Amidst these uncertain and turbulent times, up pops an artist collaborative
STORY BY CARLTON REESE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JESSI MILLER
The scene may well be at The Brewery in Los Angeles or somewhere in the Rovinj Art Colony of Croatia: virgin canvas scattered in the middle of the room, a barefoot artisan delicately applying bright oil-based hues to his newest creation while an inspired colleague peers over his shoulder. One artist drops a box carrying the tools of her trade onto the broad drop cloth protecting the floor while another is too busy priming canvas to notice.
From the sgraffito and glazing, mixing and dry brushing, the collaboration on this drop cloth island yields the artwork that currently adorns the surrounding walls of this historic venue.
This is not some art commune at Yaddo or in Amsterdam, but a collaborative artists workplace in Ocala’s north Magnolia district.
Taking up residence in the former Coca-Cola bottling plant building located on the corner of N.E. 10th Street and Magnolia Avenue is ArtCastle, a “pop up” art gallery that is more than just a place for displays of paintings and sculptures, but an exhibition that allows artists to create together and share ideas all in public view. Comprised solely of local artists, this temporary gallery boasts no single theme of art but creations ranging from abstract to realism, photography to clay and even performance and health.
With ArtCastle, the public can enjoy completed works but also spectate these pieces in medias res.
Local entrepreneur and art lover Lisa Midgett, along with her husband David, made possible ArtCastle and the rebirth of the iconic structure they have re-named NOMA (North Magnolia). What takes place inside ArtCastle is about more than just producing art for the public to admire – it’s as much about the process.
Mel Fiorentino, painting
“What’s cool is that we’ll be able to be inspired by each other,” said Mel Fiorentino, among the featured artists who helped organize ArtCastle with Midgett and fellow artist Diane Cahal. “The goal is for us to all work in the same area and that way we can talk, we can laugh, we can make jokes, we can help each other out with our artwork.
“It’s like a working gallery. You can walk around and see all the pieces that are hanging and as you’re walking around, you’ll be able to see all these artists going to town on their new pieces.”
ArtCastle (the name given by Fiorentino’s 6-year-old daughter who said the building looked like a castle) runs through Sept. 26 and is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturday. All the while, artists will come and go, making the gallery floor their own personal studio – no partitions, just an open safe space for the free exchange of ideas, constructive criticism, assistance and, of course, the typical jocularity that comes from putting a bunch of artists together into a single space.
The notion of the solitary artist playing hermit in some studio loft only to emerge with the latest masterpiece for a clamoring public may be cliché, but also carries a grain of truth. At ArtCastle, art transforms from an individual to a team sport. Oil painters are not just able to knock around ideas and techniques with other oil painters, they gain knowledge and inspiration from watercolor artists, photographers and even welders.
“I get to benefit and learn,” said Cahal, whose artistry spans several genres including miniatures and abstract paintings. “When everyone started bringing their artwork in, there were a couple of days I thought, ‘I don’t belong here.’ I intend to make the most kick-ass painting you’ve ever seen by the time I’m done here because I want to be able to rise up to the level of everyone else around me.”
“Everybody here paints so differently and that’s what’s so great about it, all these different ideas coming from different people,” Fiorentino said. “I feel it can really help push people in a different direction with their art because sometimes you get stuck in an area.”
While the collaborative nature of ArtCastle may have been a strong motivator for the project’s genesis, another factor played a strong hand – the dreaded pandemic scare.
Jessica Carter, working on her multi-media piece
With art shows being cancelled and many galleries shutting their doors, the financial well-being of many artists, like most businesses, was under serious threat.
“COVID was a motivator to get this project up,” Lisa Midgett said. “I cried a lot just trying to figure out how we can help. We just decided to push through with this project and try to help artists recoup some dollars and really to help lift their spirits.”
The pandemic has taken its toll not just in financial terms, but mentally as well. Fiorentino admitted that she lost her motivation to paint, her tools gathering dust for a month.
“Once we started buckling down and getting ready for this project, I told Lisa I feel like it breathed life back in me,” Fiorentino said. “I didn’t even want to paint with what’s been going on – I felt not inspired. Since we’re doing this now, I feel like this is exciting.”
From Art House to ArtCastle
ArtCastle is the highly organized and structured legacy of some spontaneous movements that took off under Midgett’s lead.
It all started with what is now referred to as Art House I, something artist Jessica Carter refers to as a “free-for-all” at the Midgetts’ latest purchase of the time, a Victorian home in Ocala’s historic district.
