As the clock ticks toward noon on the fourth floor of The Square in Lexington, a familiar question is asked: “Lunch?” Within minutes, lunch bags and airtight containers are opened as folks put down their paints and gather around tables to commune.
It’s a fairly typical afternoon at Artists’ Attic, the downtown institution that has turned the idea of the solitary artist on its head for 30 years, with more than 20 working artist studios open to the public and each other.
At Friday night’s Gallery Hop, the Attic’s artists, associate artists and friends will celebrate the 30th anniversary. It all started when developer Donald Webb wanted to create a space similar to The Torpedo Factory, an open studio and exhibit space in an old munitions plant in Arlington, Va.
It opened Dec. 10, 1988, with eight artists. Now, according to president Sharon Ross, Artists’ Attic boasts 41 members, including artists who maintain studios on the fourth floor of The Square, and associate artists who work and exhibit at the Attic but don’t have on-site studios.
Part of Friday’s celebration will be the opening of the Associates Gallery, featuring art by the associate members. The main exhibit will be “In and Around the Bluegrass,” featuring images of the Lexington area by member artists.
According to members who sat down to chat on a recent snowy Tuesday morning, on average two or three studios a year open, and artists pay between $160 to $500 a month to rent them, depending on size and location.
“I’ve been here a year and a half, but have been waiting 30 — OK, 29,” said Glenda Earnest, whose studio to the right of the Artists’ Attic elevator entrance boasts her own brand of fun and patriotic art. “When I first moved here, this was my first stop, and this was my dream to get a place here. So after I was done raising a family, and they’re gone, it’s my turn now, so here I am.”
Ross, the group’s president, says, “Practically every working artist in Lexington has moved through here at some point in their career.
“For us, it offers community. Some of us ask for critiques. Sometimes we get them whether we want them or not. But for the community, it’s the largest concentration of local artists.”
“Painting can be an incredibly introverted process, which is not all bad,” says Bill Fletcher, who has had a studio at the Attic for 20 years. “It’s nice to have the company of other people that are passionate about art, and not only is it nice because it balances the introvertedness of it, a bit, but we’re also stronger together because we can give each other help.”
Members frequently duck into one another’s studios to see what the others are up to.
“Have you seen what Sharon’s working on?!” Kathleen Hudson says, pointing to Ross’s studio, where a large vertical abstract is taking form. Then Ross notes the beach scene on Hudson’s easel — her first portrait of her son.
Part of the intent of the Artists’ Attic format is that the public not only can buy art but can see it taking form. Most of the studios are working studios, where the artists create daily.
Getting a studio isn’t just a matter of paying rent. Artists are juried in by a members committee.
“There are some fine studios in town with exceptional artists, but there’s nowhere else you can go to see up to 40 really, really, really fine artists in one spot,” longtime member Darrell Ishmael says. “Some of the top artists in the state have studios here, ... and there’s all varieties.”
Members include Hudson, who won the top prize in PleinAir magazine’s annual salon and has been identified as an “artist to watch” by Southwest Art magazine, and Eric Johnson, who has created art for the United States Golf Association and other national organizations. Many of the artists enjoy local and national commissions and enthusiastic collectors.
The artists say one of their top referrers is the Lexington Visitors Center, on the first floor of The Square. A short walk from two of the city’s largest hotels, the Attic sees visitors from around the world, many of whom want to buy original art to take home.
Ishmael says he recently shipped work to visitors from Australia and England who had stopped by the Attic.
The building where the artists work has almost completely changed. Gone are DeSha’s restaurant and Howard & Miller Men’s Clothing. The last few years have seen the addition of new attractions including Urban Outfitters and Tony’s steakhouse. Construction for the changes has presented challenges, and reconfiguring the space has made the Attic a bit harder to find. But a prominent street sign directing visitors to the elevator entrance off Main Street has helped, the artists say, and they enjoy the new variety of eateries below them when they aren’t gathering around the Attic’s patio tables for communal lunch.
“We hope to be here another 30 years,” Ross says.
Rich Copley: @copiousnotes
If you go
‘In and Around the Bluegrass’
What: 30th anniversary show by members and associate members of Artists’ Attic
Where: Fourth floor of The Square, Main Street at Broadway. Enter by taking elevator on the Main Street side.
When: Through Feb. 28. Gallery Hop reception 5-8 p.m. Jan. 19.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., noon-5 p.m. Fri., Sat.
What: More than 50 downtown Lexington galleries and art venues open to the public
When: 5-8 p.m. Jan. 19