Final Days to Kickstart the Spartan Art Project!
By Ashley Lodato, Arts Education Director - Methow Arts
Art galleries and museums are typically places of refinement, highbrow culture, and sophistication. But three Methow artists are looking to change this model with a space for experimental art. Seeking a platform for art that really moves people without the sometimes intimidating (and usually expensive) trappings of a traditional gallery, Methow artists Matt Armbrust, Steve Ward, and Jeff Winslow were sitting around Ward’s studio “pontificating, as usual” when they hatched the idea of a low-overhead exhibit space.
“When art is dependent on financial gain to fund the overhead expenses necessary to display it,” says Armbrust, “you get a lot of sentimental art, a lot of soft aesthetic. There’s a disconnect when art is viewed simply as a commodity.”
“We also wanted anybody to feel comfortable experiencing art through our platform,” Armbrust continues. “We wanted anyone to feel like they could access our art, both physically and intellectually. There is something inherently inhibiting about galleries and museums to many people. We want this art to be available to everyone.”
“I’m coming around to lowbrow,” adds Winslow. “Lowbrow art has a better chance to communicate, anyway; most highbrow art these days doesn’t communicate anything anymore. This is our part in the grassroots effort for cultural expression.”
After tossing around several ideas for exhibit spaces, the trio of artists—which spans three generations— latched onto the idea of a trailer. They could own it outright, beg or barter a public place to park it, and leave it unmanned, thereby reducing overhead costs to a bare minimum. If the artists were willing to risk leaving art unattended, the public could have free access to edgy paintings, sculptures, and 3D art. Thus the idea of an “honor system” open art gallery began to take shape.
Enter the 1951 Spartan Imperial Mansion. At 36’ long and offering 300 square feet of floor space, the Spartan represents everything post-WWII America believed itself to be: big, shiny, and full of potential. Built by Spartan Aircraft and retailing for $6000 in 1951, the Spartan Imperial Mansion features an aluminum exterior, an “observation deck” with wraparound windows, and a porthole in the front door. Even better than the Spartan’s features were its tag lines: “now you’re really living” and “you’ll always have a home.”
With its post-WWII message that anything is possible, the Spartan offered Americans a glimpse of the open road and a taste of the wanderlust that fueled our forefathers’ westward expansion, coupled with the promise of domestic security (after all, despite its wheels and trailer hitch the Spartan was mainly designed to be parked and lived in). The Spartan fulfilled dreams. And it just so happened that there was one of them sitting neglected at a rural lot just outside of Wenatchee, Washington.
The concept of using a trailer to display art is not a novel one and has, in fact, become somewhat of a ubiquitous venue for showcasing street art and presenting performing arts in urban centers. For three artists hoping to transcend the commercial and the cliché, was there a risk that choosing a Spartan trailer would be seen as gimmicky or simply mainstream? According to Ward, originally the Methow artists were looking only for an empty room—a low-overhead space they could use as a gallery. But Ward had seen pictures of the Spartan and simmering in the back of his mind was the idea that this trailer could serve their needs. An Airstream trailer was too cliché, they all agreed. But there was simply nothing hackneyed about this derelict Spartan; in fact, initially it was so far out of the realm of what the three artists thought was possible for an art space that they nearly abandoned the idea upon first seeing it.
“We visited the trailer and felt sick,” says Ward. “It looked awful inside.” Filled with mouse droppings and a hornet’s nest, the Spartan hardly presented the minimalist aesthetic the artists sought to house their exhibits. In the end, however, it was the Spartan itself that proved irresistible. “It became an obsession,” says Armbrust. “We kept telling ourselves it wouldn’t work, but we couldn’t stop thinking about it and talking about it. We felt we had to act immediately. Its lines really did it for us. We just had to make it work.”
Making it work involved a long day of prepping the trailer to be moved from the site where it had sat unmoving for four years, as well as what Armbrust refers to with a shudder as “Hanta virus cleansing” and an exciting session with hornet eradication. As the Spartan finally rolled out of the rut—both literal and metaphorical—that it had settled into it gained momentum and headed toward its next home. “It just started rolling,” says Ward, and the adventure was underway. “Sometimes we just ask ourselves, ‘Who is driving this thing?’”
The answer, literally, was “Steve Morse,” who helped the trio haul the Spartan off of what might have been its final resting place and onto its temporary home on the late Bernie Hosey’s property, where the Spartan Art Project artists (SAPs, as they call themselves) gutted and powerwashed the trailer and began turning it into an art gallery on wheels. “It’s still in the coal stage of being a diamond in the rough,” says Ward, “but at least we can now see past the wreckage to envision where we’re going with it.”
