Artists and their families thrive amid community and creativity in artspace housing
Artspace is known around the world for creating affordable artist live/work housing in communities across the United States. But the nonprofit developer’s concerns and principles go far beyond the rigorous processes involved in renovating underutilized warehouses and schools or constructing new buildings to house artists. In addition to going where the need is greatest, maximizing capacity in its buildings and collaborating with culturally specific communities to ensure their unique requirements are met, Artspace creates multifamily housing that welcomes artists and their children.
“Our commitment has always been to supporting artists so they can flourish, grow and have families in creative neighborhoods that function on multiple levels,” says Wendy Holmes, Artspace’s senior vice president of consulting and strategic partnerships. “When I talk to parents in our buildings, it’s about the networking and about being around like-minded creative people who are also raising children. That’s so important, because artists are often among the most vulnerable people in our world and considered outside the norm. To be able to live in a safe, secure, affordable building where you and your children can create and are considered normal is not only nice, it’s also necessary.”
In this article in our ongoing series “The Artist Impact: An Artspace National Story Series,” we talked to Artspace families across the country about how living in an affordable artist live/work community has or might impact their children. We also talked with an artist who grew up in one of Artspace’s earliest projects and today works with the organization. Here are their stories.
Rosemary, Hanna and Caleb Wagner - Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts, Seattle
“We’d been wandering around trying to find a community to trust,” says Rosemary (Dai Ross) Wagner, a fine art portrait photographer, collaborator and idea maker. Her 16-year-old daughter Hanna “loves to sing, dance and make clothes.” Her 14-year-old son Caleb is “a computer geek who loves coding.” They were living in a new apartment complex up the road, “but my kids were the only kids there and I’m the crazy artist. There was nothing there relatable to our family,” Wagner says.
Seven months ago they moved to Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts. “My daughter and I are so heavily involved in the arts, it just made sense. But my son also loves the community because he finds the artists and the art shows so inspiring. In fact, we’re all inspired to create all the time. It’s our little place of heaven.”
The community of artists “is always looking out for each other,” Wagner says. In addition, Wagner has found in the Tashiro Kaplan community a wealth of resources for mounting a show, and learning about and writing grants. “To live in affordable artist housing is a great situation from an artist’s point of view.”
“But as a single parent, it’s important to me that my kids are around people who will positively influence them,” Wagner adds. “It’s hard to say ‘Go make a living creating art’ without seeing people around you doing just that, which for her is really inspiring. It really does take a village.”
In their light-filled loft, the family can “relax together and create together constantly,” Wagner says. “The three of us feel really inspired to make, because we’ve got the space to do it. There’s always new art on the walls. There’s always something innovative going on. Living here has helped ground us a lot.”
Tio Aiken - Lowertown Lofts Artists Cooperative, St. Paul
“I was three when we moved into the building,” says Tio Aiken. “I remember there was a lot of raw space and hardwood floors back then.” The daughter of painter, illustrator and public artist Ta-coumba Aiken, and Eve Lawrence, a model, Aiken is today a poet, nonprofit arts consultant, co-organizer of the Giant Steps Conference, communications manager at Artspace and board member for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. “This wouldn’t have been a natural path if I hadn’t grown up in that building, or in Lowertown for that matter,” she says.
Aiken and her childhood friend Mercedes Younger were the only kids in the building until Aiken’s brother, Jamal, was born. “We used to put on plays on the fifth floor for the residents and move all over the building,” she recalls. “It was the original immersive theater!” Younger is now an artistic director and set designer in Los Angeles.
“Today, so many people seem to think that in order to access creativity and knowledge in an innovative way you have to put children in programs to expose them to the arts,” Aiken says. “I was able to live a really privileged and culturally rich life because of the painters, jewelers, writers and musicians in the building. And that way of life was presented in a way that wasn’t a luxury, but a necessity. And normal.”
Still, Aiken felt a tension in her young life growing up in a non-traditional neighborhood. “Some of the stuff people take for granted, like a backyard to play in, I didn’t have as a kid. I felt a little ashamed. But one day, one of my classes in my elementary school visited my building and everybody thought it was so cool because I had an elevator in my house and a beautiful atrium I could rollerblade in. It was a good thing to see my home through other people’s eyes.”
Moreover, as a latchkey kid, Aiken would come home to art projects prepared for her by neighbors or listen to classical music on records with another resident. And there was the time her godparents on the fifth floor saw her reading “a not-for-kids poem by Nikki Giovanni,” Aiken says, laughing. “The next time I went to their loft, that book wasn’t there. But instead there were a ton of picture books and tween chapter books. Which is why I have such a love for literature today, consider poetic expression normal and choose to write poetry.”
