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New arts space in an old place

By on September 27, 2017 in Arts with 2 Comments

Terry Johnson (for years owner of Terry Signs) has branched into clay work as well as painting, extending his reputation for mentoring and encouraging fellow artists. Here he’s doing some tricky brushwork on a large urn.

By Susan Lagsdin

This new community of artists is still a bit of a riddle.

What’s hidden in plain sight? What’s ancient in tradition with a cutting-edge spin?

In the back of a building with almost a century of history, Warehouse 3 Design Centre is less than a year old. It’s smack dab in the middle of downtown but a little tricky to find. It’s an “arts incubator,” even though the artists are hatched and growing.

 It’s a former dark, dank storage site that’s wide open and welcoming.

 It’s often whisper-silent at its busiest, noisy when it’s not.

And, congruent with city zoning, if you’re looking at art in Warehouse 3, you can admire but can’t be a buyer. (Not yet, not there.)

The operator/manager of this almost-underground 7,000 square foot basement is André Gerspach. He’s a long-time resident (EHS ’95) now a confirmed Wenatchee-ite after trying out Seattle and its rainy weather a few times.

He’s always been attracted to the performing arts but only recently found satisfying time to develop Copper Hat Design, making untypical woodcraft projects that put a spin on history and function. Currently he’s turning antique windows into a domestic greenhouse, aged manikins into lamps, and re-purposing an out-of-service piano into a full-service bar.

Last winter, André and his artist friend Terry Johnson were seeking a new studio area for their large and sometimes messy projects and chanced upon the former Wells and Wade building. The owner of the block-long structure, a Bellevue investor, seemed intrigued by a cooperative arts venture, and André took the leap.

“I’d never done anything like this before,” André said. Filling the basement with renters wasn’t a real-estate venture for him but an experiment in collaboration.

“It’s not really a commune; we’re kind of a mish-mash, ‘stray-dog’ artists. We take care of each other — sure, there are rules and people sign contracts, but there’s also a lot of trust.”

Renovation started last February with hard labor: 16-hour days of dump runs, scraping, scrubbing, repainting, installing equipment (kilns, shelving, production machinery), and building both half walls and secure spaces. Utilities existed and amenities were rough but serviceable. And the monthly rent, meted out by pillar’s-widths (as in, “They share a six-pillar space”) was eminently affordable.

One by one, tenants came forward. They heard, they saw, they moved in their gear, and now working artists — you can count 11 if they hold still — feel at home here, and they sell their artwork online or in local shops and galleries. The cavernous place, never intended to be prettied up, is now well-lighted, with rudimentary HVAC and working plumbing. What’s not to love?

André said. “At first it was just a few painters and potters, and then some musicians wanted a space… so I figured — why not? Let’s open it up. Two big rooms next door in the north end of the warehouse block are also coming available for occupancy, and André is eyeing them as interest grows.

If you venture off the alley, onto the loading dock and into Warehouse 3 when the padlock’s open and the door is ajar, you’ll soon see a bright red enameled sliding door (circa 1890 from a local bank, said André) that leads into the major workspaces.

In the wide-open studio he gladly shares, Terry Johnson, whose lifelong arts career has transitioned from sign making to painting to pottery, moves easily between mediums. Surrounded by works in progress and various tools of the trade, he remains a mentor and an easy companion.

Warren Bissonnette, a barber/haircutter for 40 years and a potter for 50, has his own kiln and worktables near Terry. Currently he creates tall, gracious and gargoyle-like animal vases, intricately tool-etched (a technique called “sgraffito”) and baked with specialized glazes and tints.

Around behind their wall, Adam Leonardini, a leatherworker at American Shoe Shop, has installed his own gear and workbenches to concentrate on his craft. Blake Bangs does commercial-scale screenprinting in another big room.

Painter Nik Penny, who as a teen worked in his teacher’s studio, transitioned to his mom’s garage and moved his art downtown. Although a painter’s dream is a wall of north windows, he likes Warehouse 3 because, he said, “It’s big, it’s cheap, and my stuff feels really secure. I trust the people here.” He can also drop in easily between shifts at his two jobs.

The resident musicians are multi-instrumentalist Sheldon Douglas as well as a group (Tyler Burlingame, Connor McKay, Travis Wintler and Lynn Lyons) named Human Element that plays what Nik and André pinned down as “not quite alt rock.” They use a carpeted semi-open space with chairs, a couch and room to stash their equipment. “Sometimes I’ll be painting when they’re practicing — it’s pretty good music; I’ll stop work and listen,” said Nik.

André said, “Right now a few more artists are interested in relocating here.” There’s room for more easels and benches tucked into corners, and open space can be cordoned off. A local theatre company is eyeing space for set construction and storage.

Warehouse 3 offers a few comforts of home. There’s a full-time studio cat, Pompeii, who’s doubtless pleased with the hunting; and the “front porch,” the loading dock, is adorned with plants, including Warren’s kumquat tree. Tenants have keys and can come and go as they juggle their home and work schedules.

There have already been positive ripple effects from this serendipitous find — the big old space that was too large for one artist to hoard, but just right to share. André said neighboring business are pleased with the venture, which has provided a major clean-up and benign foot traffic in this back-alley site. It’s not gentrification in the exclusionary sense, more like highest and best use of the building.

Artists meet and talk to one another informally, and Nik said of the present company, “I can almost always have a meaningful conversation about art here, regardless of the medium.”

André hopes more project-based collaboration, beyond conversation, can happen. (The open-wall concept helps; a hallway-with-cubicles concept vanished early in the remodel.)

Ideally, that collegial spirit between artists will expand into arts events with the public, perhaps readings, performances, installations and art shows, mentorships, classes, First Friday Art Walk tie-ins and more.

André has high hopes: “Picture a barbecue back here in the alley some day, with a band playing up on the dock and art all around…”

So, a couple of artists wander into a dark basement…

True to form, they create something out of nothing, using resources at hand and problem-solving at every turn, employing their skills and their passion in equal measure.

With the sweat equity and creativity of André and his cohorts, Warehouse 3 Design Centre — happily harboring its first members and welcoming more — hopes to be a vibrant partner in Wenatchee’s burgeoning arts community.

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  1. Doug Pelton says:

    Great article. Address of the place ?? Thanks

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