The space to create brings art to the Edge

With plenty of affordable room to work, the Edge naturally attracted a community of artists who have transformed old car lots and warehouses into creative studios, homes and galleries. 
When it comes to artists and their needs, one common denominator surfaces more times than not--space, lots and lots of space.

If there’s one feature the Edge District can claim, it's space.

From former car dealerships that once fit rooms full of Cadillacs to warehouses that stored lumber and coal, the Edge neighborhood is covered up in elbowroom, and affordable elbowroom at that.

The area's vast swaths of open space at modest prices have been a natural draw to creative types for a number of years.

Local sculptor Mark Nowell, who moved to Memphis from Jackson, Miss., upon receiving a scholarship to attend Memphis College of Art, made the initial leap when in 1986 he rented the back alley space behind 627 Monroe, where now sits the International Baptist Church.

This was a time when there was no clever moniker for the neighborhood, no public art--DIY or otherwise--nor many residents.

"There wasn't really anything going on then. It was all factories, trucks, forklifts and trains," Nowell says. "It was just cheap warehouse space."

Nowell and his fellow artist roommates made a go of it, and in addition to practicing their crafts in the cheap warehouse space, they hosted openings, events and shows and generally "raised hell," according to Nowell.

"We were true eccentric bohemian types making weird art installations and having parties in alleys," he says.

Nearby neighbors and police weren't sure what to make of their scene, and a few misunderstandings ensued.

"Our building was raided by the DEA twice because they thought we were growing dope or cooking meth in there. One time the SWAT team came in the building and took me to jail because somebody at Kudzu's called and told them there was a sniper on the roof," Nowell says.

Those episodes got Nowell's attention, and he got busy letting residents know their efforts were for good.

"We hosted festivals and did studio tour maps of the neighborhood. We had a co-op gallery and did sculptures and murals and everything we could to legitimize the neighborhood," Nowell says.

Artist Pinkney Herbert returned to Memphis and brought with him his New York experience of artists breaking up massive warehouse spaces into studios and galleries--he decided to import that idea to the Memphis experience.

The Edge was a gold mine of raw spacious buildings, and he purchased 10,000 square feet at 639 Marshall Avenue, converting it to 16 studio spaces and a gallery which now goes by Marshall Arts.
Marshall Arts
His venture proved to be successful, if gauging the success of artists who have rented from him is any indicator.

"[Local arts consultant] John Weeden curated the show at the Dixon that showcased all Memphis artists; I was really proud to go through the list, and over half the artists shown had rented a studio from me or had been part of an exhibit at Marshall Arts. That made me really proud," Herbert says.

One of those artists is success story Greely Myatt, who consistently shows around the country and rents a large shop/workspace/livespace across the street from Marshall Arts in one of Herbert's other properties.

Space, space and space was again a big draw for the sculptor. "It was a big space with a garage door and skylights. This is the best studio I've ever had," Myatt says.

Tad Pierson had multiple projects that needed housing when he chose a property of Mike Todd, a local contractor who acted as an early investor in the area, next door to Stop 345 on Madison.

Pierson needed a shop for the '55 pink Cadillac he uses for his tour business American Dream Safari, a business office, a living space and an art studio.

"I moved into a warehouse space and made a living space out of it. By living in a space such as this, I can develop my art in a way I probably wouldn't have had I been living in an apartment with a garage across town as a studio," Pierson says.

The causality dilemma could be argued in respect to Pierson's art, mostly found tires which he transforms into paintings, furniture, signs and most recently trash receptacles.
I Love Memphis mural
"It feels like my art fits in with and reflects the look of the neighborhood. The inspiration for my art comes in large part from living in the neighborhood," he says.

Mosaic artist and potter Kristi Duckworth was always drawn to the area. She was a fixture on the scene during Nowell's "art farms" and other projects, and even picked up the art of mosaics during that time. It seemed a no brainer to choose the Edge when she was ready to purchase her own studio in '07.

"I guess it's been subconsciously pulling me in since I graduated college," says Duckworth, who owns Garden Path Studio at 597 Madison.

It doesn't hurt to have the support of other artists down the block, a feature Nowell and Herbert point to for the district's unrelenting draw to artisans.

"Artists like to commune. They like to be around each other. They want that synergy," Nowell says.

"I liked creating a community of artists. When you run out of red paint, you can just go borrow some. You can talk and critique each other’s work," Herbert says.

"I like the people. I like the restaurant owners and the business owners, and I like the people that come and visit me that live in the tower across the street. I like the tourists from all over walking up the street from Sun Studio trying to find Beale Street or Neely's," Duckworth says.

And with such a community of artistic synergy comes a stimulating landscape of rich graffiti, guerilla public art pieces, locally sanctioned murals and even a billboard to do with how they see fit.

"I think public art creates a vibrancy that shows an active community of people who care and are making an aesthetic difference in the community they live," Herbert says.

Herbert owns the billboard above his property across from Marshall Arts. He gave the green light to Nowell to install his towering steel sculpture in the parking lot beneath the billboard. And he bricked up and painted over the windows at the front of Marshall Arts where now stand three murals painted by two Memphis artists, including Anthony Lee, who also helps Herbert in managing his spaces and will be installing two more murals on the overpasses neighboring Kudzu's and High Cotton Brewing Co. for the upcoming MEMFix event, thanks to local property owners and neighbors with helping hands.
Greely Myatt lives and works in his Edge studio
"I first visited Marshall Arts in 2004, and I was blown away. There were so many people in one place making art. It was like college studios," Lee says. "The neighborhood is a comfortable, cozy place for production. It doesn't need to be fully declared an arts district. I don't think that's its sole purpose."

Myatt and Duckworth agree.

"I hope it doesn't become like other arts districts, where you once had artists actually working and living there, until they couldn't afford it and it turns into just retail," Duckworth says. "We need retail, but I hope the artists can stay and still be able to live and work here."

"Artists don't need arts districts. They need big spaces where they can act up and afford to live," Myatt says. "They declare areas arts districts only to make the property value go up."

As far as public art is concerned, Myatt would like to see more of it, and maybe a shift from neighborhood residents trying to prop up their neighborhood with aesthetics to instead using some hefty endorsements so that the artists can share in the quality of life the neighborhood is in search of.

"Public art is not cheap. You see a common attitude in the South that artists should be grateful to have the opportunity, even though they won't be able to afford to eat or pay for materials. A public art piece costs $10,000, and that doesn't include the artist being able to afford to live," Myatt says.

Read more articles by Lesley Young.