It was the summer of 2019 and Midgett owned an empty building awaiting renovation which likely would not start until December. That’s when local artist E.J. Nieves walked into the offices of the Marion Cultural Alliance asking for a place to take poignant photographs to promote an upcoming show. Midgett, who is Chair-Elect at MCA, informed Nieves of the vacant house.
“I said, ‘oh god, you could just paint on the walls in there if you want; I don’t care,’” Midgett explained. “I gave them absolute free reign.”
What started as a simple promotional photo-shoot turned into an artists’ collaboration hosted by Nieves and fellow artist Teddy Sykes. A barnstorming of artists ensued as every wall, ceiling and even fixture became fair game for the brush.
The creative juices flowed freely – no commissions, no rules, no inhibitions; just naked artistic expression manifesting itself in large, vibrant murals destined to be short-lived once the reno crews took over.
“They had no specific client in mind, no specific end result they needed; they weren’t entering a show so they weren’t tailoring the work to please a juror,” Midgett said. “They did what they wanted and they helped each other. It was that experience of being able to collaborate together and have this sort of fun freedom to do what they want.”
Artists of many stripes soon flocked to the Victorian house to be a part what seemed a mini version of “THE HAUS” in 2017 Berlin. A canvas of seemingly limitless drywall and opportunity awaited as well as the prospect of unfettered interaction with highly respected peers.
Then came the shocker: Midgett’s contractor was ready to work a lot sooner than anticipated, meaning it was time to pull up stakes – the fun was over.
But Art House I proved to be a spark that would conflagrate in the spirit of the artists and Midgett herself. Although a sad day when forced to leave, the moment begged the question: Can we continue this elsewhere?
“We thought to ourselves, ‘when are we going to have this opportunity again to have vacant buildings that we can do anything we want to?’ That doesn’t happen.” Midgett said.
Enter phase two of Art House, another recent purchase of the Midgetts: the former Ocala Lincoln-Mercury dealership on south Magnolia. The vacant building with its large expanses looked to be the perfect canvas for artists hoping to re-gain the momentum of Art House I.
Midgett let some of her friends in the artist community know there was potential for Art House II at the old car lot. The Midgetts had ideas of what they wanted to do with the property, but for the time being it would stand vacant just as the Victorian house stood while awaiting renovation.
Again, the artists flocked to this newest free-form canvas.
Great expectations awaited artists who hoped to create monuments of their work. Fiorentino salivated over the chance to create something on a scale of grander proportion than she’d ever experienced. Her obsession with the late David Bowie could come to glorious fruition.
“When it came to Lincoln-Mercury, I was like ‘if I have a chance to paint Bowie on a massive scale, this is my chance,’” said Fiorentino, who can fill multiple galleries with her stunning portraits of musicians and other celebrities. “I just wanted to do something that was on a way bigger scale than I usually do.”
But the artists had jumped the gun. Permitting and coding issues meant they would have to wait before entering to bring their visions to life.
“There was some breakdown in communication,” Midgett said. “We were still working with the city, then the next thing you know the building had artists in it and we had to shut the project down.
“I was heartbroken because I know materials are expensive. It wasn’t a money-maker; it was just fun. I just felt bad that we couldn’t let them finish the project.”
Midgett said the slight possibility of Art House II being revived exists, but all attention is now on ArtCastle, the next phase which seemed unlikely at the time.
Already owners of the old Coca-Cola bottling building, the Midgetts turned their attention toward that property. Originally, David and Lisa had in mind a whiskey distillery and have pondered many other ideas that include fine arts, and that is where the natural progression to ArtCastle seeded.
Hannah Matos, playing and singing as part of the live music at ArtCastle
For Midgett and the artists, for the third phase to be successful the “free-for-all” approach would have to be scrapped. Perhaps anathema to most artists, rules and guidelines plus a lot of waiting would be necessary to bring ArtCastle to reality.
Before leaking word of the idea to artists, Midgett made sure all her ducks were in a row regarding building and fire codes.
“This time I was definitely heading it myself because we had enjoyed a good partnership with the city,” Midgett said. “Before I even said a word to anybody, I asked (City building inspector) Tyrone (Mahnken) and Brian (Cribbs) our fire marshal to come up and talk to me and tell me what we could do here. They basically held my hand through the permitting process which was very complicated for this building.”
