Soulsville artists in residence combine creativity with community outreach

As the home of legendary Stax Records, Soulsville is known as Memphis' music-first neighborhood. As part of a unique artists-in-residency program, a muralist and filmmaker have moved into the neighborhood to encourage creativity among their neighbors.

“The moment I saw this house, I knew it would be a place that would save people’s lives,” said Aaron Snowden, the owner of a white two-story home in Soulsville on the picturesque neighborhood street of Stafford Avenue near Neptune Street.

That home, which Snowden purchased in 2011, is now in the custody of Community L.I.F.T and serves as a home base for Soulsville’s unique artist-in-residency program that combines creativity and collaboration with community outreach.

When Community L.I.F.T, an organization that empowers Memphis communities to effect positive growth and change, offered Snowden the ability to help him turn the house into a center for artists and community members, it was a marriage of two passionate forces.

Memphis native artists Kalimah Abioto and Jamond Bullock are the first denizens of the community art hub, named the Snowden Art & Conversation House, located at 883 Stafford Avenue. Their residency will last until September 2017.

The exterior of Snowden House at 883 Stafford Ave. in Soulsville USA.

The artists will not only create special projects in the Snowden studio space but they will also welcome the Soulsville community to come share their own stories through art and provide them with the tools to make community art come alive.

“Soulsville is definitely a music community, but the neighborhood also has a huge appreciation for art in ways that are more authentic and true than many museums or galleries are,” said Leni Stoeva said, a creative placemaker with Community L.I.F.T.

At the heart of the South Memphis neighborhood of Soulsville is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the 21st century interpretation of legendary mid-century label Stax Records. In part, the Snowden House works to bringing Soulsville’s creative history into the present day relevance.

Stoeva has a history of cultivating the arts in the South Memphis neighborhood of Soulsville.
Muralist Jamond Bullock is one of the artists-in-residence at the Snowden House.She also curates and manages the second floor of the Soulsville Memphis Slim House as a contemporary visual art gallery. Stoeva said while she loves the Memphis Slim House as a community center for music training, recording and collaboration, she also wanted to create a free community center that would offer visual art resources and a place for artists to create and teach within the community.

After receiving an Our Town grant in 2015 from the National Endowment for the Arts, Snowden and the L.I.F.T team were ready to revitalize 883 Stafford into a residency for artists to create work that is “mindful of the community and inline with social practice art,” Stoeva said.

L.I.F.T received the grant and began renovations to 883 Stafford. With a lean budget and short deadline, Snowden and L.I.F.T, along with many Soulsville residents and volunteers, set out to give the house a huge facelift and shape it into a place that would house artist studio space and offer a safe place where residents could interact and express themselves.

In the next phase, Soulsvillle community leaders and residents chose the two artists that would live and work in the house. Abioto is a filmmaker, writer and performer and Bullock is a painter and muralist. Both have strong Memphis roots and are experienced with community outreach.

“Whatever the project, I want the people that live there to be able to recognize and connect with the piece,” said Bullock, who plans a collaborative mural with Soulsville residents.

Having both grown up in Memphis, they know how rare it is for children in underserved communities like Soulsville to be encouraged to create and express themselves in artistic ways or be encouraged to share their stories. They hope to break that chain in the Snowden House.

Snowden, Memphis native and graduate of Christian Brothers University who formally served in the navy, military air force as well as 25 years on MPD, said there is a lack of artistic culture and healthy leisure places for Soulsville residents to enjoy within their own neighborhood.

Soulsville residents must travel outside of their neighborhood to access staples of most American neighborhoods such as coffee shops, art galleries, movie theatres, gourmet and healthy restaurants, or even something as simple as a decent slice of pizza.

“Why do Soulsville residents have to travel three miles to Downtown or six miles to Cooper-Young to find access to these places? Nothing says our community must leave or go away from where we live to have a quality of life that is similar to any and everywhere else,” Snowden said.

He envisions the Snowden House as the first step in changing that storyline and wants the house to act as an “anchor” of hope and support for the neighborhood.

Bullock and Amioto will open up the house for a free open mic night which the artists hope will encourage an artistic spirit in the neighborhood.

Other community art plans include mural workshops hosted by Bullock as well as some storytelling sessions with residents and community leaders to set in motion the design for the community mural, which will be painted in the Soulsville Town Center across from the Stax Museum.

Day-to-day, Bullock will also be working on his art in his studio space alongside Abioto in the top floor of the Snowden House.

Abioto is in the beginning stages of planning her documentary series that will be based on the stories and footage of Soulsville residents.

“The stories in Memphis are unique and different from Portland. It's kind of like the Wild West here as far as stories go. There are lots of fables and folk tales floating around. Unlike other places, in Memphis there aren't a lot of opportunities to tell your story. I thought there was an interesting documentary here,” she said.

The Snowden House common room is designed to encourage community dialogue.

“I have seen the effects of Portland and its gentrification and I don’t want that,” Abioto added.

“We know that Memphis does need some new thought but we also need to invest in the people that are already here and I feel like the Snowden House is a way to start that process.”

After the artists residency program concludes at the Snowden House, Stoeva said L.I.F.T and the community have plans the use the space as a community center for the neighborhood and place for meetings and workshops with a focus on youth, health and food.

Follow the space on Facebook and Instagram for more updates about their work at the Snowden House. Find Bullock on Facebook and Instagram @alivepaint. Check out Abioto on Facebook and on Instagram @theacebook.

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Read more articles by Rachel Warren.

Rachel Warren is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in RSVP Magazine and Focus Magazine in Memphis. She is a sales associate at the Peddler Bike Shop. Rachel likes riding bikes, playing roller derby, watching scary movies and writing about Memphis.