A few years ago, sculptor Charlie Bessant was beaten up in the alley outside 57 N St. NW, his home and studio. Although Bessant was one of the founding members of 57N, a group of artists who work out of the old warehouse, he almost gave up on the dicey Northwest neighborhood he'd lived in for 20 years.
But while he was scouting new locations, Bessant began to notice a surge of energy, of positive thinking, in the "new blood" that had moved into the warehouse over the past few years: mixed-media artist Maureen Jordan Tierney, sculptor Randy Jewart, architect-artist Marcia Hart.
Where Bessant saw ruin, they saw remodeling. While he felt discouraged by the years of neighborhood crime, they felt encouraged by development plans that included a Metro station and new office buildings.
Bessant stayed and became part of a ferment of creativity that has culminated in the opening of a bright new art gallery, 57N Fine Art, carved out of a second-floor junk room. The gallery is curated by the 17 artists who either work or live in the 24,000-square-foot brick warehouse, nestled among row houses on a dead-end block off bustling New York Avenue.
"There is truth to this juju thing because this building has juju," says Tierney, 36, an established artist who also exhibits her found-art creations at the Ralls Collection in Georgetown. "Even when it was a cannery it was a creative place and things always happened here."
More than 100 people attended last month's opening of 57N Fine Art's third show, "Union," the start of a series called "Art & Ceremony" that explores major life transitions through art.
Bessant, 50, describes the gallery space as sophisticated but still raw--in keeping with the building, a mix of gritty hallways and loftlike living spaces. The gallery's logo, designed from a pattern on the ceiling, is intended to reflect the desire to meld the old with the new.
To save money and put their own stamp on the space, Tierney, Hart, 40, and Jewart, 30, remodeled it themselves, sometimes with help from the other artists--carting out old furniture, spackling over grungy walls. They sculpted a wide stairwell where an old elevator shaft had stood. They painted the warehouse's exterior, the first new coat in more than a decade. Longtime 57N artist Faith Ferraioli fronted the money for professional track lighting.
"We are sort of the constant Three Stooges," says Tierney. It helps that they all drink Rolling Rock and award "beer merits" for labor.
The vision for the gallery is for the 57N artists to take turns curating shows. "Union," curated by Tierney and Hart, is a celebration of their own union as a couple. They put out a call to artists--inside and outside the warehouse's colony--to create pieces that define the word. Among the 20-odd works is Andrea Burchette's "Together Forever," a painting of two birds symbolizing the epitaph on her parents' gravestone.
Randy Jewart and his wife, Cacki, an attorney, will put together "Birth," the series's next exhibit, which opens Jan. 5. Their theme also treads personal territory. "My wife is pregnant and the baby is due on the day of the opening of the show," he says.
During openings, guests are free to wander around the studios and glimpse works in progress. "It's an entry into a more intimate connection with the artist," says Tierney. "People are turned on by the possibilities."
After the openings, visitors must make an appointment, though the collective is developing a staff rotation to keep the gallery open during regular hours.
Besides Bessant, only Ferraioli has been with 57N since the beginning, although turnover in the studio spaces generally happens slowly. Some of the artists hold down day jobs and do their creative work at night or on weekends. Others, like metal sculptor Chas. Colburn, make most of their living from commissions.
Living and working at 57N means no respite from the creative life. This sits just fine with Tierney, who lives above Jewart's studio, where he carves large abstract forms, these days out of limestone. "I love waking up early on a Sunday morning when there's pounding going on," she says. "It keeps your morale up."
The Jewarts live right behind Colburn's sprawling metalworks studio. Although he has resorted to earplugs more than once, Jewart cheerfully says he can't beat his "300-foot commute from home to studio."
As for Bessant, he's glad he didn't desert his 14-foot ceilings and cheap rent. "When you have new people come in and see potential that you've been living with, it rekindles things in yourself," he says.
Just last week he was making improvements in his own studio.
"Union" is open through Nov. 7. Call for an appointment, 202-234-6451.
Jim Vance will host the 15th annual Mayor's Arts Awards from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Monday. In between the six award presentations, there will be dance and music performances, and a party will be held afterward. The free event takes place at Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Reservations are required, call 202-724-5613 . . . As of today, the Rosebud Film and Video Festival has a new home and a new sponsor: Arlington Community Television. The local festival was founded nine years ago by retired government worker Natasha Reatig. "It was time for a new influx of blood and ideas," says Reatig, who will continue to be involved on the sidelines. ACT, a nonprofit public access station, will celebrate tonight with a handoff party. The public is invited to bring film and video submissions for next spring's festival. The party is 7 to 9 p.m. at ACT, 2701-C Wilson Blvd. in Arlington. For information, call 703-524-2388. The official submission deadline is Jan. 21.
CAPTION: The artists of 57 N St. stand in a wide stairwell that was once an elevator shaft.