With the building on schedule to pass muster, Midgett brought in Fiorentino and Cahal to join as a team of organizers.
“Lisa’s like the queen – none of this would be possible without her,” Cahal said. “It was her vision and then she collected the people she knew could probably see and share that vision.”
As artists, Cahal and Fiorentino brought to the table a strong idea of what schematics would work for both the talent and the public. Drawing upon their experiences with Art House I and Art House II, a floor layout was developed as well as rules and protocols for artists and public alike.
On August 13, ArtCastle opened with a soft opening for certain invitees and continues for public viewing and sales.
“The cool thing is that it’s happening at all,” Fiorentino said. “Everybody is bringing their best work.
“I feel like it’s definitely more important than just a show because this is an opportunity that brings all us artists together and really gives us a chance to not only get to know each other but work with each other and help each other.”
What separates ArtCastle from the two earlier projects is not only its tight organization and adherence to guidelines and protocols, but also the opportunity for artists to earn some financial rewards for their efforts, something slow to happen in the age of pandemic shutdowns. Artists will be able to give lessons and sell their work at ArtCastle.
“Art House was absolutely for the fun of it,” Midgett said. “It was a party; it wasn’t a money-maker at all for anyone. For those guys, it was the cost of their materials and their time.”
“It’s literally like a dream when I come in here,” Fiorentino said of ArtCastle. “I’m excited to come here; it’s beautiful here.”
An art community emerged
A collaboration of artists in a single spot with the public allowed to witness the creative process in real time may be a concept unthinkable not long ago in Ocala. Thirty years ago, the terms “burgeoning art scene” and “artistic haven” would have never been used in talking about Ocala.
But here we are in 2020 with numerous galleries, a bit of avant guard quality to the local art scene and art-loving entrepreneurs willing to take risks on the local talent with their hearts and their wallets.
Cahal noted that spontaneous art projects tend to “pop up” in major cities quite often but would not happen in a place where art plays little role in the local culture.
“It’s unique to Ocala, but it’s not unique to national or international types of places,” Cahal said of the collaborative process taking place at ArtCastle. “A lot of times you’ll see what happens in cities in the industrial edge of town, artists will take it over because you’ll have welders that are sculpture-making and people that are making big pieces out of marble – they need huge warehouses. Then a painter will get inspired and take over a corner and then it turns into a collaborative, organic type of thing.”
ArtCastle represents not a starting point for Ocala’s emergence as a thriving art community, but rather a sign that it has already arrived.
The difference between now and then is palpable, according to Cahal, who remembers attending the Fine Arts For Ocala festival in years past when artists attended “just for the prize money” and didn’t expect to sell anything. That has changed as many artists sell out their entire exhibits during FAFO.
“What (ArtCastle) does is it puts the stamp of validation,” Cahal said. “All these people keep saying we have a thriving arts community and this is an example. This would not be possible if we didn’t have the (community) support.
“For the longest time I looked at other cities that had great, thriving art communities so maybe I should move there at my retirement. Then, I realized ‘why can’t we just do it here?’ I get to live out my days in a thriving art community and not in some other artsy town.”
New art galleries sprouting up every year, veteran and rising talent relocating to Marion County in scores and FAFO artists cashing in as never before have made Ocala an actual player in the realm of art communities.
Still not convinced? Head to ArtCastle.
ARTCASTLE – 933 North Magnolia Avenue – 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. – Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 26 – Public welcome, free of charge
Standing: Jessica Carter, Jessi Miller, Jordan Shapot, Maggie Weakley, Justin Alsedek, Greg Gwilt, David Kellner and Leslie J. Wengler. Seated: Mel Fiorentino, Ralph Demilio and Diane Cahal. Splayed: Olivia Ortiz
Justin Alsedek – Oil paintings, murals
Mitchell Brown – Industrial sculptures
Diane Cahla – Watercolors, miniatures, dioramas
Jessica Carter – Mixed media
David D’Allessandris – Mixed media, paintings, tableaux
Ralph Demillo – Photography
Mel Fiorentino – Oil paintings
Greg Gwilt – Clay
Leslie J. Wengler – Photography
David Kellner – Modern sculpture
Jessi Miller – Acrylic paintings, mixed media
Leighton Okus – Dance
Olivia Ortiz – Music
Jordan Shapot – Oil paintings, drawings
Teddy Sykes – Watercolors
A’Aron Thomas – Mixed media, acrylic paintings
Maggie Weakley – Paintings, wood art, ceramics