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The shifting dynamic of EAST

The East Austin Studio Tour has expanded – both in scope and in geography – since the first one was held in 2003

Luke Quinton

Imagine you're 23 and fresh out of college when it dawns on you that a really cool place to work would be a corrugated steel warehouse with big bay doors on the outskirts of East Austin, where you can make art with your friends.

A table in the middle is the nerve center that links four studios: It's a table for work, for lunch, for not doing work, for carving and drawing on, for collaborating and for thinking up the first East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), creating Big Medium and the Texas Biennial.

This is a rough sketch of Bolm Studios in 2002, when artists Shea Little, Joseph Phillips and Jana Swec moved in, transforming their lives and the landscape of East Austin in the process.

"The first time I came out here I was like, ‘Where are we?' " Phillips says now.

This year marks the 10th iteration of the tour they created. In 2003, EAST showcased just 28 studios. This year, the tour features 380 artists showing their work in 145 studios and 60 venues across East Austin. A staggering amount of art that, this year, fills a gorgeous, tome-like catalog, their best yet.

The trio met to reminisce about EAST's early days, on the sun-filled patio at 916 Springdale Road, a cavernous warehouse that (with a Michael Hsu redesign) might shift the trio's direction once again.

But that's getting ahead of things a bit.

After all, in the fall of 2003, EAST was hardly on the radar. Then, the trio, who called themselves Sodalitas, had made friends in other studios, and the tour, says Little, was just a way "to make people aware of us, to come way the hell out east to Bolm."

"We had this one big bay," Little says, "this open thing that we were living in, and then we had this other bay that was our studio."

Wait, they were living there? If you've been to their headquarters, burrowed in a parking lot, that might come as a surprise. "We lived there for three or four years," says Swec, whose eyes flash at the memory. "It was awesome."

As you might imagine, the legality of sleeping in a warehouse was questionable.

The fire marshall came out at one point. "And you wouldn't answer the door," Phillips says to Swec. "No, I remember that," she says, grinning.

As the idea spread to artists who had been established on the east side for years, there were three tours in 12 months, with no revenue stream aside from the shared costs of the promotional brochure and later, a full catalog of studios and artists.

EAST was responding to a gap in a city that produces infinitely more art than it can consume. "The gallery system in Austin wasn't strong enough to support 300 artists that are making a huge variety of work," Phillips says.

After that first year the tour was dominating their lives. "We were basically working full time for free," Phillips says.

"That's when we realized we could only do one a year," says Swec. "We stopped being able to have art in our studios because we were working for EAST."

"So we decided to work part-time for free," Phillips muses, half-joking.

The grants came later. So did a more formal nonprofit organization that the trio named Big Medium.

In 2011, it's hard not to draw a direct line from Big Medium to the art collectives that have since made East Austin a bohemian wonderland.

And how many restaurateurs, architects, designers, musicians, developers and craft-makers first saw East Austin's potential on the studio tour?

Development would have come eventually, but who's to say it would have been so focused on the visual arts?

They reminisce about the prices they used to pay for rent, on the order of fifty cents a square foot. "Can't get that anymore!" says Phillips, "Thanks to us."

"Do you feel that — " I start.

"That we ruined everything?" Phillips deadpans.

"Yes," Swec says, ironically.

But for Big Medium these days, growth and expansion are cause for excitement. Especially as they chat and make each other laugh outside 916 Springdale Road, a warehouse space next to Blue Genie and Blue Theater that was once a Goodwill distribution center.

Inside is a gorgeous, raw space, with mega ceilings and rows of concrete pillars. Light comes from walls of open bay doors. It's full of art, hung for EAST.

The building is "very industrial," says architect Michael Hsu, calling it the kind of affordable building stock that "wouldn't be possible anywhere else around town."

Hsu's vision is to add a second floor with a borough of studios while blowing out the center of the building to make a courtyard filled with light.

Little, Phillips and Swec are acting as the project's consultants, but they might also become its anchor tenants. Hsu says the project would be the start of a long-term, professional environment, built to code, that would attract and sustain artists.

The space will host studios and a gallery as well as a nontraditional cafe space with screen-printing or other art tech.

Whether Big Medium moves to the new development or not, a new space may come. "We've been running this space in what is basically a junkyard, illegal, against code, ramshackle thing that works," says Little, "But at some point we need to step up."

They're thinking of the state and national stages too, and that might involve "getting Joseph and Jana involved again," says Little.

If you were a CEO, at first glance this trio probably wouldn't fill your vision of a cultural powerhouse.

