How the artists SAW it
November 9, 2007
CARBONDALE ” Several weeks ago, Alleghany Meadows, a local ceramic artist and co-owner of the Harvey/Meadows Gallery, was talking about how artists tend to see the potential in a dismal atmosphere. “They are flexible and see the good,” he said. “They learn from past mistakes and see the way to work with materials. The structures can’t change. But what happens to the spaces can.”
Meadows was speaking then of Aspen Highlands, where his gallery is located, and the possibility, which he has floated, of the commercially moribund Highlands Village being put into the hands of artists. That one’s a long shot. But Meadows surely had in mind another site that has, in fact, been transformed by the invasion of artists and creative thinking.
SAW, a building owned by Meadows and his partners, Gavin Brooke, a building designer, and investor Rick Carlson, celebrates its first birthday this month. Located on a dingy corner of Carbondale ” proximate neighbors include a trailer park, the town of Carbondale’s irrigation ditch, Highway 133, and a pair of old Airstream trailers used for storage ” the building was converted from a small-engine repair shop that specialized in lawn mowers and chain saws. The name, SAW, is a tribute to the former use, but it is also an acronym for Studio for Arts and Works. Both of those derivations accurately represent the look, feel and purpose of the building: several enormous saw blades, with the word “SAW” cut into them, decorate the front entrance. As part of the purchase of the building, the current owners negotiated the inclusion of a dozen antique chain saws ” none of which are operable, but which make for conversation pieces and belong in a dark, decrepit shed behind the main building.
Meadows, Brooke and Carlson show a deep interest in the building’s origins, striving hard to find a name that connects with the past, and keeping the 25-or-so-year-old structure looking, at least from the outside, suited to an industrial purpose. The yard retains the messy feel of a near-junkyard; the exterior siding is still metal. Meadows refers to it as a “nondescript” warehouse, notwithstanding the splashy addition of a red front door.
Of greater concern is the present use of the interior space. SAW is home to a mix of artists and design types; Meadows, who was looking to provide space for local artists, and Brooke, whose firm, Land + Shelter, designed the remodel and has offices in the building, refer to their tenants collectively as “creative professionals and professional creatives.” There are three potters ” including Anne Goldberg, who is currently exhibiting her work in the communal gallery space just inside the front door ” and five fine-art painters; an interior design firm, Mountain Modern; Brooke’s three-person design firm; and Efficiency in Mind, a business that does consulting and testing of “green” buildings.
Though the 35-year-old Meadows, as a landlord and gallery owner, has a well-developed business side, his personality fits more into the “professional creative” end of the spectrum. Had he wanted to maximize profits, he said, he would have scraped the building and erected townhomes. “But on a soul, internal level, this felt like the more rewarding thing to do,” he said of SAW.
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SAW, a for-profit project, is intended not only to provide a space for creative minds, but also an atmosphere that fosters creative endeavors. Meadows and Brooke are not merely collecting rent, but have thought out a plan for how the building will operate. Part of that is an environmental scheme; all of the tenants are within biking distance of their office.
“The vision they’ve brought forth has inspired so much talk,” said KC Lockrem, a painter who has a studio at SAW and is represented by the Harvey/Meadows Gallery. “There’s a caliber of what they expect when they rent out the spaces. They want to make sure you know that this is not about a hobby or a place to throw your stuff. The integrity in what they’re bringing to the community is profound. And their personalities ” they’re bighearted, and they want you to be part of what they’re doing. It really feels like a partnership.”
Meadows and Brooke take pride in the quantity of use the building gets: “At almost any hour of any day, there’s at least one person working,” said Meadows. More significant is the particular quality of the energy, which emphasizes interaction with fellow tenants. Meadows says a big influence in this was Snowmass Village’s Anderson Ranch Arts Center, where he was an artist-in-residence when he first came to the valley in 1995. But SAW is even more geared toward collaboration, with its crowded quarters and a floor plan that often demand passing through one office to get to another. There’s only one entrance, which opens into the gallery space, making confrontation with the art a constant in daily life. The potters share one big space, and several kilns.
“With architects and artists, they usually go off into their own studios,” said Meadows. “This is a forced interaction. There was great planning put into this, that you come through a central opening.
“That said, it’s not for everyone. For someone who wants pure solitude, it’s not that.”
The gallery space is run not by the owners, but by the tenants. It has become a regular stop on Carbondale’s First Fridays gallery walks. The SAW space features two group shows each year: one in early summer and a holiday show that will open Dec. 7.
Collaborations have indeed emerged from SAW. Land + Shelter and Mountain Modern have worked on a project together; the walls of the Mountain Modern office serve as adjunct gallery space for the Harvey/Meadows Gallery.
“The point for us was largely to create a collaborative opportunity or a collaborative environment,” said the 37-year-old Brooke, whose previous experience includes working on the Holiday Drive-In Neighborhood, a mixed-use, community project in Boulder that features art as one component. “I think architects tend to get a little isolated in their offices and forget to be inspired by the creativity around them. In many ways, we wanted to create an environment we wanted to work in. So it’s not a typical office building, not a typical nonprofit arts center.”
In fact, SAW could hardly be more different than Aspen’s Red Brick Center for the Arts. That facility, city-owned, has multiple entrances that lead into a single long hallway, with numerous doors leading into the separate offices. It’s easy to imagine tenants there going days without bumping into certain neighbors.
And where the Red Brick is spic-and-span tidy, SAW remains ragged by design.
“When we saw it, it was this great, raw, rough space,” said Meadows. “This valley ” every square foot of space here is so precious. And this is a nonprecious space where we saw great potential. And freedom.”
Meadows and Brooke scoured Denver scrap yards for materials. There was an emphasis on materials that are both unusual and green, including homasote, made of recycled newspaper, and plastic from an old greenhouse. Brooke proposed cutting a Z-shaped window into the building, just because he could. “You’re lucky I gave up on that idea,” Brooke said to Meadows.
But Meadows is hardly into rejecting any idea just because it’s out of the box. “That whole nonprecious thing ” we can have more fun doing things without having to fit a certain aesthetic,” he said. “It’s not like some brick building where we have to be concerned with how it fit together architecturally. We make up our own aesthetic code.”
Outside the building, the lack of formal guidelines is more evident. The two Airstream trailers aren’t storehouses of junk; Land + Shelter uses them as a combination library and materials showroom. (Meadows can claim some influence: He has an Airstream ” the “Artstream” ” that he uses as a gallery on wheels. It is a fixture at Aspen’s Saturday Market.) Behind the building, Meadows is in the process of building a salt kiln that can be fired with natural gas, biodiesel or vegetable oil. Meadows and Brooke are strategizing how to cover the kiln in an innovative way.
And there is the shed out back, which seems to have been untouched during the three-month reconstruction process. Meadows pulls a few of the ancient chain saws out of the dark recesses and examines them.
“They don’t work, of course,” he said. “Someday we’ll do something creative with them.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org