Tuesday was a hot night for Fabitat, Fab-5‘s super-tight creative lab on the Hilltop – and for Spaceworks Tacoma. The event was an exceptionally cheery fundraiser: hard to believe, but Fab-5 has been at it for 12 years mentoring local youth in the creative arts, and this was their first call for support, ever. Not only that, but the busy studio at 1316 Martin Luther King Way, which they occupied via a Spaceworks residency in 2011 and recently signed the lease for, is the team’s first-ever homebase. The Five’s dedication and leadership in igniting young minds through the visual and performing arts is the stuff urban dreams are made of. Attendees at Tuesday night’s event jostled to pledge support (you can make a donation here), and to sign the group’s door, graffiti-style.
At Spaceworks, such win-win situations (free space for creative entrepreneurs = potential paying tenants for landlords) are always cause for celebration. Fab-5 is but one of several Hilltop artists-in-residence who in the past year have activated a once dormant commercial zone and seeded the area around the Fulcrum Gallery with fresh life. Nate Dybevik also recently signed the dotted line and gained a permanent address for his “piano museum” (he is a musician who rebuilds pianos) and music studio. During its tenure, Toy Boat Theatre performed a miraculous facelift on a sterile office space, drew new audiences to the neighborhood with six months of high-caliber drama, and left an indelible mark before moving on.
We thought it was time to catch up with these Spaceworks alums and hear about their experiences in their own words.
* * * * *
The transformation of the 1300 block of “Hilltopia” in 2011 wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of the Marie Thorp Wilson Trust, owners of the Thorp Building (where two of the four original. rent-free residency spaces are now leased by Fab-5 and Dybevik). According to Thorp family member Jeanette Sorenson, while the Trust’s intention has been to sell the Thorp Building, “It has been a blessing to have [it] occupied, especially by groups that appreciate the opportunity to try their wings at a business venture….By opening the building to the Spaceworks program, [it] has changed from a vacant, cold building to a lively, warm building that shows its true character.”
Sorenson admits to initial hesitation about the venture. But “after interviewing Rebecca [Solverson] and Amy [McBride, City of Tacoma Arts Administrator], it became clear that this would be a good way to occupy the trust building along with helping the K Street community grow in a positive way.” Sorenson’s family ties to Tacoma run deep: as a young man her grandfather, Theodore Martin Thorp, followed his cousin, Thea Foss, from Wisconsin to Tacoma. In 1967, her father, Bud (“Blind Man”) Thorp, “built the Thorp Building on property he had purchased when he was discharged from the Army Air Corps, a decorated airman.” Spaceworks is grateful to help usher in a new wave of activity at the Thorp Building.
* * * * *
“The month of January was mostly catch up and reorganizing my space to make it functional again,” says Nate Dybevik. The reorg was necessary after a bike shop, Second Cycle, moved into what had been his storefront in the Thorp Building. “I am making myself at home in the back space, so I can officially get back to work.”
Dybevik trains under world-renowned expert Obi Manteufel in rebuilding and tuning pianos; gorgeously curvaceous vintage specimens can be seen broken down into their components in his studio. But Dybevik is also an instrumentalist, composer and visual artist. Currently, he is working on collaborations with musicians Gary Kawamura, Alex Tapia and Trevor Pendras; and fellow piano rebuilder Mackenzie Hamilton. “I am focusing on my playing, getting my jazz combo up and running, and continuing my study of piano rebuilding.…In the future I may hold more events [at the studio], but for now, I’m just hiding out and working on my craft.”
Dybevik credits the Spaceworks program with opening him to new experiences. “I have benefited from this program in so many ways, it’s really hard to put it into words. I am by nature a quiet person who usually keeps to myself, and suddenly, I became this person with a shop, who needed to interact with the public. That was challenging at first but I learned how and what it takes to be in the public eye, and how to be a coordinator of events. Of course, there was the benefit of having a space to work on pianos. I met a lot of people and started two bands, and learned a lot about the business and inner workings of pianos.”
* * * * *
Fulcrum Gallery owner Oliver Doriss has watched the evolution of Hilltopia for years – with impatience. “I have been holding it down on the 1300 block of MLK since 2007. In that time I have experienced the closure of four storefronts in my immediate vicinity and a shrinking of businesses on the street as a whole. Last summer, I connected the owners of the vacant building to the south of Fulcrum Gallery with the Tacoma Spaceworks program. I was rewarded with the addition of Fab-5 arts studio, Nathaniel Dybevik’s piano shop and Toy Boat Theatre. The additional storefronts have effected tremendous change to the area. There is a general increase in foot traffic and many of the new spaces operate into the evening creating a lively feel to a previously deserted and somewhat intimidating area of Hilltop.”
