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Smaller Communities Attracting Young Artists Away From Big City Scenes

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While many art students have dreams of being swept up by the art scenes of New York, Chicago or Miami after graduation, some young artists are choosing to express themselves in lesser known locations like Gainesville.

“There are a lot of reasons that a lot of people are here,” said Chase Westfall, director of Gallery Protocol, a contemporary art gallery in Gainesville, and Fermenter, which provides free studio space for young, emerging artists.

“What we can try to do is make the best out of the situation,” he said, “by forming communities, by trying to encourage people to be active in their studios and, basically, facilitate that studio activity.”

Rosemarie Romero, who graduated in May 2013 with a Masters in Creative Photography from the University of Florida, spent a year in Miami working on her career as a contemporary artist before moving to Gainesville in the summer of 2014.

She said she enjoyed Miami for the sheer size of its arts scene and for the grants available to artists from organizations like the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs. There were also not-for-profit exhibit spaces for performance art.

“They wanted something that was not easily made into a commodity to sell,” she said. “They wanted art that was temporary, very experimental.”

But Miami was competitive, she said, and expensive. And 350 miles north, at the home of her alma mater, she heard an intriguing arts scene in its own right was bubbling to life.

Rosemarie Romero, a Gainesville artist, uses nail polish as paint over an image of a naked woman in her studio in Gainesville. Her ongoing performance piece "porn nails" was part of her master's thesis at UF.
Rosemarie Romero, a Gainesville artist, uses nail polish as paint over an image of a naked woman in her studio in Gainesville. Her ongoing performance piece “porn nails” was part of her master’s thesis at UF. Andrea Sarcos

Romero, who uses nail polish as a medium in both her painting and her performance art, is interested in exploring the idea of “feminine excess,” she said. In her painting, she dabs polish over images of naked women, and she lavishly paints people’s nails during art exhibits for her performance piece, “Porn Nails.”

Her mission, she said, is to reclaim the feminine in painting because “it’s a male-dominated genre.”

Romero said all of a sudden, she was interested in what was happening in Gainesville.

“Finally, we have this really great contemporary art gallery [Protocol] with an artist residency program and artists studios,” she said. “I thought that was the thing we needed in Gainesville for artists to thrive.”

A Home For The P.ARTS

The Poole building used to house a sheet metal company. If Chris Fillie has his way, the 10,000-square-foot building will be “secured for artists and culture makers.”

“By doing this,” he said, “we keep the power and resources within the community that created it.”

Fillie, director of Green Building Cooperative, acquired the warehouse, located in downtown Gainesville, about three months ago. The building currently houses a small group of emerging artists who call themselves the P.ARTS Collective.

Rachel Lannelli draws with chalk on the outside of the Poole building during the art exhibit organized by P.ARTS Collective for ArtWalk Gainesville's on March 27. Photo courtesy of Casey Wooster
Rachel Lannelli draws with chalk on the outside of the Poole building during the art exhibit organized by P.ARTS Collective for ArtWalk Gainesville’s on March 27. Photo courtesy of Casey Wooster

The Collective held its first music and art show there during ArtWalk Gainesville in March. The only requirement to exhibit in the space? Just show up, and install your work.

Among the pieces that could be seen were a performance artist drinking beer and lathering herself in sunscreen under a black light, a 7-year-old boy’s sharpie doodles and a colorful blanket fort installation.

“The general vision is that this is a space for local artists and artisans to come and make stuff, and we’re going to help them,” Fillie said. “We’re going to help them teach others.”

P.ARTS Collective founding member and 23-year-old UF creative photography senior Michelle Koehlmoos listed projects they’d like to see in the space: a screen-printing room, a darkroom, a microbrewery, a whiskey distillery, a metal shop and office spaces for rent. She also foresees equipment and space for teaching skills and trades.

Koehlmoos said she plans to stay in Gainesville after graduating in May. She wants to continue making her installation pieces — her latest work involved smoke, candles, animal skulls and glass bottles — and organizing art events before applying to graduate school.

Established artists say they welcome the infusion of youth and creativity.

“It’s a really vibrant community, and it keeps evolving, keeps growing,” said Miriam Novack, a sculptor and painter who returned to Gainesville in 1999 after 15 years in Miami. “Gainesville’s always prided itself on having a very healthy, vibrant, large and very good art community, and the more these spaces exist, the better it is for it, really.”

Creative Freedom And Wild Ideas

While Gainesville is growing as an artist destination, local artists admit it is not New York.

“To be totally honest,” Westfall of Gallery Protocol said, “I still think your best bet if you’re serious about trying to get your career rolling, if you’re serious about getting up to your elbows in the real nitty-gritty of what an art career is, what studio practice is, what professional standards are, it’s in your best interest to go to a big city.”

But, he said, that’s not an option for everybody.

Romero said she is thriving as an artist in Gainesville. She regularly works in the studio she shares with her boyfriend, Andrew Chadwick, an experimental sound artist, and she exhibits work in shows and regularly attends exhibits around town. She also keeps her connections in Miami alive by visiting every few months.

Romero’s studio, at the unofficially named Waldo Road Studios, is inside what used to be a flea market, and before that, a Lowe’s. It now houses about 15 artists’ studios.

She said she likes Gainesville for the freedom it offers.

“There’s not a huge media eye looking into Gainesville saying, ‘What are these artists making?’ So, it puts less pressure,” Romero said. “It makes you feel creative freedom that you don’t have anywhere else where you can experiment with the wildest ideas and develop as an artist.”

“You don’t have to fear making mistakes,” she said, “because no one’s really looking.”

About Andrea Sarcos

Andrea is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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