Puppet installation at Eastside Culture Crawl embodies studio displacement

Work reflects on the city's loss of 400,000 square feet of studio space over the past decade

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      Artist spaces across the city are slowly shrinking, but the women of the Old Foundry Building have gotten creative about the situation.

      Although rising rents have forced them to share a smaller footprint at 1790 Vernon Street, they’ve not only adapted the scale of their own artwork, but launched a new collaborative project for this year’s Eastside Culture Crawl.

      Heather Craig, Rojia Dadashzadeh, Monica McGarry, and Allison Hardy have fashioned more than 50 puppets out of salvaged materials, from driftwood, shells, wool, and clay to soap pumps and metal umbrella frames. Amid the artful crowd, a white, bulbous head with frizzed shredded-paper hair sprouts from a driftwood log, while another balances herself with outstretched stick arms.

      But these are puppets that don’t move—and they make up a highly symbolic installation at the Displacement exhibit at this year’s massive open-studio fest.

      “We wanted everything to be made from something used before; everything had to be a displaced object,” says Craig, joining McGarry and Dadashzadeh in the studio they share—one where Craig has been based for 20 years. “We’ve gone on walks and picked up stuff, and scrounged around the studio so that anything that was discarded would become a puppet. So it’s about the environment being displaced, but people being displaced, too.”

      “To me, as artists, we animate the city, we bring life to the city,” explains McGarry. “To not have the puppets moving is to remember that art will become stagnant if you don’t have people breathing life into it.”

      The puppets now populate the installation at Displacement, at the Alternative Creations Gallery right through the Crawl. And it’s one of many pieces at four galleries by artists faced with eviction or finding innovative ways to fight displacement.

      The crisis was recently quantified in an Eastside Culture Crawl Society study, titled City Without Art? No Net Loss+. It reported the loss of 400,000 square feet of studio space over the past decade due to residential or commercial redevelopment and conversions. That represents almost 50 percent of locations used by artists in the district.

      Rising rents have forced some to relocate; the study found rental rates have gone up 65 percent in eight years. Others, like the Old Foundry team, have added more members to keep going.


      The Old Foundry Building

      THE OLD FOUNDRY IS typical of the situation happening across the historic East Side industrial zone, where more than 479 artists will show their work in 68 buildings during the Crawl.

      Nestled among railroad tracks, auto shops, and food depots, it’s a bare-bones warehouse without heat; the women work upstairs in a few hundred square feet. A space heater and Styrofoam sealed over the door keep it cozy enough to make art here.

      Dadashzadeh, who used to rent a 100-square-foot, windowless room on the main floor, moved upstairs when rents started rising, taking part of Craig’s long-time studio and helping to pay the bills.

      You have to be tidy to work this way. Along shelves on one wall, Craig’s signature house-shaped ceramics sit neatly alongside her enigmatic smaller-scale paintings. Dadashzadeh’s playful multimedia sculptures, sprouting geometric shapes and tentacle- or mushroomlike forms, line an end counter.

      McGarry is wedged in the adjacent room among several other artists. Newly returned to her old digs from a teaching gig in the Interior, she works at a single desk. Like Craig, she used to create much larger canvases. But with this setup, it’s easier to pursue her collages and drawing—expressive pastel works inspired by theatrical costumes and masks. “I would prefer to make a drawing that filled this room; the next step is maybe I’ll remove this furniture,” she says, pointing to her chair and desk.

      The artists have adapted to the tighter space. But now they face a scenario looming over many of the artist spaces in the ’hood: the owner has sold the aging facility to a developer. Permit processes and other delays should ensure that the women have use of the studio for a few more years. But after that, things will become precarious.


      Heather Craig's wait.


      For many artists, the lack of space and the associated costs have necessitated working at home. But the Old Foundry crew thrive in a studio environment where they can bounce ideas off one another. “The sense of community is really important. Creating is not an isolated activity,” Dadashzadeh stresses. “It gives you that critical perspective, but also gives you that community boost, too.”

      “I define art as a conversation with the culture I inhabit, so I can’t be in a closet and do that,” Craig adds.

      A big misunderstanding, these women find, is that people assume they’re in the business of selling art. But the process of creating, and space to experiment, are a huge part of what they do. Small studios don’t allow artists to think big.

      Or, as Dadashzadeh puts it: “When you put a little fish in an aquarium, that’s how much the fish can grow.”

      For McGarry, part of the problem is where the lion’s share of government resources goes. “Galleries get funded, not where the process happens.”


      Monica McGarry's The Tinder Date.


      THESE CRAWL PARTICIPANTS have a lot of ideas about how the city might preserve what’s left of its East Side artist spaces—beyond capping property taxes or directing funding toward places where art is made as much as where it is shown.

      The issue has gained some traction at city hall, which has approved a new 10-year strategy to protect and grow artist studios and music spaces. But the City Without Art? study stresses action needs to happen as soon as possible to protect the thriving cultural scene.

      “We need something similar to an agricultural land reserve,” McGarry offers. “There needs to be something like Granville Island here—some light-industrial areas reserved for artists.”

      The women point out many parcels of land in the area are owned by the city. “In my utopian hope for it, the city recognizes that artists need space for production,” Dadashzadeh says. “Why can’t we have the city set aside certain space for artists, and we pay rent to the city? Then we don’t have to rely on developers.”

      On the eve of this 23rd Eastside Culture Crawl, the Old Foundry team is staying optimistic. The like-minded artists are becoming adept at tackling obstacles—even those presented by their collaborative project.

      “All of the puppets are about solving problems together,” Dadashzadeh says. “Like, ‘How am I going to make this guy stand up?’ Or ‘How am I going to make his arms move?’ ”

      On the more positive side, the artists admit that sharing these tight quarters, and working closely, has led to creation of an installation that might not have existed otherwise.

      “This is women working tighter, and cooperating,” sums up Craig. “We’re collaborating so much with the puppets, I don’t know even who made which ones anymore.”

      The Eastside Culture Crawl takes place from Thursday to Sunday (November 14 to 17).

      Rojia Dadashzadeh's "The Garden" series.