Doriss lauds Fab-5’s decision to create a permanent art center for youth on the Hilltop. “All of these practices [available at Fabitat] have their roots within contemporary urban culture. I live on this block. I know all of the kids’ families and people from this area. I have seen a number of kids from my neighborhood using the resources provided by the Fab-5 studio space. They show up on their own or arrive in groups. The environment is open and comfortable enough for even the most timid personalities to experience the offerings.”
Doriss foresees a reshaping of Tacoma’s art community: “Third Thursday art events are now coordinated with the other venues here creating the beginnings of a new arts district. As I look to the future development of this block and the Hilltop neighborhood in general, I see a neighborhood on the verge of becoming a major player in the cultural rebirth of Tacoma.”
* * * * *
After Fab-5 set down stakes for the first time in its 12-year history, Chris Jordan knew that having a Spaceworks address was a game changer for the organization. After a six-month residency on MLK Way last year, “We could see how much our students relied on it, and the community depended on it,” says the artist and Fab-5 co-leader. “Over half of our students from last summer are coming all the way down from [as far as] Mt. Tahoma, Everett, Jason Lee Middle School and Foss.” Since June, Fabitat has expanded its team by sevenfold, including volunteers. We can’t wait to see what kind of exciting changes and growth await the Five now that they’ve pulled down a stable and affordable permanent address from which to operate. The group is working with neighbors (Fulcrum Gallery, Nate Dybevik Piano Company, Fabitat, and newcomer Live Paint Theatre) to create more arts activity for local youth via a poetry lounge, [amazing] breakdancing workshops, jazzily-freeform painting and music sessions, and computer lab access. “We’re definitely going to step out with some collaboration this summer. It’s like having family next door – you don’t have to go over every single day. Energy stays within the area.”
* * * * *
In 2011, “When my former student, Jen Davis, suggested we apply for a rent-free space for a very modest, one-time only summer project, I was a a bit skeptical, concerned about the commitment and the fact that most Spaceworks projects seemed to be visual arts installations,” says Toy Boat Theatre (TBT) artistic director, Marilyn Bennett. “But we were intrigued, Jen was persuasive, and we framed our proposal over coffee and brainstorming.”
What followed was weeks of epic labor. After being awarded a residency, Bennett, Davis and friends “invested three weeks of sweat equity, scraping up 800 lbs. of floor tile, painting all surfaces with cheap and free paint mixed together until intriguing colors emerged. We borrowed equipment and furniture from colleagues, friends and the University of Puget Sound, where I teach as a guest artist in theatre, and whose students became instrumental in imagining, assembling and running the theatre. In early August, we opened our first production, Dakota’s Belly, Wyoming, filled our 40-seat theatre five times, paid our bills (insurance, utilities) and stipends to our actors, and were hooked. We were on the prowl for more projects.”
After Jen Davis left for studies in Ireland, Bennet soldiered on, “renewing our three-month lease through December, ultimately mounting five fully produced plays, six staged readings, two acting workshops and four open houses. In six months we hosted over 1000 patrons, worked with more than 100 student and professional artists, collaborated with our artist neighbors—Fab-5, Nate Dybevik studios, Fulcrum Gallery—brought commerce to Hilltop businesses (Pho King, Quickie Too, Crown Bar, Save a Lot, Ace Hardware), and were partners in bringing a vibrant presence to our ‘arts block’ in a building full of possibilities which had sat idle for several years.” Whoo!
“We had not entered into this Spaceworks collaboration with any expectations beyond a good show in August at a price the community could afford. But once underway, and with such enthusiasm amongst artists, neighbors, and patrons, we couldn’t stop. We finished with a very successful, original solstice show, a lobby packed with beaming Toy Boat patrons, a final toast to an intensely busy but immeasurably gratifying season. With the help of Shunpike business clinics and Spaceworks partners, Toy Boat Theatre is now a legitimate business with license, tax ID, website and bank account with seed money for our next project. And another worthy company, Live Paint Theatre, has taken residency as a Spaceworks program in our MLK Way space, which is now clean, functional, partially furnished and ready for creative work to continue.
“I can’t speak highly enough of this program, for building owners, artists, and the communities who benefit from vibrant artistic activity where urban blight has been. Thanks to Spaceworks, Toy Boat Theatre was born.”