In Kansas City's West Bottoms, Artists Lend An Old Building New Life And Purpose
In one corner of the historic West Bottoms, an old industrial food processing warehouse is undergoing a revival. It’s being converted into artist studios where, even during a pandemic, artists are creating art.
A faded sign on a brick building in Kansas City's West Bottoms advertises, "Holsum Food Products — Add the 'touch of genius' to your meals."
It's been decades since dry goods were processed in the five-story building at 12th and Santa Fe streets. The touch of genius found now inside its cavernous spaces is created at the hands of artists, who are giving the old warehouse new life and purpose.
About 20 artists work in newly created studios, bringing comradery, creativity and even a bit of commercial traffic to the Holsum building.
“It's fairly typical because artists are sometimes at the forefront of the gentrification spear,” says artist Garry Noland. “So once they make a space habitable, then other people with more money move in.”
Noland was one of the first to move in two years ago. His studio is on the third floor. He creates art from found and reclaimed materials in surprising ways. A poster from the U.S. Department of Agriculture becomes something new when he combines it with lettering from an ad in a National Geographic Magazine. Like the famous Hollywood sign in LA, peeking out from a beautiful vista in bold letters are the startling words: “Attention Fascist.”
“I have posters from all the 50 states,” Noland explains. “This happens to be Montana. But, you know, this lettering came out of a National Geographic magazine. It’s about calling attention to things that have always been in our landscape.”
Noland created a small gallery just inside his studio. You walk through it to get to his work space. The inspiration came from a two-year stint he spent in Los Angeles.
“There are so many artists in Los Angeles," Noland says. "Artists were putting on shows in elevator shafts and in storage units and underneath the bridges. And so, with the help of social media, they all become legitimate spaces.”
Johanna Winter’s studio is next door to Noland’s. A crowd of large, wrinkled heads made of papier-mâché fill half her work space.
“I make puppets and videos and performances that all fall under the umbrella of the aging female body," Winter says, "And the shame and pleasure of living in that body and the fear of becoming invisible, becoming obsolete in that body.”
At her desk near a window, Winter is building another head for a puppet. Much of her work is performance based so the pandemic put many of her projects on hold. The summer months, she says, were particularly discouraging.
“It was really hard to find that creative energy to make work,” Winter remembers. “There was just a lot of despair that I felt and I think I wasn't alone in that. But it felt very lonely.”
Winter says being able to work in a communal space with other artists helps her feel less isolated.
“It's comforting just knowing that other people are producing things in this space so there's a good energy,” she says.
“We call it the Seed Crusher,” Nugent says. “We named it after the piece of equipment that was once housed here when this building was a food processor.”
Back in March, when COVID hit, Nugent says she wasn’t stockpiling groceries or toilet paper.
“My only real panic buying was at the art supply store,” she says. “I bought a lot of paint. That was what I figured I would occupy my time with no matter what happened.”
She painted through the spring and summer. But once the pandemic shut down local events like the Plaza Art Fair and Art Westport, Nugent began to get concerned. So in late September, she and Hennick scheduled private, hour-long studio visits with anyone who wanted to sign up.
“I felt like we should do something to remind people that even though our shows aren't happening this year, they will happen again.,” Nugent says. “So don't get out of the routine. And the habit of doing something to observe art, to be with artists, to see what's happening, to see new work.”
Back on the third floor Garry Noland is slicing into another National Geographic with an X-Acto knife. Taking the long view — Noland says artists always find ways to create.
“People have made it through other hard times before and people still persevered,” Noland says. “You see artwork dating from the Depression, you see artwork dating from the Civil War. It sends the message that, you know, people still made artwork.”
That's the message the artists of the Holsum building hope to send with small galleries, private showings and their very presence in a building that recently lacked a purpose — hard times will be with us, but art and creativity will shine through.