Presenting visual and performance art in unexpected public spaces.

Gowanus Studio Space: An interview with Libby Clarke

By Whitney Sanchez

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Exterior. Photo Courtesy of Gowanus Studio Space.

On June 2nd, 2014, Art in Odd Places (AiOP) held their Artist Resource meeting for this year’s festival, AiOP 2014: FREE, at the Gowanus Studio Space (GSS) in Brooklyn, NY. This was the first year the meeting was held in this space, and GSS was very friendly and accommodating to the needs of the evening. GSS was created in 2007 to create an affordable working space for artists to continue sharing and creating their art. Whether it be furniture designing and building, photography, sculpting, printmaking, drawing, and painting.

AiOP caught up with artist Libby Clarke, who is now part of their volunteered based steering committee and in charge of the GSS website, for more information and insight on the current changes and mission of the space:

How did you get associated with working with Gowanus Studios?

In 2011, I was renting a studio nearby in the Gowanus area and was unhappy with the lack of community. A friend introduced me to a member of GSS and she showed me the place and encourage me to join. I applied, was accepted, and then was lucky enough to score my own studio soon thereafter. I immediately joined the Steering Committee, which is the volunteer-run admin of the studio. I am now in charge of the GSS website, which I hope to have rebuilt by the end of 2014.

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Interior.  Photo Courtesy of Gowanus Studio Space.

Honestly, my joining GSS has been essential to my reviving my career as an artist after 12+ years weathering a career in interaction and advertising design. I consider it an ideal setting for my rehabilitation back into the wild after all those years alone in a cubicle. It’s also helped me became a better designer in my professional practice, thanks to being exposed to all the brain power floating around.

How did Gowanus Studios come to be and how much has it progressed over the years?

GSS was started by a small group of artists and other cultural producers in 2007 in order to provide affordable work space and tool access to working artists, no matter where they were in their careers. It has always been based on a membership model, requiring a portfolio review and approval in order to get in. I think the studio has narrowed its focus and become much more clear in its mission in the years I have been here. We used to try to be too much for too many, which was fun but stretched us a bit too thinly. Now we really concentrate on making sure our members have what they need to grow. In fact, we recently had several long-time members leave for the best reason: they had become so successful they had outgrown the space they had here. Everyone left on good terms as we are here to cultivate and encourage people. We have alums all over the NYC art and design scene.

We constantly invite new people to come in to keep the studio fresh, and all those spaces that had become open quickly filled up with a whole new batch of amazing people. I love the studio for that: it’s all having a chance to do the work you need to do at key moments in your career in the company of others who are just as driven.

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Plan.  Image Courtesy of Gowanus Studio Space.

How has the mission and function of the studio changed since it was first started in 2007?

When it started, GSS was pretty protean in its form: there have been all sorts of programs and events over the years. Right now, we are concentrating on really fleshing out our actual facilities and improving the overall infrastructure. We are currently not scheduling a lot of workshops or outside events as we readjust and improve, but we hope to offer them in the near future. We have been having more and more pop-up shows, curated and populated by our members. I have been blown away by the level of craft and talent people have been demonstrating. It makes me just all the more eager to get to work on my own stuff.

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Wood and Fabrication Shop.  Photo Courtesy of Gowanus Studio Space.

Will the space be more open to working with AiOP or similar organizations in the future?

Absolutely! We do run all partnerships and such by or Steering Committee in order to make sure the core mission of the organization is being served first, but we have had several wonderful relationships with other organizations throughout the years. We have worked with BIG, Private Line, Gowanus Open Studios and others and have had a blast. Collaboration has been an extremely useful way to reinvigorate us and we take each offer very seriously. Although we do not take every opportunity offered to us, we make sure the ones we do take are ones we can vigorously support.

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Print Shop.  Photo Courtesy of Gowanus Studio Space.

What programming and projects will you undertake in the future?

We are hoping to cultivate strong, vibrant residencies in our work areas. We also are cultivating pop-up shows and short-term events with our members, really developing our ethos as an incubator for proactive working cultural producers. We also have our staple events such as Hallowanus which have become integral to our identity.

AiOP at the benefit for the Actor’s Theater Workshop, June 24th 2014

By Ruthie Snoke

A friend once told me, “The best way to do theatre is to find someone who is charismatic, who has a vision, and to hang around them. Do what they’re doing.” As time goes by, I realize how much truth there is in those words. Often, in theatre and elsewhere, one passionate individual has the ability to inspire countless others.

