The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A warehouse of their own: D.C. artists launch a co-working and exhibition space

Melvin Nesbitt Jr. is one of 32 artists at Stable, a studio complex and exhibition space in Eckington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

For the past four years, as Melvin Nesbitt Jr. was coming up as a professional artist, he managed to find space in which to work. But he had a harder time finding a supportive network of fellow artists to help connect him to the larger professional scene.

A collage artist who lives in Shaw, Nesbitt, 46, applied for a spot at STABLE, a studio complex and exhibition space in Eckington that opened its doors this summer to 32 artists from around the Washington metro area.

Since then, “I’ve been offered to teach a couple of workshops and got a solo show through my association with STABLE,” Nesbitt said. “I knew this was going to be a community, and the other artists were very interested in being part of a community and interacting with each other, and that’s something I felt was missing in my life as an artist before.”

Creating a hub for artists in a city not generally associated with the concept was the primary goal of the nonprofit organization, founded by three artists — Tim Doud, Linn Meyers, and Caitlin Teal Price — who moved to the District after achieving success in other cities. Determined to counter the common wisdom that Washington was no town for artists, they set out to create a meeting ground similar to those that had helped them flourish in New York City and elsewhere.

The 10,000-square-foot space, housed in a sprawling brick building that was once a stable for a Nabisco factory, includes 21 studios for 24 artists, a shared workspace for eight more, a lounge and a 1,100-square-foot gallery space.

The artists, selected from among 150 applicants by a panel of arts professionals, range in age from their 20s to their 60s. Some have decades of experience; others are relative newcomers.

The space officially opens next week with an inaugural exhibition showcasing the work of its artists and a fundraising dance party. Some of the pieces on display refer to the District — either directly, such as the wall of giant letters reading “GO-GO BELONGS HERE,” by Nekisha Durrett, or more obliquely, such as “The Tran-harmonium, A Listening Station,” by Emily Francisco, in which 88 keys of a piano are hooked up to 43 radios tuned to different stations. In St. Louis, where Francisco used to live, that meant a lot of country music; in Washington the device captures more news.

Francisco’s studio is 163 square feet, but she built sturdy shelves into the top half to accommodate materials such as piano innards and old televisions.

Other spaces are larger, and some are shared. In a spacious loft, Andy Yoder, 61, worked on a giant fence rail plastered with real tobacco leaves and wrapped in plaid flannel, with roots at the bottom of the posts.

Yoder lives in Falls Church, Va., but the piece also reflects his childhood in Ohio horse country, “looking in from the outside at that equestrian, horsy, kind of preppy culture.” Pointing at the roots on the bottom, he said, “As fence rails sometimes do, they’ll kind of sprout new sprouts.”

When Yoder moved to the Washington area five years ago, he had trouble connecting with other artists.

“I lived in New York City for about five years, and I just had not found my tribe in this area,” he said. “In New York you’re always in conversation with other artists by putting your work out there. . . . Artists are like orchids — they need a little terrarium to thrive. There’s nothing like having other artists around you.”

For Yoder, that need has been met by sharing a studio space with Nesbitt. “I make suggestions and he gives me feedback,” Yoder said. “It’s just helpful having another set of eyes.”

Nesbitt, who is originally from Spartanburg, S.C., moved to the District 16 years ago to be with his partner. His collage-on-cardboard work features landscapes and portraits based on the housing project where he lived in elementary school. One 5-by-4-foot piece depicts two young African American boys sitting on a couch beside a man holding food stamps whose head has been replaced by the head of Uncle Sam.

The picture is based on Nesbitt’s own childhood and how it was affected by government policy.

“If there was an able-bodied adult man in the house, benefits would be cut off,” he said. Even after that rule ended, he said, “many jurisdictions down South would use it to intimidate people, and for years people believed that it was an enforceable law.”

“I once heard someone refer to the welfare system as ‘White Daddy,’ ” Nesbitt said, adding that when he was a child his father did not live with him in part because of fear that benefits would be cut off. The painting was an attempt “to acknowledge that this dad, our dad, was replaced by a welfare check.”

Not all the STABLE artists have physical studios. Eight were selected to be part of “Post Studio,” a co-working space similar to WeWork, for artists who either already have studios but want to be part of the STABLE community or who don’t need traditional studios. This group comprises visual artists and writers, including a sculptor, Mary Hill, who is currently in law school and whose piece on display, “Ethical Problems,” is a law book cast from brightly colored silicone.

One of Post Studio group’s artists, Aziza Gibson-Hunter, 65, has worked as an artist since coming to Washington 30 years ago to study printmaking at Howard University. She said she appreciates the connections she makes with younger artists at STABLE.

“I learn from their ideas,” she said. “And as a person of color I can bring my cultural experience to this, which I think is important because the artists’ organizations can get very insular.”

Most artists will have the opportunity to renew their one-year leases, for which they pay based on the number of square feet. But the facility also has spaces for visiting artists who may come for shorter periods. The founders hope to bring them in in collaboration with Washington’s embassies, many of which are interested in spreading culture across international borders.

STABLE has also had representatives from museums and galleries around the country come to visit, such as the one who will be installing Nesbitt’s solo show this December at Sense Gallery on Georgia Avenue NW.

“I think I’ve had more people coming through here than I did in five years of home visits,” said Molly Springfield, 42, an artist who lives in Adams Morgan.

That is a perk that wasn’t necessarily planned, Meyers said. “Originally we were really focused on the artists’ needs for space to work but as the project evolved we came to understand that there were collectors and curators and others who really longed for access to the studios of the art-making community.”

Standing in the cavernous space behind the studios where they were preparing for the dance party, Price had a huge smile. “Some days I’m blown away that we actually did it,” she said.