As Studio Two Three celebrates our almost-tenth year, I’ve been reflecting on my experience as the cofounder and Executive Director of Studio Two Three and lessons I’ve learned on the Art of Motherhood, the Art of Activism and the Art of Equity.
We founded Studio Two Three nearly ten years ago - in fact, it will be ten years on August 25, 2019. I started it with three other women, Sarah, Tyler and Emily. We were just barely out of undergrad, having studied art - printmaking in particular.
What they don’t tell you at art college is that as soon as you graduate and earn that oh-so-important certificate, life becomes imminently more challenging. We graduated in 2008, at the height of the recession. Shockingly enough, there were exactly zero job postings for “full time artist, no professional experience necessary, competitive salary and full benefits.”
On top of that, once we left the university, there was literally nowhere for us to work in printmaking. It’s a field that requires a lot of large, expensive equipment and young artists are not known for their largesse or large homes.
So, like any industrious and naive group of young artists, we decided to invent something from nothing - we’d just spent four years in constant making, so why stop now?!
And that something we invented is Studio Two Three.
Our mission is to give people the space, tools and education to find that thing they love and make it. We do this by providing studio space - communal and private - for over 120 artists.
We also do this by providing affordable classes for community members at all levels of skill and all points in their lives.
And we do this by partnering with other nonprofits to amplify the talent and voices of those in our community who deserve to be heard.
So, Why Studio Two Three?
It’s a question I get a lot. There are many answers.
The most straightforward is: It was the number of our first studio door at Plant Zero, a rabbit warren of studio spaces in Manchester, of which we were number 23. It was a 400 square foot space with no running water, no windows, where we all split the monthly rent, borrowed printmaking equipment and used our earnings as servers and bartenders to keep the place stocked in ink, paper and very bad beer and wine for the monthly art openings we hosted.
A second answer is that we needed a place to work - and so did so many others. We started in 400 square feet and in just one year our numbers had grown and we needed more space. I was in graduate school for nonprofit management and bartending to pay my way through.
Alan, the bar owner, happened to know the building owner of a space i was looking at in an arts district on Main street, and that building owner just happened to be the high up in VCU’s School of the Arts, my alma mater.
I gave Alan a “name drop list” - names of VCUarts staff and faculty who would vouch for us and the need for Studio Two Three, written in purple sharpie on a damp piece of paper from a yellow legal pad during a shift at the bar. I was expecting Alan to call the owner and read the list and sing my praises in a professional manner. Instead, he handed him the soggy list.
Somehow, it worked. We moved to that 3,400 square foot building on Main Street in 2010 and began offering classes, gallery exhibits, field trips and community events in addition to our artist memberships.
We started with 4 women in 400 square feet. Today, our 13,000 square foot Scott’s Addition studio is home to over 120 artists with 24/7 access, thousands of students each year, scores of vendors and craftspeople making a living through their art at our markets and community events.
In less than 10 years we have come so far because of luck, miracles, stubbornness in the face of imminent failure, some very nice fire marshals, a constant love for what we do, curiosity and commitment to learning, an ever-evolving gaggle of interns, and the generosity of friends and family, and of acquaintances and strangers who, through that very generosity, have become friends and family.
But back to the question: why Studio Two Three?
I think that some of the scores of stories of the people’s whose lives our work impacts may be the best way of answering this question.
THE ART OF MOTHERHOOD
S23 member, illustrator, graphic designer and mom of a 3 year old and a newborn
“I first became a member at Studio Two Three when my work had reached a crossroads where I would need to give up on illustration entirely if I could not find an affordable space to expand.
Studio Two Three provided me not only with a space where my small business could grow, but the type of community where I was able to come to the studio with my nine day old baby and was welcomed with a village of support and understanding.
Accessibility is an under-discussed aspect of art, and Studio Two Three has created a community where ideas aren't restricted by their ability to sell, and creators aren't restricted by their situation - art, advocacy, and activism are given the freedom they need to thrive.
