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On the night of Feb. 25, 2012, the old furniture warehouse at Spring and Seventh streets was at its liveliest in decades. The line wound around Dedicated Studios, the gallery that recently moved into the warehouse, as a decadent gang in suspenders, feathers and fake mustaches waited to enter the belly of the beast — a cavernous room pulsing with music, colored lights and the shouted conversations of roughly 300 people. After the DJs and the live bands, there would be a burlesque show, because what's Queer Prom without a little skin? "Queer prom was crazy, but it was awesome," said Jose Hernandez, the 28-year-old artist behind Dedicated. "That's the kind of thing we want to do here."
On a recent Thursday afternoon, that same huge space is nearly deserted. Graffiti and spray-painted characters decorate the column and staircase, a couple of drum sets are nestled in corners, a skater's half-pipe rests against a wall and a handful of folding chairs dot the floor. "This is where we have bands and workshops," Hernandez said. Not that Dedicated has had time to host a lot of events — Hernandez and his business partner, Robert Messenger, 27, leased the space in December. It took them two months to strip, refurbish and haul out the junk left behind from its 55-year history as Balfour Printing Co. But when the venue does have bands, it's never just about music. Sometimes the half-pipe comes out, and those people not painting on walls grab their boards. In addition to live music, workshops (most recently, a food-carving workshop where participants learned, among other parlor tricks, how to carve cantaloupe into flowers) and random events, the room hosts slam poetry every other Wednesday.
In the gallery up front, there's a traveling exhibit, "Puro Borde," showcasing artists from Juarez, El Paso, and other Mexican and American border towns. Hernandez was born in Mexico, but he moved to Jonesboro when he was 10. He met some of the artists featured in "Puro Borde" during an eight-year stint in Savannah, Ga., where he formed a collective with friends after dropping out of Savannah College of Art and Design. "That school was too corporate," Hernandez said, shaking his head. "I just wanted to do my own thing."
Dedicated is what his "own thing" looks like — a gallery with rotating exhibits, focused on installation and urban street art; DIS, the Dedicated Independent Store, which sells artists' crafts on consignment; the big event space (home of Queer Prom), and an upstairs that Hernandez and Messenger plan to divide into studio space for rent. There's also a back room that Hernandez and Messenger use for commercial design projects, such as creating signs, painting logos on vehicles and airbrushing hot-rods — "whatever pays the rent on the place," Hernandez said.
Before Dedicated, Hernandez ran Super Happy Funland (SHFL), another gallery and event space, in the Arkansas Community Arts Cooperative space on Main Street, after the co-op disbanded in July. But only four months later, the owners wanted to sell, and SHFL had to get out. "Robert and I, we were just looking for a small place to work, and we were kind of like, to hell with the events thing. Then we saw this building and a phone number, and ...," Hernandez trailed off, shrugging. "I just want to paint. And I want to see other people paint. I want to see people do what they love, whether it's music, art, writing, whatever ... and teaching about it, so that kids can see that there's alternative ways to getting a job, working all your life for nothing."
That's where the workshops and planned after-school programs and summer camps come in. "We want to get grants and work with the school system and be really official about all that, so that kids won't have to pay," said Hernandez. As the oldest of three in a family for which money was tight, Hernandez wants to offer neighborhood kids the art classes he couldn't afford growing up. Workshops are volunteer-led and open to the public. Thus far, in addition to food carving, Dedicated has held workshops on knitting and painting.
"I also want to work with kids who've gotten in trouble, to have their community service hours be going around and cleaning up walls and painting community murals," he said. "We can talk to the neighbors and the business owners, tell them what we're doing, and ask them what they think the community is and what it needs, then brainstorm those ideas and start drawing. It gets the kids out of the house, gets them out of their shell, talking to people. What's cool about it is, when you're painting in a neighborhood, you get people all the time. They stop by, they talk to you."
He's already in discussions with parole officers to make that a reality. As a street artist, Hernandez has a well-honed relationship with law enforcement. He's six months through a two-year parole for graffiti in Hillcrest. "If you do graffiti downtown, it's just a fine and a misdemeanor, but if you do it in rich neighborhoods, it's a felony," he said. "That's kind of why I did it, because nobody tags Hillcrest. They charged me with seven felonies, but then it got knocked down to one." (According to city prosecutor Larry Jegley, the graffiti becomes a felony once someone tops $1,000 of damage, no matter the neighborhood.)
But as far as Dedicated goes, Hernandez considers his attempts "more social than political. It's community-oriented work. I'm not trying to be political about it." It certainly seems to be laid back this afternoon, with a couple of Hernandez's friends lounging on the gallery counter, everyone half-dazed with the sunlight, streaming full-force through the front wall-of-windows. It seems to be a good kind of place to be.
Check the Dedicated Facebook page for upcoming events, which include bands, burlesque, an art bazaar and a summer art camp.