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Artsy Argenta 

North Little Rock’s historic downtown is becoming a focal point for folks with a creative bent.

ARTIST'S CIRCLE: V.L. Cox got the Argenta Studios started.
  • ARTIST'S CIRCLE: V.L. Cox got the Argenta Studios started.

Pity the poor, solitary artist: Isolated from society, locked in a desperate struggle with his or her muse, staring down a blank canvas or unshaped stone and ...

Hey, who's laughing?

That would be artists V.L. Cox and Delita Nelson, cracking each other up in the great hall at First Presbyterian Church in downtown North Little Rock, home to Argenta Art Studios, where they and five other artists lease former Sunday school classrooms.

Not only are they not lonely, they are expecting company. “I expect it to grow,” said Cox, who proposed the idea of renting studios from the church's session, or governing body. “They were a little leery; they had never been approached with that idea before. But they have done a complete 180 ... the church members have welcomed the artists with open arms.”

Nelson, who just finished her master of fine arts degree from Purdue University, has discovered multiple benefits to the location.

“Artists can exhibit their work on a rotating basis [in the church] at no cost to them because they're in the studios,” said Nelson. “Also, we offer assistance on networking and marketing. And I'm looking forward to offering workshops in printmaking.”

Brady Taylor, a Little Rock native who attended the Rhode Island School of Design and worked as a graphic designer in New York before returning home last November, found out about the Argenta Studios from a flier she picked up.

“When I moved in here I was the only person [on the ground floor],” said Taylor, sitting in the midst of sheets of paper and canvases drawn and painted with images of silverware or bicycles in near-human poses. “It's really gotten more interesting around here” with the addition of more artists, she said.

The success of Argenta Studios — along with the recently revived monthly Art Walk, the presence of the arts-centric Thea Foundation and the relocation of Starving Artist Cafe to North Little Rock's Main Street — makes it appear that Argenta is finally turning into the arts district its champions have long envisioned.

Argenta has seen its share of arts-related businesses come and go (in most cases go) over the last 10 years. There was the Hive in the 300 block of Main; its ground floor held a guitar shop, recording studio and similar businesses, while upstairs were rental studios for artists. Alas, the Hive was shuttered after its owners had a falling-out with their partner in Cornerstone Pub and Grill next door. Also gone by the wayside is the Arts Scene at Broadway and Maple Street, a large gallery space where artists could display their work to the public and which was the scene of arts events, sometimes several times a month. 

One of the stalwarts has been Pennington Studios and Clay Time, home to professional photographer Larry Pennington for several years. (Quite literally home: He and his wife, Joy, also a supporter of the arts, live in the upper floors of the restored building at 417 Main St.)

Starving Artist Cafe at 411 Main features art on the walls and live demonstrations; owners Jason and Paula Morrell were lured to Argenta by local real estate developer and arts patron John Gaudin, who hosted the Up With Art fund-raiser in Argenta for several years. Gaudin has sold his building at 401 Main St. to the Thea Foundation, which promotes arts education in the schools.

It's that element of interconnectivity within the arts community in Argenta — one artist's landlord is on another agency's board which supports someone else's public art project, et cetera — that seems finally to have awakened the  dormant potential of the neighborhood.

“I've been in downtown North Little Rock four and a half years trying to get things going,” said Cox. “From what I've seen in the past several years, in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, the arts have grown tremendously. Culture has grown tremendously.”

But earlier efforts to encourage an arts district — including an Art Walk — in Argenta flopped. Why was that?
“Building a town got in the way,” she said. “Things just took their own path and [happened] in their own time.”

By that, she means that groups like Main Street Argenta and the Community Development Agency were encouraging, but had their attentions turned elsewhere — i.e., to drawing businesses to the gradually reviving Main Street corridor.

Cox said that when Michael Drake first took the director's job at Main Street Argenta five years ago, he called her and her partner, Sherrie Shepherd, also an artist, “out of the blue.”

“He and Mary Beth [Bowman, the director of Community Development] had this idea about building an artists' community, and had this brainstorming session.”

Nothing came of that initial meeting except a shared belief that Argenta could become a magnet for Central Arkansas's creative class. Now, half a decade later, that hope is being realized.

Main Street Argenta is now putting money where their minds were, providing publicity for the Third Friday Art Walk, held in a four-block area on and off Main. This latest version of Art Walk was organized by another local artist, Rhonda Reeves. “Her concept of ‘Art in Unexpected Places' was just a great idea,” Drake said.

Reeves, who designs jewelry and belts and also runs a social networking website for artists (www.canvasjunkie.com), said she decided to restart the Art Walk because “Argenta had been promoted as an art community and I didn't see a lot of art going on here,” she said. Taking a cue from the St. Louis Art Fair, where artists display in businesses and on residents' porches in the host neighborhood, Reeves said she hopes to see the walk expand beyond the commercial area of downtown North Little Rock. The ultimate goal, she said, is to “bring the community into awareness of the arts to help promote the community, which in turn helps support the arts.” 

The public turned out for the September Art Walk last Friday, when some 30 pop-up tents were pitched on the sidewalks on both sides of Main Street, from Broadway to Seventh Street, each with one or two artists displaying their wares. Several businesses had their doors open after hours, as well, with artwork on display within. At the 5 p.m. starting time there was already a pretty good crowd downtown, and a couple of hours later there was a fairly steady stream of folks — by the looks of it, probably more than a hundred — making their way up Main and back down at any given time.

Back at the First Presbyterian Church, Cox and Nelson are talking about other ideas they have to bring residents and artists together, including a couple Nelson brought with her from Indianapolis.

One, the Art Slam, would be a monthly meeting that would give an artist about 15 minutes to discuss his or her work, followed by a question and answer session with the audience — which they envision will include other artists, residents, gallery owners and others.

Another idea is a monthly Artists' Round Table, where artists and art lovers would sit down to talk about “art and issues of art in the community,” with the goal of making people “more aware of not just art, but the artists in their midst.”

 

Freelance journalist Eric Francis spent almost 11 years at The North Little Rock Times. He also writes for the Argenta News and Blog, www.argentanews.com.

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