What the studio provides for me, and so many others, is an environment where opportunities are more equitable, and where people are given the space and support to follow through on their creative vision without having to compromise on who they are. The Studio has shown me the type of inclusive world I want to help build, and I am so proud to be a member. “
Somehow, in 2019, motherhood and careers are still at odds. There’s an entire canon of writing and art-making on the balance (or impossibility of balancing) motherhood and artistic practice. This dichotomy need not exist.
In her studio space, Clara is both a mother and an artist. She can feed a baby while while illustrating, rock a baby while packaging client orders, entertain a toddler with coloring while she works. She has space to live in that multitasking, graceful, harried, exhausted and exhilarated way of mothers.
In her memoir, the Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch talks of the “green world” - how the exhaustion of new parents often brings the most productive, creative output of their lives - “Our exhaustion in the green world brought us to our best selves. The zenith of our depletion changed into the zenith of our creative production.”
But let’s not kid ourselves. Clara is exhausted. So we hold the door for her when she comes in, wearing a newborn baby and carrying a Snugamonkey Rocker. We hold her baby if she needs a break. Just like we hold space for artists to be mothers and mothers to be artists.
In turn, she testifies to “why Studio Two Three?” - she says to me in an email “ I feel like I'm constantly cupping people's faces in my hands and intently telling them how very special and important S23 is.”
I love that she does that.
JACKIE ANN RUIZ
S23 member, author, illustrator and mother of two
“I sold my book proposal to Random House last summer and was given nine months to write and illustrate it. I took my first book check and did two things immediately; I hired my first babysitter and I paid for a year of private studio space at 23. I felt like a baller.
Virginia Woolf said that a woman needs two things to write fiction, money and a room of one’s own. My book is a satirical feminist version of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, not fiction, but that’s what I needed too. We are currently in final edits for a book that I really think can change the world for women, and I could not have written it, if not for Studio Two Three. I worked whenever I could; sometimes surrounded by artists during the day, and sometimes my studio light was the only one on. in a big dark calm warehouse.
Those are my favorite times, because I am a lone wolf, but in retrospect I am so glad that I had the option to come and work surrounded by other people doing their work, it sustained me when I got so tired and there was so much more work to do. BOOKS ARE LONG AND BABIES ARE A LOT and community has never been more important than it is now, for so many reasons.
When I needed coffee, someone had usually already made it. When I needed to bounce my ideas off of someone different than me, all I needed to do was look around and pick one. Studio Two Three is a rainbow of artists, writers, community advocates, mothers, fathers, supporters, kids tromping through on field trips where they might learn for the first time that being creative can be a job and a way of life.
Two Three is a family supporting creativity in all people, supporting empowerment and equity for the oppressed, elevating the voices of those who deserve to be heard and have their work seen and have space left for them. It has GENDERLESS bathrooms; this radical and inclusive detail is a great indicator of the human rights focus at the forefront of everything Studio Two Three does. “
MY OWN STORY ABOUT THE ART OF MOTHERHOOD
In 2014, I was nine months pregnant with Max, our first child, and wearing a toga when we were shut down at our Main Street Studio by the fire marshals during a Burlesque fundraiser - oh-so-cleverly titled “Empire of Pleasure: A Night of Colossal Indulgence”.
As it turned out, our building had no certificate of occupancy and hadn’t since the 1950s when it was a Coca Cola bottling plant. It most certainly was not zoned for an artist collective and occasional bawdy fundraising event.
Remember that name drop list I used to get the building? Well, this time, I didn’t have a name drop list to share with the fire marshals. I did ask very slow and repetitive questions while people finished their beers, and thanked the nice fire marshals for waiting until the end of the event to shut us down so that we could make some money - a fact they shared with me as evidence that they were, in fact, very nice fire marshals.
I spent all 6 weeks of maternity leave with Max learning a new name drop list, the ins and outs of zoning, parking variations, how to read architectural plans, and which employees at City Hall could help versus hurt the cause.
5 years later, I’m now on the Richmond 300 Advisory Council to update the citywide master plan, in no small part because of these hard lessons learned as a brand new mom, worried about a colicky newborn and terrified of losing all I’d worked for to the whims of bureaucracy.
