On a recent preternaturally warm Saturday afternoon, a group of people gathered in an East Austin backyard to celebrate the start of a somewhat unusual art exhibit.
The backyard belonged to Aaron Dubrow, a writer, and Erin Curtis, a painter. The couple are part of a 13-person artist collective behind the nonprofit Mass Gallery.
Earlier this year, Mass received a $4,000 grant from the Idea Fund, a re-granting initiative supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
The money supports "The Alley Cat Project" — a quirky, spirited public art venture in which Mass Gallery has commissioned 12 artists to each create something original for one of 12 alleyway spaces in central East Austin. The installations will remain up through December 2013.
The first — created by a group of teens participating in Club-A, an education program of AMOA-Arthouse — features brightly painted banners. The banners hang from a tree whose branches sprawl out from Dubrow and Curtis’ backyard over a fence and into the alley.
"Everyone Matters" reads one bright red banner as it fluttered in the strangely warm winter breeze that also pushed dried leaves across the gravel alley.
Outside the historic areas of downtown, alleys are not as ubiquitous a feature in Austin as they are in other cities.
Most neighborhoods here lack the vintage that gave rise to alleys. What Austin neighborhoods do have alleys — central East Austin, Hyde Park, Clarksville, Old West Austin, parts of Bouldin Creek — trace their origins to the late 19th or early 20th centuries when prevailing philosophies of urban design saw the logic of providing rear access for first carriage houses and then garages that kept the front of houses clear of cars, while also allowing access for garbage trucks and other service vehicles.
Beyond their practical function, neighborhood alleys supported important social uses. Tucked away from the tidy, formal profile associated with front yards, alleys provided a stage for the informal, spontaneous or messier aspects of domestic life — raucous children’s play, back fence socializing, a site for a work shed or small home business.
Though much of their original formal and informal function is now mitigated by changes in city life (garbage trucks now make their pick-ups from the street, for example), Austin’s neighborhood alleys nevertheless make for intriguing interstitial areas in the built environment, full of latent potential.
The artistic interventions of "The Alley Cat Project" are meant as a gesture to reclaim some of that potential.
A similar artistic gesture gave abandoned pay phones scattered around East Austin their day in the creative sun. Twice — in 2010 and 2012 — artist Bridget Quinn rallied artists to unleash their imaginations on about a dozen pay phone sites. Quinn’s "Pay Phone Revival Project" netted an award from the Austin Critics’ Table.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the folks in the Mass Gallery collective live in East Austin. And as artists, several will participate in "The Alley Cat Project" — just not in their own alley.
While her alley plays host to Club-A, Curtis, for example, will install a work in an alley traversing the 1400 block of East Second Street.
Aartists from other Texas cities and from outside the state were invited to participate in "The Alley Cat Project" as a way to inject some creative outsider perspective.
Also not surprisingly are the arts professionals among those homeowners who volunteered their private alley property to the endeavor: Andrea Mellard, curator of AMOA-Arthouse; artist and art community advocate Jennifer Chenoweth; and John Yancey, artist and professor at the University of Texas.
Yancey has been living in East Austin since 1996.
In 2004, he was tapped to create a 50-foot-long mosaic mural, "Rhapsody," that centers a small plaza at East Eleventh and Waller streets. "Rhapsody" is an homage to the longstanding African-American businesses — especially music clubs — that once populated East Eleventh.
At the "Alley Cat" reception, Yancey praised East Austin’s solidifying artist-driven indie arts scene.
"There was very little of this kind of energy here for years," he said. "It’s all still very grass roots, which is good. But it’s nice the way it’s built up while still being considerate of what is already here."
When it began in 2006, Mass Gallery was a loose collective of artists who staged exhibits and art happenings in a former auto body shop, part of the Blue Theater on Springdale Road. By 2010, that space was gone and the collective’s activities infrequent.
But now — revitalized by a new burst of energy — Mass Gallery is its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. And in January it will open its new exhibit space at 507 Calles Street, a converted East Austin building that is lately growing a roster of creative industry tenants, including Sky Candy Aerial Arts and East Side Glass Studio.
While all of the "Alley Cat" installations are on private property, they are viewable and open to the public. A map can be found at www.massgallery.org.
There’s chatter about organizing tours of the "Alley Cat Project," maybe even on bicycles. Or perhaps project leaders might stage a pop-up dinner party near an installation, or other event.
In the dusty alley the bright banners — with their playful images and uplifting phrases — swooped like kites with every gust of wind. "Follow Your Dreams," read one.