This certainly seems to be the case with Actor’s Theatre Workshop, located on West 28th Street. From the moment I stepped into the organization’s Spring Benefit & Art Exhibit, I sensed that I was among a group of people united around a shared passion. A passion, it just so happens, that could use a lot of support.

Upon arriving, my eyes immediately went to the artwork dotting the walls, and as I stepped closer I saw that each drawing had been created by a child who had participated in the Builders of the New World program. This program works with homeless shelters around the city by bringing in school children for hot meals and weekly sessions with the staff at ATW.

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Photo Courtesy of Monica Hunasikatti.

As I browsed the drawings and read the corresponding statements written by the children, I couldn’t help but recognize the unmistakable handprint of hope stamped on each one. Many of the writing samples began with an honesty that was hard to forget, speaking about the world as a place filled with turmoil and sadness. “Mothers abuse their children not just by hitting them, but also with their words,” read one piece. But the writing samples did not end in this place of hopelessness. Every student spoke of dreams, and presented many of their plans and desires for change in the accompanying artwork. Hospitals that dispensed healthy candy, designs for futuristic cars, planets that were run environmentally consciously–this did not seem to be the artwork of children who were systematically being shuffled from place to place and living in the midst of difficulty.

This indelible sense of hope, I discovered, was due mostly to the fact that the staff, led by artistic director and founder Thurman E. Scott, shares a united purpose in cultivating the idea of hope and forward motion. According to Rebecca Easley Li, the Daily Manager, this is due in part to what the students are taught, and in part to what is asked of them.

What distinguishes the program from many others like it is that the students are not simply given handouts, but are asked to advocate for themselves. Through the use of theatre exercises and writing prompts, the students are paired with mentors who instruct them to make demands of themselves. They are taught that they must have an intention for their lives; they must envision where they want to be in ten years, and, according to Easley Li, “Their intentions will pull them toward their dreams.” When the program ends with a graduation ceremony, during which the students share their piece of artwork and their written statement of goals and dreams, the result is a room full of children who have been inspired not only to dream, but to strategize realistically about how to make those dreams come true.

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Photo Courtesy of Monica Hunasikatti.

A lofty goal, but one that artistic director Thurman Scott seems to take in stride. As stated above, oftentimes all it takes for a program like this to succeed is an individual with enough passion to inspire those around, and Scott seems to have that in spades. “Stop holding back,” he said, reciting words that he tells his students, but touching the hearts of the adults standing in the room. “Reach for it, grab for it. Youhave to reach, because everyone else is reaching for life too.” Scott’s passion, and the passion of his staff, seem to be making a difference. Originally part of an initiative led by the city to fund programs in multiple theatres for homeless youth, ATW’s program is the only one still running. The program is heavily volunteer based, and along with the request for donations, Scott made an eloquent plea for volunteers to lend a hand in mentoring the students and keeping the program running.

This plea was echoed by Treasurer Eileen Burke. “What we’re trying to accomplish,” she said, “is to bring more people in. We want to have a campaign of exposing this hidden gem to the world.”

Which, according to past mentors, is well worth doing. Many of the donors present had volunteered or been associated with the organization previously, and had returned because they fully support Builders of the New World and the work ATW does in other areas. (There are many other fascinating programs, including The Life Stories Program for Veterans, and an initiative that works with people from both Israel and the West Bank.) As I circulated the room, I listened to donors gush that ATW is genuine, run efficiently, and that part of the reason the program has existed for 20 years is because the staff operates in a responsible and thorough fashion. The purposefulness of ATW’s staff seemed to have rubbed off on the donors, who watched in appreciation as they were shown video of the students’ graduation speeches.

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Photo Courtesy of Monica Hunasikatti.

“By using your imagination you can become more courageous,” one of the students on the film said, and if the grins and triumphant tears of joy captured on video were any testament to this, I would have to agree. By using theatre, Scott and the staff of Builders of the New World are empowering students one by one to develop not only their courage, but their vision, hope and joy as well. With such a reward, it’s no wonder that the people associated with ATW seem filled with purpose, and no wonder many of the former students return to inspire the current students with their tales of success. For many participants, this is the first time they have had a positive role model they can look up to, and someone who is telling them that yes, dreams can come true–with the right intentions and goals.

As ATW searches for more volunteers and mentors, the opportunity to be just such a role model is open wide. It is well worth considering, and the reward, it seems, will not just be for the students, but for those who work with them as well.