave Sharp and his team the green light to do what they wanted with the warehouse, and they've relished that freedom, transforming a grimy garage into an industrial-slick design space. "They've been very energized by the space," Abrams says. "It makes a difference, being downtown, having that ability to be in the middle of it all."

***

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."

***

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

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