And in the end, after all that learning, we decided to move. We’d outgrown the space on Main Street in 4 years time and had to take a leap of faith. We had to ask for faith from those friends, family, strangers and acquaintances who had become family and friends. We had to build an even wider network, to ask more people to become family and friends and help us fund the renovations and relocation to a new home in Scott’s Addition. And with generosity, luck, tenacity and a lot of elbow grease, we did it.
I wore Max in an Ergo Baby Carrier while on walkthroughs for the building renovation, breastfed him while inspecting finishes and electrical outlets, he cruised around the new Scott’s Addition studio in his baby walker before any furniture moved in.
Now, at 4 years old, on days off from school he sprays down table tops and sometimes helps organize materials for workshops. More often than not, he helps un-organize materials. He is confident and proud of his mommy’s work - he tells people he’s going to be an artist just like his mommy when he grows up.
In 2016 I became a mom for the second time, when I gave birth to baby Zoey, my magical little imp. We call her the house elf because she’s wee and full of mischief.
I came back early from maternity leave, having to let a wayward employee go, and wore Zoey while righting the ship, preparing for our Winter Print Fair, hiring and training Hillary, our Assistant Director (who is amazing). The whole time, the house elf was with me, loved, held by interns, artists, visitors, and growing while surrounded by a village of support and the joy of making.
My creative process now involves Max and Zoey. Max turns 5 next month, and he can make prints with mommy. We capture moments and trends in Max’s life - last year it was birds, we made the print Max’s birds together, evidence that Max and mommy were here, loved each other, and worked together.
I made the print I Love You More (for Max), when my 2.5 year old came home and replied to “I love you” with “I luhhhh you mohhhh” - breaking my heart forever and making life so much richer.
Somewhere in having children, the old you dies. You lose who you once were, most of it, at least. This loss of self is very real, but a new self takes its place.
I’ve been reading and re-reading “A Love Story” by Samantha Hunt because of how true it is. She says:
“But there is no self left. Why would there be? From one small body I made three new humans. I grew these complex beauties. I made their lungs and noses. It took everything I had to make them. Liver? Take it. Self-worth? It’s all yours. New people require natural resources and everyone knows you don’t get something for nothing.
Why wouldn’t I be hollowed out? Who can’t understand this math?
The strangest part of these calculations is that I don’t even mind. Being hollow is the best way to be. Being hollow means I can fill myself with stars or light or rose petals if I want. I’m glad everything I once was is gone and my children are here instead. They’ve erased the individual and I am grateful. The individual was not special in the first place. And, really, these new humans I made are a million times better than I ever was.”
My latest print series is called “I Made These Complex Beauties.” My children, these complex beauties that I made, get to grow up in this magical space that I helped make.
They are loved by a village of artists, they draw with wild abandon, they construct forts from Amazon delivery boxes and bits of string they found in a closet, they dance spastically to the Ramones in our event space on late nights while we prepare for our annual auction, they overindulge in the candy that is somehow ever-present on the table by the studio door. This is my Art of Motherhood and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But there are still more answers to the question: Why Studio Two Three?
THE ART OF ACTIVISM
STEVEN CASANOVA, ARTIST AND ACTIVIST:
“When I first started my "Puerto Rico Is Dying" campaign in 2017, it was with a hand-painted 3x5 flag at the corner of Broad and Belvedere.
After seeing the devastation in Puerto Rico first hand, I recognized that I needed to go bigger. Luckily, Studio Two Three was my link to both the people and the space to make this happen.
Guard N' Flags, a flag producing company based out of Studio Two Three, offered to help make a bigger flag, and Studio Two Three's brand new event space provided the opportunity to go as big as we wanted.
As we started working on the new 750 square foot flag, a number of Studio Two Three artists offered their help, and it quickly became a communal project.
It's this community and support that Studio Two Three offers artists that is so priceless.”