Kara, Adam, Ayvalyn and Finley Cox - Artspace Jackson Flats, Minneapolis
This year, for the first time, six-year-old Ayvalyn Cox had her own table at the Artspace Jackson Flats Holiday Bazaar, where she sold nearly all of her merchandise. “How can you resist a six-year-old selling you adorable holiday cards,” says Kara Cox, laughing with admiration.
“She was taking money from people for the first time, and learning that entrepreneurship within the arts is a way to express yourself but also potentially earn some money while interacting with the people who are buying from you,” adds Cox, a jewelry, fabric and accessories designer. “That’s the nature of living in a place that’s so open to the arts and the entrepreneurial spirit around the arts.”
For the Coxes, “the arts are our baseline. We value what the arts can do for humanity. With that, we see ourselves and our kids as creative people who need art as a daily aspect of life, which this building helps us achieve,” explains Adam Cox, an art teacher and painter.
Adds Kara: “I’m not sure the kids quite understand the uniqueness of growing up in a place like this, because this is all they know. But what I see happening is a can-do attitude regarding art and creative endeavors. Finley is still young, more quiet and introverted, so it will be interesting to see how he opens up to the community. Ayvalyn, however, doesn’t really think she can’t do something or can’t make something. She has a very fun attitude regarding all of the endeavors going on around us.”
Finley and Ayvalyn enjoy the art openings in the building’s gallery. The Cox family also recently started holding house shows and house concerts in their apartment. “This is a fun new development our kids get to be a part of,” says Kara. “Our kids are having a rich experience growing up around wonderful people who are artists, artisans and craftspeople—and doing great things.”
Alenka Kraigher, Carlos David and Mila Sophia - El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, New York City
Alenka Kraigher is a filmmaker and theater artist beloved by New York critics. Carlos David is a photographer whose work is published regularly in high-profile magazines. Still, the artistically successful couple never thought having a family was financially possible until they moved into El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 last January.
“Being an artist in New York City is really difficult economically,” says David, “and you’re always fighting for your position as an artist, to become successful and be accepted. That all changed when we moved into El Barrio.”
“We now have a place to call home, with a new level of security, where artists from different fields establish relationships and collaborate with each other,” he adds. “We also noticed that couples here have great relationships with their kids and have a work-life balance that’s very inspiring. That completely changed our idea about having a baby.”
Nine months ago, Mila Sophia was born, joining several other babies born to El Barrio parents since Kraigher and David moved in. “We have such hopes for her growing up in this community,” says David, who says he didn’t discover art until he was a teenager. “For her, she’ll greet creativity and be surrounded by it. She’ll be able to discover so many artistic possibilities.”
Adds Kraigher: “We also love the fact that so many artists here do workshops for people outside of El Barrio, for the community at large. So we have an extended El Barrio family from reaching out into the greater community and bringing people into our building. That’s a wonderful outlook for Mila to have growing up. The future looks so bright for her. It’s almost utopia.”
Cheyanne Payne (aka Kook Teflon), Darby Jane and Sailor Hank (aka RainBowGore Cake) - Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts, Seattle
“I discovered the land of Artspace as a single mom a couple years ago,” says Cheyanne Payne, whose stage name is Kook Teflon. “I feel so blessed to be able to live here.” Since the dollmaker, filmmaker, photographer and event organizer moved to Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts with her then-teen daughter Darby Jane (who is now in college) and son Sailor Hank (whose drag name is RainBowGore Cake), now 13, “I really feel community is number one.”
“We’re eccentric,” she says, “and that can make people nervous. But here, the community has accepted us. My kids feel like they live in a safe place where they can express themselves.” That’s particularly true for Sailor Hank, who is Seattle’s youngest drag queen. “He gets flown all over the country to perform in festivals,” Payne says. “He’s a performance artist working toward a career in film.”
“He also knows its super special that we as a family get to live here,” she adds. Sailor Hank hosts a monthly movie night in the community room: Proceeds from his concession stand were donated to the Oakland families displaced by the fire at the Ghost Ship artists’ collective. On Christmas, several residents, including Payne’s family, will invite the homeless into the community room for haircuts, massages, dinner, entertainment and hot showers.
“He’s very compassionate and this community has really helped him open up,” she says about Sailor Hank. “In fact, a neighbor made a documentary about my son called ‘Courage,’ which is about performing in front of thousands of people, loving what you do and being proud.”
Next year, Darby Jane will curate her first art show in Mt. Baker Lofts’ gallery. “Living in a diverse community with others who represent a spectrum of creativity is so important,” Payne says. “Both of my kids have gone that route.”