When I pull up to the warehouse on 13th and Broadway, Aron Conaway is waiting by an owl mural — a whimsical silver, steel blue and black creation. Scrawled on a nearby concrete slab is one word: Mammoth. That’s Conway’s name for the massive 151-year-old building.
He purchased it nearly five years ago with the intention of transforming the space into a collection of artist studios and apartments, but today it serves as a commercial storage facility.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had trouble with codes and regulations and use permits,” Conaway says. “I’ve had to kind of educate myself through the experience to find out what needs to be done in order to allow a space to be safe and to be permitted, and it doesn’t always seem to make a lot of sense.”
Bringing The Mammoth up to code would cost about $100,000.
The Ghost Ship
The concept of safe, affordable artist spaces has been a topic of a national conversation since a massive fire tore through an Oakland, California, warehouse nearly two weeks ago, killing 36 people. The warehouse — which was called the Ghost Ship, and served as an artist colony and performance venue — wasn’t permitted as either a living or event space. Authorities are still trying to determine what sparked the blaze.
It’s a narrative that Conaway says is all too familiar.
In 2008, the Louisville Assembly of Vanguard Art (LAVA) House, a warehouse rented out by Conaway and Bart Herre, caught fire. The space — which according to Conaway became a “community for many artists, musicians, and warehouse dwellers” — completely burned to the ground. Night watchman and resident Bill Christie died inside.
“I mean, every time I see a fire engine or hear a fire engine, I have an immediate guttural response of dread and sadness,” Conaway says. “I absolutely can relate to the horrible sense of loss of life, of culture.”
As law enforcement scrutiny of artist collectives increases in the wake of the Oakland fire, artists like Conaway are considering how to better establish both goals: to have a cheap, open space for artists to thrive and keep it safe. His idea? A tax subsidy similar to what sports arenas receive.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of resource available through the city or just in general for artists spaces in Louisville, in the United States at large,” Conaway says. “When it comes to supporting a culture that kind of lives outside of that world, there isn’t much in the way of opportunity or help.”
He continues, “I hate to get so political, or socially critical, but there just isn’t a lot of different stuff going on in the world, and so it’s the underground culture that provides an alternative voice. These are places for art and music and activism and organizers.”
Conaway says in the meantime, one of the next best steps forward is recognizing why some artists choose to live in these unorthodox, sometimes illegal, spaces: It’s a mix of affordability and community.
‘There’s something fundamental about community’
About a half hour later, I’m in Cameron Aubernon’s room at OPEN Gallery. The room is lined with strings of blue and purple LED lights. They coordinate with the freshly-painted walls, and distract from the corner right behind her bed where those walls don’t meet.
I’m sitting on the stubby bedroom carpet next to fellow OPEN resident John Faughender. He points to the gap and says, “One time, some people were painting in the ‘graffiti room’ next door and spray paint got on her bed.”
Aubernon nods. Neither seem too disturbed — it’s simply one of the hazards of living in a joint studio, gallery and residential space like OPEN.
Faughender, who is the art director of OPEN, says being surrounded by a community of artists is ingrained in how he creates. He attended the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts when he was 16, continued onto art school in Cincinnati following graduation, and then subsequently dropped out after realizing he didn’t want to spend $30,000 a year when he was already working as an artist.
He says people like him have historically formed collectives like OPEN or the Ghost Ship to share their ideas.
“It was considered a school, a school of thought,” Faughender says. “I think there is something fundamental about community in the artworld.”
The nine current residents at OPEN, which used to be an empty warehouse, share a common area and kitchen. Art supplies, spray paint cans and canvases — some blank, some complete — are scattered throughout. The rooms are simple and each one is different.
For example, Faughender’s room is jokingly referred to as ‘The Bunker.’ It faces an exterior brick wall and he has to navigate the water pipe running within, but he only pays $175 per month in rent. Aubernon pays $250; and rent for the other rooms tops out at $500.
Aubernon says OPEN offered her an affordable space surrounded by like-minded individuals when she needed it the most. She had moved back to Louisville after hitting a rough economic patch in Seattle. After settling in at OPEN, she began working as the gallery’s de facto publicist and recently took the title of administrative director.
She also became involved in the art making process of her peers.
“For example, the painting you saw when you walked in here,” Aubernon says, gesturing in the direction of a portrait for which she modeled. “Purian Parker, the portraiture artist who lives here in OPEN, he saw something in me — he saw this light in me — and he wanted to capture that and that’s what he did.”