Miracle on Auburn Avenue

Home is where the art is at Studioplex

You'd expect remnants of a city festival to be trash-strewn streets, limp banners and trampled green spaces. Not so at Studioplex, where the most visible remnant of this year's National Black Arts Festival is a colorful two-story collaged wood sculpture. Fragments of folk tales, huge musical notes, a royal Egyptian figure and a trio of dancing women converge with African shields, zebra stripes, Chinese symbols and other iconic shapes in the color-splashed assemblage. Made by tenants to welcome visitors during the fête, the collective artwork is a bright symbol of the Studioplex's potential to create energy.

Imagine a place in Atlanta where art and technology meet without bumping into expressways, traffic jams and incredible parking problems. Picture a quiet street leading to a historic warehouse that stretches out across eight acres of green space. Add artists, designers, techies and the possibility of 24-hour networking. That's the equation at Studioplex on Auburn.

Not unlike East Atlanta in its early recovery days, Studioplex on Auburn Avenue feels like incredibly fertile ground. Its cultivators have already seen their idea take root and burst with life during the National Black Arts Festival. The pavilion, the courtyard, the atrium and galleries were filled with people throughout the week.

Designed by David Green of Brock Green Architects and Planners, the former cotton compress warehouse is divided into two levels with a central sunlit atrium that runs the length of its 225,000 square feet. Residential lofts and private studios are upstairs, while retail, gallery spaces and more studios are downstairs. Small window-front shops off the main walk were quiet on a recent weekday. "The artists are recovering from the festival," remarks business manager Mary Hill. At present, many of the galleries have irregular weekday hours, though all are open weekends.

"Most people are impressed with Studioplex and the idea of it," says

Mtamanika Youngblood, executive director of Historic District Development Corp., a non-profit organization that owns the complex. "It has to grow into itself. While the creative energy is there and is beginning to gel, it still needs time. The artists need to spend time together to create community. In developing this place, we stretched ourselves to accommodate their needs."

Formerly a professional in the travel industry, Alton Evans now crafts metal and makes jewelry in Alton's Neckworks in Studioplex. Evans describes the complex as "an environment geared toward creativity. Here, I have a chance to meet and communicate with other artists on a daily basis."

A few doors down, photographers Lynn Marshall Linnemeier and Susan Ross share Harvest Studio Gallery, displaying embellished boxes, frames and photos. Juju Made jewelry is shown next to the Zulu Gallery's painted and drawn portraiture. Blown glassworks color the Janke Studios. Owners Matt and Kim Janke have just set up a hot glass shop in the courtyard where they'll teach workshops and give demonstrations. "Mtamanika had an incredible vision," says Kim. "Studioplex is a link between Auburn Avenue and Inman Park. It's attracting a diverse group of people. We're able to tap into the two neighborhoods."

Fuse Media was the first commercial enterprise to rent space at Studioplex. Thirtysomethings Steve Mendizabal and Brock Holt came from Pershing Point, a techno-centered zone at the intersection of Peachtree and West Peachtree streets where a lot of high-tech enterprises have headquarters. "It was a sterile environment; the place had no soul," remembers Holt. Mendizabal, who lives in a loft space upstairs, notes, "It's 185 steps from home to work. I like the short commute." The duo creates digital media projects for customers, including Reebok, UPS, Coca-Cola and Lanier. They're also developing their own online radio station, www.pissmonkey.com. Already up and running, pissmonkey intends to be a full entertainment portal where viewers can listen to alterna-pop, watch movies and interact live with a DJ.

Down an interior hall of studio/shops across the way, Rococo Design emits an intimate glow. Interior designer Ursallie Smith lives and works in Studioplex. She fabricates home settings with plush pillows, painted furniture and other decorative arts. Except for the limited walk-through traffic, Smith appreciates the environment: "The whole building, there's nothing but artists. It's really good to keep you up and creative about your work. As an artist, you have to get to know other people in the arts to survive."

Near Smith's space, there's the atelier of contemporary surrealist painter Melvin Murray. Paintings from Yusef Rasheed's jazz series line the walls of the adjacent gallery. Across the hall, Chuck Douglas Designs offers custom cabinetry and furniture. Douglas, a printmaker, also comes up with home accessories like pillows and embellished mirrors. He moved into Studioplex in February, relocating from the Ford Factory Square on Ponce. "I was between a pizza place, a nail salon and a leasing office," he recalls, expressing his preference for the artful ambiance of his present location.

Carl Owens lives and works in his one-room studio on the second floor. His deck looks out toward the green trees that edge Inman Park. Once a week, the longtime painter joins eight other artists to work with a live model in one of the facility's studio rooms. Owens used to live in a loft in The Roosevelt, a former high school converted to apartments and lofts in Grant Park. "What pulled me over here is the artists' community, the fresh air and my deck. I lived at the Roosevelt for two years and never met anyone."

Leasing manager Mary Hill says that operating Studioplex is like running a small city, one with a very eclectic personality. "We try to take care of our people. They're artists; they're different from other apartment dwellers." Indeed, others tenants include Digital Glue and Mind's Eye Media, both digital media production companies, a Mac Cosmetics makeup training operation, commercial photographers, a masseuse, as well as yoga and dance studios.

Owned by the Historic District Development Corp., Studioplex is one element of the organization's grand plan to revitalize the neighborhood. In partnership with the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership Inc., with equity participation by the National Equity Fund and a grant from the City of Atlanta, the project was almost two years in the making. Stroke by stroke, the Historic District Development Corp. is reclaiming an edge of the Old Fourth Ward once blighted by drugs and crime.

Though Studioplex has leased every single commercial and residential space available, Michael Syphoe, vice president of commercial development, says there's still room to grow. In the works: Phase Two, a 300-seat live performance theater. They hope to break ground the first of the 2001 and to be sitting in the theater 12 months later.

Construction on Phase Three, says Syphoe, begins in December. An American fare restaurant with coffee shop and fresh baked pastries across the street from Studioplex in Watertower Park will open this spring. Already in place and opening in the near future is E-store, a convenience store and newsstand. Studioplex has the capacity to wire every unit to the store, so tenants can e-mail an order for delivery.

So Studioplex is no longer a dream; it has become a budding multidimensional opportunity for the convergence of mind and creative matter. Though there's still work to do before all the disciplines have a chance to interact, the facility's structure eliminates isolation, encourages collaboration and stimulates the artistic growth in those who live and work there. Beyond that, Studioplex invents a tie between art and community development that promises to nourish the soul of Atlanta.

Studioplex hosts a weekly happy hour on Fridays beginning Sept. 1. Upcoming events include: WRFG Happy Hour Sept. 1 from 5:30-10 p.m.; WRFG Blues & Barbecue Festival Sept. 4 from noon-8 p.m.; Atlanta Preservation Society Gala and grand opening of Janke Studio's hot glass shop, Sept. 16 from 7:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.; Sweet Auburn Independent Music Festival Sept. 21-24. Studioplex is locatd at 659 Auburn Ave. 404-523-4467. www.studioplex.com??

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