WOMEN’S MARCH PRINTING
In January of 2017, in a climate of uncertainty and fear, we had dozens of requests for workshops to make t-shirts, posters, banners and other ephemera for the Women’s March in Washington DC. In the span of one week , over 500 people come to Studio Two Three to make artwork expressing their beliefs and advocating for policies they cared about.
They went to DC wearing these shirts, and carrying posters and banners made at Studio Two Three. This underscores the power of print and the rich history of using printmaking. It is by far the the most democratic art medium with its ability to create multiples and disseminate information far and wide. Our community was making art to share ideas, express views, and advocate for social justice.
The Art of Activism is an ongoing series at Studio Two Three because our community repeatedly asks for programs to help them express their First Amendment rights through artmaking. We work with mothers working to end gun violence, teachers advocating for better funding for our public schools, students running for Student Council, young people working to reform the juvenile justice system.
But the Art of Activism - particularly those Women’s March workshops - made something very clear:
We also need to be working on
THE ART OF EQUITY
The people attending those workshops were overwhelmingly white. We were supporting one version of feminism, one lens of advocacy, and we realized we had a lot of work to do.
We still have a lot of work to do, but today we are consciously working on the Art of Equity.
MAKING A SPACE FOR THE COMMUNITY THAT REFLECTS THE COMMUNITY
We regularly offer the studio space free of charge for other nonprofits and groups working for social justice in our city and state.
We are intentionally collaborating with artists of color and prioritizing POC in our studio memberships. We are working to ensure that people of color are represented on our board, and in our staff, our membership, and our teachers. This is not to check off some “diversity checkbox” - its to make sure that the studio reflects our community and their needs. Richmond is diverse and artists and advocates aren’t one color, or gender, or orientation, or ability.
By making sure the studio is a space that reflects the makeup of our community, we can send the message that this is a place where all are welcome, not just a place where white ladies can come to sew or make prints (although that, too, is true).
We work with Milk River Arts, a creative community where the exchange between artists with + without special needs inspires personal + professional growth. Sally Kemp, Executive Director of Milk River Arts says:
“Studio Two Three is a huge reason artists at Milk River are seen as a vital part of the creative culture in Richmond. Milk River supports a neuro-diverse community of artists and fosters the exchange of learning between established and emerging artists with disabilities. We believe in creating space where everyone feels welcome and inspired to work with a wide-open heart, and sometimes our tiny studio just isn’t big enough!
Making space for people, causes and actions that improve our community is a major priority for Studio Two Three.
REDRAWING THE MAP
We just redesigned our 2014 Richmond map, which was a typographic design, because we realized we had left vast sections of the city - primarily black neighborhoods - off of the map.
This was inadvertently racist, but the inadvertent part does not make the racist part any better.
This sent a signal of who we thought was important and who wasn’t. The new map is almost ready - it’s geographically accurate and it includes every single neighborhood in the city of Richmond.
NOT JUST A BATHROOM SIGN
We have many LGBTQ+ artists in our community and to make the space supportive and safe for them, we felt it important that restrooms be non-gendered. We collaborated with Side by Side, a Richmond nonprofit working with LGBTQ+ youth, to find the right language for our multi-stall bathroom signs.
We had some ideas that they nicely told us were very, very stupid “Unicorns! A Robot and a Dinosaur!” These were gently vetoed. In the end, it was a pretty simple solution. “Just say what’s in the bathrooms” - so now we have non-gendered bathrooms with signs that read “This bathroom has sinks and stalls.”
It may seem like a small thing, and is uncomfortable for some visitors, but we can use this as a teaching moment and, first and foremost, it gives priority to the safety and identity of our artist members. We also have single stall restrooms for those who feel too uncomfortable in the multi-stall versions, because we truly wish to be welcoming and inclusive to all.
I want to be clear that the work we are doing and will continue to do to make Studio Two Three a more equitable organization doesn’t make us amazing, or outstanding, or any other superlative.
It is not optional work, we have a responsibility as a 501c3 nonprofit organization to be responsive to our community and serve the broad public good.
In the words of Maya Angelou:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
We still have work to do, and now that we know better, it is our duty to do better every day.