Although the SAPs are clearly collaborators on the project, they have each fallen into specific roles that utilize their particular skill sets. The youngest, Armbrust, is the outreach guy. He’s figuring out how to fund the vision, dealing with publicity, and thinking about branding. The senior member, Winslow, is the prep man. He makes sure the relationships stay good with the people who are helping the SAPs with the project. He’s the one who anticipates what is needed next and gets it lined up. He’s also the self-proclaimed worrier of the team. The middle man, Ward, has the MacGyver skills required to actually restore the Spartan to something the public will want to visit. He repacked the bearings so the trailer could travel to the Methow, he sourced kiln stickers from a decommissioned mill on Stevens Pass that will become the reclaimed fir flooring in the Spartan.
The SAPs recount a telling story about their first foray into remodeling the Spartan. “Jeff [Winslow]and I were there first,” says Armbrust, “and we had screwdrivers and were carefully unscrewing these cabinets from the walls. About four hours into it we have a couple of the cabinets down. Steve [Ward] gets there, grabs a hammer, and just starts smashing stuff off the walls. ‘We’re gutting it,’ he says, “It’s all going in the dumpster; there’s nothing worth saving.’ So pretty quickly we realize that Steve is right and then we’re all going at it with prybars.” Sometimes mayhem—toward which Ward says he has an inordinate inclination—is the right approach.
When complete, the Spartan will, the artists hope, be an icon for something experimental that is artistic. “When the Spartan is opened we want it to be something people go to when they want to take a chance,” says Armbrust. “We’re going to be concerned with the quality of work and quality of experience of course, but we really want to honor the experimental.” Curating the exhibits, the SAPs hope to draw work from artists both inside and outside the valley. “We’ve got a grand vision,” continues Armbrust, “but like anything it changes as it goes along. If something appeals to our aesthetic, we’ll go with it. The one rule is that we won’t compromise our own artistic integrity.”
Funding this grand vision requires some capital, which thus far has come entirely out of the SAPs’ not-very-deep pockets. The SAPs plan to launch a Kickstarter (online funding platform) campaign to raise the profile of the project and generate the funds necessary to finish the transformation of Spartan from a gutted aluminum shell to an innovative new art space. They’re also relying on a lot of sweat equity and the involvement of friends and family.
The Spartan Art Project’s public unveiling is December 15th at the Winterfest on the TwispWorks campus. More than just a viewing of the Spartan itself and the art within it, the Winterfest will introduce the SAPs’ vision for an art experience, which is one in which artist and viewer engage in a dialogue. According to the SAPs, this is only possible when art is accessible to a wide cross-section of the public. “When art is locked away and only available to a small segment of the population,” says Ward, “it’s not experiential or transformational.”
Winslow, who has experimented with sharing his art widely through unconventional means such as spreading paintings around on the grass at a public park, believes that necessary to art are the acts of discourse and dialogue. “Everything we do in this information era decreases dialogue,” he says. “I want my art to be out there with people who normally wouldn’t have gone to a gallery to see it. I want to see art in surprising places where people don’t feel uptight asking questions about it.” Armbrust adds, “We want to change and be changed.”
The Spartan’s design will nurture conversation, with comfortable furniture and an aesthetic that invites visitors to linger. “We want to create a place that will foster discourse. We hope people will spend time with the art and discuss it with each other and with us. Maybe argue about it. That kind of discourse is huge with regards to our project,” says Armbrust.
The other factor that is essential to the project is the concept of trust. An unstaffed art space poses the inherent risks of theft or damage and while the SAPs aren’t naïve, they believe that the relationship they cultivate with the community will create an environment where it’s ok for art to be left unattended. “We don’t want to be shopkeepers,” says Armbrust. “For this thing to work, we really have to trust our community.”
Listening to the SAPs discuss their plans, it’s clear that the project is as much about the process as it is about the end result. “We’re trying to keep it fun,” says Armbrust. “Yes, we’re honoring our own will to do something artistic and good and beautiful, but we’ve hit something deeper. We feel like this is a rare entrepreneurial endeavor for us and that’s had enough resonance that we want to honor that.” Says Winslow, “It’s been a lark.”
DATES: Sat, Dec 15, 6-9pm. LOCATION: TwispWorks. CONTACT: Matt Armbrust, email@example.com, 509.997.1022
(Artists Steve Ward, Jeffrey Winslow and Matt Armbrust launch their Spartan Art Project)
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