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The clanging bell over the Hive’s front door startled me as a raggedy string bean of a man tumbled in. I’d been quietly questioning my wisdom in opening a shop on Main Avenue in Gastonia, and my current customer did not appear to be an affirmation to the contrary. I hesitated then welcomed my visitor. He said he was an artist and someone had sent him my way. I directed him to the art supplies. For some odd reason, I also spilled the truth of my fear. He looked around the Hive and at me and spoke, “My God clearly told me His well of creativity is bottomless. I can work every day until the end of time and never reach the bottom.” These words brought me tremendous peace and have remained a daily mediation as I think of all the creative people producing on our little patch of the planet.
Gaston County has always been a creative place rooted in the heritage of our Native American forefathers and evolving with the fiber artists and string bands of our textile age. Today, creative expression remains a vibrant thread running through our community.
Arts on Main, in partnership with the City of Gastonia, houses 26 day studios for working artists. It is home to our thriving fifty-year-old Gaston County Arts Guild, and hosts an impressive gallery, classroom space, and a gift shop that is filled with local artisans’ treasures. Curt Butler of Butler Studios is luring aspiring painters by the dozens “across the river” for his weekly classes. Curt is rapidly gaining national recognition as an important working artist. Ryan Karpinsky’s edgy Art Station on South Street exhibits a variety of passionate and talented artists and shares a cool hipster vibe with the music happening next door at Zoe’s coffee shop. Anastasia Boswell’s A Wild Path Studio hosts the popular Wine+Design Parties, intuitive painting, yoga, and children’s art. My Hive preserves the stationery tradition begun by Torrence Stationery and has added artisan gifts and creative workshops. Our classroom instructors come from near and far to share their craft with our community and the folks who travel to Gastonia seeking the Hive’s programming. There are at least a dozen more artists secreted away in downtown Gastonia studios painting, bookbinding, designing jewelry, filmmaking, photographing, playing music, and sculpting.
Five years ago, Richard Rankin asked if I would help him with a Gastonia focused pre-feasibility study for an organization called Artspace. Artspace, founded in 1979, is the largest not-for profit real estate developer in the country. They identify underutilized downtown properties and develop affordable live/work spaces for artists. The cultural revitalization provided by the creative community creates an economic “tipping point” in municipalities that has been successfully repeated 39 times over around the country.
Following our pre-feasibility study, survey, and extensive analysis, Gastonia qualified to build a forty unit live/work community with gallery and retail space. The Community Foundation of Gaston County has partnered with Artspace to develop Gastonia Artspace Lofts on the corner of Franklin and South Streets in downtown Gastonia. Funding comes from philanthropic leaders and public funding sources for affordable housing, economic development, historic preservation and cultural facility development. This is the first P3 development in downtown Gastonia since 2000 and will be the first Artspace in the country to pioneer an onsite community wellness center through an innovative partnership with CaroMont Health.
CaroMont has proven a great arts patron in Gaston County. With the recent construction of the Mount Holly Emergency Department, CaroMont worked with community leaders and several area artists to create artwork that reflects Mount Holly’s special character. Recently, the Rotary Club of Gastonia commissioned area artists to create dynamic lampshades that were auctioned to raise funds to build book stops for Gastonia parks and public spaces. Other non-profits are crafting similar creative partnerships that have evolved well beyond the old days of simple art auctions. It has been spectacular to witness the community’s appreciation for this area’s talented artists.
Gaston County enjoys a bottomless well of creativity. It is a miracle to witness downtown Gastonia waking up as it embraces the soulful artists who make our lives richer and more colorful. It’s just plain cool that us folks “west of the river” are the ones to recognize and harness the economic powerhouse that a valued, vital creative community can be.
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