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Newcomer brings creative hub for artists to downtown Austin

Denise Gamino
Jann Alexander

Artist Jann Alexander planned to meet us for coffee at Little City Espresso Bar & Cafe downtown until she got the call she'd been waiting for: A large, fine art Epson color printer was about to be delivered to her new one-stop shop for artists and art lovers. She grabbed the nearest takeout coffee and headed to the historic Bremond Building at Congress Avenue and Eighth Street.

The 1,200-square-foot space was empty save for two folding chairs and tray tables she set up for our meeting. But the room was filled with her dreams.

Alexander's Austin Details Art + Photo will be a creative hub - a high-tech gallery, an old-style exhibit space, a business center and a workshop for artists. It's a new concept for Austin.

"What I want is space where it's really interactive and energetic and people come and they meet other people," she said.

"I want it to be the kind of place where if you are a really big fan of art, you'll come in here and you might run into an artist who's working with us."

Austin Details Art + Photo is scheduled to open in mid-July at 106 E. Eighth St., with open houses for artists in late June.

A 58-inch high-definition television will be the focal point of the new gathering spot. The flat screen will show slides and videos of work by artists who have a sample piece displayed on the opposite wall, which will be filled with 12-inch square works, known as 12-by-12s.

High above the HDTV will hang Alexander's own photography collection she calls "Vanishing Austin." She has nearly 70 striking photos of buildings that have been demolished or are endangered. She has an eye for juxtaposition; many photos capture new buildings climbing to the sky behind the historic sites.

Alexander, 56, is an unexpected visual historian for Austin.

She has lived here only since 2004. She closed up her graphic design business in Arlington, Va., sold her house and moved here after spending a magical five-day vacation that included First Thursday on South Congress Avenue, bike rides on the Barton Creek Greenbelt and the hike-and-bike trail, margaritas at Guero's, wildflower encounters and lots of walking downtown.

"I adopted Austin in a heartbeat," she said. "I just knew it was where I was meant to be. I don't know why it took me so long to get here."

She had never painted before but signed up for classes at Austin Museum of Art's Laguna Gloria art school. Alexander is the kind of person who takes 400 photos on a vacation to New Mexico or Mexico in hopes she will paint all the scenes. Her oil paintings focus on Southwestern landscapes and old mission churches while her photography captures Austin history.

"I see it with new eyes," she said. "I've always loved history. I think maybe I see these (vanishing) places in different ways because my eyes are fresher. If I had lived here all my life, it wouldn't be as meaningful to me probably."

Shortly after moving here, Alexander became fascinated with the controversy surrounding the closing of Las Manitas, a Mexican restaurant that had been on Congress Avenue for 25 years. It was to be replaced by a towering Marriott hotel, but that development is on hold now.

Las Manitas was one of about 12 Austin locations Alexander had photographed when she realized her work had a theme. She began exhibiting "Vanishing Austin" first out of her home, and then at the annual Art City Austin fine arts festival. The quest to find a gallery for her work evolved into her creation of a unique, all-under-one-roof venue where artists and art lovers could mingle.

"I've heard this said about Austin and I think it's true: It's a great incubator for art but it's maybe not such a great place to sell art," she said.

Many artists need help with business skills and promotional materials. Austin Details Art + Photo will offer an array of artist services, including brochures, business cards and mailings lists; professional photography of their artwork; workshops in Photoshop and other skills; and archival reproductions of their work.

Alexander worked as a commercial artist on the East Coast for 11 years, before working as art director for the Washington Post's Sunday magazine from 1984-87.

After a divorce left her a single mother with a toddler, she quit the newspaper business and opened a graphic design firm. Alexander is convinced that downtown Austin can become a magnet for the arts. "I just felt like this is where it's happening," she said. "People are down here. They're down here for events. The hotels are here.I want to make a downtown art scene happening here."

Two large arched windows stream welcome light into Austin Details Art + Photo. The 17-foot ceilings provide airiness and museum feel to the space.

"Now I'm able to give artists exhibit space for a really nominal fee, and they have a gallery presence and they have a place for people to come see their work when they're in the studio or when they're on the road," she said. "And then ultimately when my website gets set up for e-commerce, all the artists that are on the 12-by-12 wall who then will be in this big TV database will be able to be on the website for e-commerce.

"That's where the big printer comes in. You can either buy originals or you can order online. You can order a fine art archival reproduction that we'll do on the big 44-inch Epson printer."

A work counter with bar stools and iMacs will allow artists to sit and help with the printing of their work.

"They can just come right here and watch it being done and coax it along," she said.

Alexander's iPhone rang. It was the delivery man with the large color printer. Alexander went outside to wait. But the printer was too big to fit through the door. Another attempt had to be scheduled.

Alexander's personality errs on the bright side. A second delivery would be just another opportunity to expose another driver to Austin's newest art center.; 445-3675