But they have a gravitational pull. They must. Little and Swec are now married with children, and Phillips has a newborn of his own. Yet as a trio, they've managed to maintain a friendship in the midst of founding EAST, the Texas Biennial and continuing to make some of the city's best art in their studio practice. All with a presence that is unassuming but ambitious.

In part, it's because Little has taken over the bulk of the duties, directing Big Medium and EAST, allowing Phillips and Swec to step back.

It is slightly ironic, though, that both Swec and Phillips have mostly abandoned the studio space where it all started, to paint at home, in between children's naps, while dozens of new studios have appeared in EAST's wake.

But as they consider a new home for Big Medium, the spark may again be reignited.

Keeping studio costs down is one of the goals for the warehouse space on Springdale Road. "It's so important for us to be involved and not price ourselves out — and not price other people out," says Swec.

In any case, gentrification has always draped around EAST, says Little.

"We used to ignore it," adds Swec, "Or not want to deal with it because it was scary. Now we're trying to have some sort of control over it."

And maybe talk of gentrification is slightly overblown.

"For all the people that think, like the secret's totally blown out east," says Phillips, "there are so many more people that are like ‘East Austin, isn't that a little bit — dangerous?'"

Their talk about the tour is ever-swirling.

Would a South/West/Central Austin tour take some of the gentrifying pressures off East Austin?

They hear questions about the two-weekend format, about excluding the rest of the city, complaints about "guest artists" and the ever-shifting boundaries of East Austin.

Phillips has a hard-earned reputation for occupying both sides of an argument, while Little (whose shirt says "I Want To Start Living Like a Mystic") is more decisive and straightforward and Swec more animated.

"All of a sudden we got ourselves into this really big event that we are administrating, and now we have to pay ourselves, now we all have kids, and so we can't work for free anymore, so now it's ‘OK, now let's make a career out of this.' It's weird," says Little.

There is something sweet and earnest about them, aside from their continual surprise at the success of their ventures. But none of it has been particularly easy. As Phillips says, "None of us gets to take the tour."

EAST events

See eastaustinstudiotour.com for a complete list of the more than 60 EAST co-sponsored auxiliary events and exhibits. Here are a recommended few:

"Haircuts by Children."

Think a 10-year-old doesn't have the creative ability, dexterity and responsibility to command a sharp pair of scissors and give a haircut? Created by Canadian theater company Mammalian Diving Reflex, "Haircuts by Children" challenges adults to relinquish control and empower children to take the creative, and business, helm. In Austin, children at Norman Elementary and Pecan Springs Elementary School have been receiving training from professional hairstylists and will offer free haircuts this weekend. The children will operate every facet of a professional salon including managing appointments, cutting hair, cleaning up and even selling lemonade to clients and spectators. Haircuts are free and the public is invited to watch. Organized by the Fusebox Festival. Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Peacock Salon, 1519 E. Cesar Chavez St. Free. Make an appointment at fuseboxfestival.com.

"EAST Victory Lap"

After each day of the tour, there's a free party at the historic Victory Grill, which has been in business since 1945 and is the last remaining authentic juke joint on the east side. Food and work by local artisans with live music by R&B singer Sonia Moore (Saturday), hip-hop group Drastik (Sunday), rockers the Invincible Czars (Nov. 19) and Latin folk-rocker Gina Chavez (Nov. 20). Organized by Austin Creative Alliance with Capitol View Arts. 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and Nov. 19-20. Historic Victory Grill, 1104 E. 11th St. Free. capitolviewart.org .

"Eyes Got It!"

It's part "American Idol," part Bravo TV's "Work of Art" and totally awkward but delightfully revealing. Riffing on the reality television creative competition shows, this Austin-spun event features a panel of local arts professionals offering critiques of artists' work in front of a live audience. After three rounds of increasingly tougher critiques, a winner gets a solo exhibit at an Austin gallery. 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Nov. 18. 1319 Rosewood Ave. Free.

Tips for a better EAST

Prepare.Get an EAST map and plot where to go before you venture out.

Go someplace you haven't been to before. There are 145 official EAST sites, many of which have several artists.

Cluster your visits. Studios are often closer than you think. Plan to park and then walk to several destinations. Or consider biking the tour.

Remember that much of East Austin is a residential neighborhood. Park respectfully on residential streets and obey all parking signs.

Talk to the artists. EAST provides an informal and intimate opportunity to ask artists and artisans questions about their work and how they made it.

Bring cash or checks. Many artists are not equipped to take plastic.

— American-Statesman staff