There is something about making art that pulls artists into clusters. Certain bars attract them (the Moulin Rouge, the Cedar), as do certain neighborhoods (Montparnasse, the Village). Though art is made in solitude, artists clump together -- for security and fun.
The history of local art may be read in many ways as a history of enclaves. The complex known as Zenith Square is the newest art enclave in town.
Zenith Square is not a square. Margery Goldberg's project is a busy warren of studios, workshops, bedrooms, offices, galleries and schools, which share a group of once-grand bow-front rowhouses in the 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW.
When the young Zenithians -- if one counts all the dancers, woodworkers and actors, there may well be 200 -- speak about their projects, their art school, for example, they often say "eventually" and use the future tense. They may contribute much, or little, to the art scene of this city. It is too soon to tell.
Zenith Square, despite its name, is not at its zenith yet. It is, instead, a dream beginning to come true.
It is not for artists only. There are 150 persons -- children, senior citizens, professionals and amateurs -- who dance and teach and study at Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange. One may also study Shakespeare there; and Chekhov, Shaw and Ibsen, at Joy Zinoman's actors' studio. And Zenith Square now has three functioning art galleries. Goldberg's Zenith Gallery has been there since March. The other two, the Coterie and the Light Box (which shows photographs), opened there last month. Smaller rooms at Zenith Square have been let as studios to some two dozen artists, photographers and woodworkers, jewelers and sculptors, some of whom live in.
One is Terry Lewis, a resident of Zenith Square who runs something that he calls the Holistic Art Guild. It may some day breed an art school. The Guild, as he describes it, is an informal network of blacksmiths, stained-glass workers, artists and designers who together, Lewis says, can build anything at all.
"Suppose you buy a house and want stained glass in your windows, new fountains in your garden, a fine wrought-iron fence and custom-designed lighting, hand-made Queen Anne chairs, paintings, fabrics, lamps -- everything you need could be commissioned here. Because we work together, our designs don't clash."
Zenith Square has 40,000 square feet of space. Poetry readings are held there, as are fashion shows. When the International Instructional Television Cooperative held auditions for actors for its series on black folklore, it did so in the empty rooms, of which there the still many, to be found at Zenith Square.
Zenith Square is not the first art community in Washington. Most enclaves formed in Washington -- around a style or a hangout, a gallery or art school -- have not lasted long. But some have left their mark.
The workshop center formed here in the 1950s by Leon and Ida Berkowitz helped color painting blossom. Later, in the '60s, Lou Stovall at his workshop did the same for silkscreen printing. Art enclaves remembered here as something more than mere gatherings of teachers also formed at Howard and American universities. The Torpedo Factory in Alexandria -- which sprang out of the Art League, a private group of artists, most of them suburban -- is now supported by that city. Some art enclaves in Washington have appeared as if by accident. The artists who were drawn to the Beverly Court moved into that apartment building on Columbia Road NW because the rents were low.
As pearls are built round grains of sand, art enclaves can form around anything at all -- inexpensive rents, a bar, a job, a neighborhood, a shared attitude or style. But something seems to happen when artists come together. They share knowledge and materials. They criticize each other's work. To choose to be an artist requires an act of faith. The doubts that torture artists may, perhaps, be assuaged by the reassuring sight of other working artists.
Margery Goldberg, the "mother of Zenith Square," had long worked in solitude when in 1977 her George-town sculpture studio burned. "While I was looking for a studio, Stuart Bloch, a friend and a real estate investor, mentioned Zenith Square. It wasn't called that then. It was a set of empty buildings that previously had housed both the Washington Bible College and the International School of Law. Stuart and his partner William Ingersoll had bought them for investment, but they were sitting vacant. Stuart told me he'd give me a good deal if I wanted just a studio, but what he really hoped to see was an art school in the place."
Instead, Margery Goldberg rented 5,500 square feet and opened her own gallery, the Zenith, which gave its name to Zenith Square.
Zenith Square is not a place where pure art seems to blossom. Like most of those who live and work there, Goldberg leans toward craft. She makes polished wooden sculptures. Frequently they function as wine racks, coffee tables. The studio-shop where she makes her art is next door to her gallery.
Goldberg acknowledges that the rents at Zenith Square -- studios range from $100 to $400 per month -- are not inexpensive. "If you want to work alone you can find a cheaper space. The owners have been patient. They know we're just beginning. Eventually, for Zenith Square, we will have to pay them $8,000 a month."
How much is Goldberg paid for organizing Zenith Square? "My father always asks me that," she says, "Nothing, I'm afraid. But I'm paid in other ways. When you form an art community something special happens. The police are supportive, so are all our neighbors, and Marion Barry and John Wilson. The people who buy from Zenith rarely go to P Street. Most of them are young.Lots of them are black. I spent three years in Georgetown. I didn't know my neighbors, I didn't know the city's dancers, actors, politicians. I rarely spoke to blacks. Living here in Zenith Square is being involved not just with art, but with Washington as well."