Impeccable weather is a thrill at summer’s end. Its reign over a lazy Sunday stroll through art’s organic garden gave heft to the aspirations voiced. On a day like that, it’s easy to see possibilities.
“Yeah, we were looking for another name, something to brand us apart from the LoDa thing,” Devlin Wilson said. “Maybe Auto Alley or maybe the Deco District.”
Wilson pointed to the Buick building across St. Lawrence Street, then to the structure directly across St. Louis Street.
“Can’t you see where there were big windows there, where the door was?” Wilson asked. “This used to be the street where they had all the car dealerships, before it moved west.”
Other artists joined Wilson around the table on the sidewalk outside Innova Arts at 505 St. Louis St., Jim Maurer, Shelley Ingersoll, the inimitable B. Yobe (Bob Dorsey, to laymen) and others.
“My place used to be the service department of a Chrysler shop,” Zach DePolo said. He’s right around the corner – 163 N. Lawrence St., at the corner of Lawrence and St. Anthony – literally close enough to hit with a rock, provided you have an arm like a centerfielder.
DePolo and Wilson have known each other for years, shared spaces and dreams for downtown Mobile. The pair of artists also know a value when they see it and needed one.
For years they occupied a storefront on Dauphin Street under the name PortAL Studio. They had some marginal success with seasonal events but it wasn’t translating to anything that would take off the pain from the monthly bite in overhead. When they stumbled upon some available spots a few blocks north, it was too good to let pass.
“I’ve got twice the space at half the rent,” DePolo said.
That’s four times as good, right?
Wilson is joined by other locals like Ingersoll who has filled Innova with her silverwork. She picked up the skill from a mentor in Fairhope some time ago, a graduate of the Organic School who passed her passion on to Ingersoll. The teacher would later leave her prized tools to her protégé.
Ingersoll now pays the tutelage forward by teaching Tuesday and Thursday silversmith classes at Innova. She has 13 students already.
Wilson told me he teaches painting classes on Saturday and dropped a line about Wednesday figure drawing instruction.
Innova’s spot was once a diner and the interior bears the vestiges. An immaculate tile floor, a long bar in the back with scars where the swiveling stools were planted into the floor, it bears witness to a time when St. Louis Street hummed with commerce. In the back, under the hood vent that once swept kitchen fumes up through the ceiling is Ingersoll’s work area.
The center of the main room is dominated by a baby grand piano covered in Wilson’s characteristic post-Impressionist style, with Mobile landmarks aplenty. Local piano dealer Broussard’s requested the work, but now it sits on St. Louis Street.
“Last Artwalk, we had a homeless guy stop in here, 74-year-old black guy and started playing this thing,” artist Chel Beeson said. “He was incredible, playing all this blues and stuff. I buddied up to him just to keep him playing.”
A photographer, Beeson has made his way to Innova via Albuqurque, New Mexico and other global locales. He’s eager to see something come from the new exhibit space and motivated by the energy and vision he’s found here.
At 3,200-square-feet, Innova is sizable but dwarfed still by the adjoining open lot that’s easily three times its size. The grassy area continues behind Innova’s building and connects with another open lot on the other side of the block. The abundance of room begs to be employed.
“We want to do something outside here,” Wilson said. He talked about movies, bazaars, festivals. It’s easy to see how it would launch ambitions, especially standing under brilliant skies in the dry autumn breeze.
Most tantalizing was his mention of an upcoming Holly Krause project for Halloween. The cryptic mention of the holiday and her employ of 15 mannequins was enough to spark imagination.
DePolo’s establishment in his new place is a little slower. He’s one of our younger Mobile creatives to find steady work in the movie business, handling props, making costumes and the like.
“We’ve found someone to be a gallery manager for us: Sasha Shirazi who was a student at Spring Hill [College],” DePolo said. In the meanwhile, his space is obviously a work in progress. On one wall are large paintings by a Hawaiian guest artist who painted them on-site during an event then danced in front of them afterward. Lashed to a pole is a fabric sculpture by John Ross Thomas, assembled from leftover scraps from a ballet company’s costumes and adorned with antlers. Other boxes are marked with labels from movies on which DePolo has worked.
“It’s half prop house, half studio, half gallery,” he joked. “But we hope to be done by November.”
Work on the upcoming Robert De Niro movie being filmed here looms.
DePolo plans to install a doorway into a rear wall for better access to his kilns in the back yard. For now, a large garage door provides fresh air and bountiful light.
While I’ve heard some bemoan exhibit spaces leaving Dauphin, I think it’s a great sign. This is honest-to-goodness gentrification at work, what it looks like in its organic state.
“Ron Barrett just moved in down the street,” Wilson said.
He hopes to be on the crest of a wave.
I bought it simply because the vibe on that sidewalk reminded me of an old haunt in Mid-City New Orleans, above Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center near the Warehouse District. It felt homemade and real and rustic.
A step from the trampled path is one of progress where art’s concerned. I hope it holds rewards.