Creative community-within-a-community at Kingston’s renovated Shirt Factory

Photo of Ian Davis by Dion Ogust

Home is where the art is for Mike Piazza

Mike Piazza prides himself on the communal relationships that he has with his tenants at the Shirt Factory on Cornell Street in Kingston. He purchased the building ten years ago, recognizing the inchoate potential in the gigantic factory of brick, wood beams and reinforced glass. A few artists already occupied the space, but it was a marginal situation for them: no lobby, bad heating systems, roll-up doors. And all the windows and skylights were covered over with sheetrock. “I saw the potential. I uncovered the windows, the light came flooding in through the area and the thing started to take on life.”

In the New York metropolitan region, there are “AIRs,” meaning artists-in-residence. In fact, a few stalwart artists were already living or working in the Shirt Factory space. Piazza simply “went with the existing flow” by buying the property and making it more habitable for them. He admits to this type of structure having a certain allure for him, and has in fact bought two more in Kingston: the Brush Factory and the Pajama Factory. Shirts, brushes, pajamas and not too far away, lace and bricks: At one time, Kingston was a thriving center of production. Coming out of a real estate business from Rockland County, Piazza saw the economic value in renovating and maintaining these structures.

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Offering both commercial and residential spaces, the Shirt Factory and its sister structures represent a strong draw for creative types looking for affordable and comfortable digs. And Kingston, it seems, is tentatively the up-and-coming place for artists to live and work. Visual artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, ceramists and other small creative businesses make up this community-within-a-community, where tenants can live and work and hold openings, studio tours and performances. The space is conducive to something being created there.

When asked about his own creative impulses, Piazza says, “I have a symbiotic relationship with the artists. I’m very happy with the mix of talented young tenants and the bright, energetic stuff they’re doing. I dabble, fool around a bit. And the concept of the building, in line with real estate – that’s an art in itself.” And he recognizes that Kingston is (hopefully) becoming a base for artists. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but there were no office tenants, no manufacturing tenants. The artist concept is feasible. The rent is reasonable. We have a nice community now.”

Piazza has not invested all his eggs in one market basket – he holds development interests in other areas of New York – but lives here in his 130,000-square-foot nest. And he is enthusiastic about being a part of the renaissance of the town. See www.artistworkspace.com for more information.

 

Ian Davis at the Shirt Factory

Encountering one of Ian Davis’ large paintings of a prominent, industriallike architectural structure surrounded by miniature figures (a herd of identica–lly dressed businessmen, perhaps?), you wouldn’t necessarily be reminded of the 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. No fat farmers or dancing peasants or falling angels crowd his paintings. Yet that’s whom Davis names as an influence on his work – along with Hieronymus Bosch and, more contemporarily, the Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston.

Davis fills his canvases with spare-but-intricately-detailed futuristic imagery – the sort that radiates a cold Surrealism. His paintings have been described as “strong graphically, and narrative” and might portray “the hollowness of progress.” He’s unwilling to define his work in any terms, but he points to the commonality of context with Bruegel and Bosch: the underlying issues of morality that the European masters depicted by painting raucous scenes of plagues and sin and other symptoms of human frailty gone off the rails. Davis paints more orderly scenes of confusion, reflecting what is disturbing to him about our era.

Starting with a photograph or image scraps from old reference books strewn on a table in the middle of his studio, Davis will cut off any caption “because I don’t really want it to be about what the picture is about. This is not a specific dam for example. I don’t know what it’s about, what it’ll become or what I’ll add.” He talks about his process of gathering intricate bits of information and translating them in a rather vague way. “My attitude is: I’m taking pains to clearly describe, to paint in a descriptive way, but why? It’s not meant to be clear at all.” The resulting disconnect is up to the viewer to unravel. Davis provides all the ingredients without telling you exactly what’s going on.

As a child in Indiana, where there wasn’t much art to look at, Davis was fortunate to have grandparents who took him to Europe for his first exposure to fine art. At Arizona State College (“not really a great art school”), he recognized that he was “not really a school person…School was not going to motivate me. It was going to have to be me doing it. I rented a studio off-campus, and after I graduated, I started selling my things in a gallery in Scottsdale.” Since that time, he has moved through the Chicago and San Francisco art scenes and landed in Jersey City for a few years, from whence he has exhibited works in New York and London.

More recently, Davis moved his family to Saugerties and bought a house with a studio in the backyard: just what every artist/writer/dreamer yearns for. But it soon became clear that he was continuously wandering back and forth in paint-covered clothes, trying to work around a 4-year-old. “I was always working, but could never really focus. My wife was like, ‘You just have to get out of here.’” That’s when he found the Shirt Factory space and shifted his studio to the fourth floor there: an arrangement that seems to be working well.

Davis is currently showing at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects in Chelsea on West 22nd Street in New York City.

 

 

Ben Degen opens studio at Shirt Factory

Ben Degen is a painter who recently moved his studio into the Shirt Factory, a creative commercial and residential enclave on Kingston’s Cornell Street. Though he now lives in Accord, he and his wife grew up in New York City. “We lived there our whole lives. My wife is a country type of person, but I was getting ready to stay in the City forever. Here I am, this cosmopolitan person who’s lived within a four-mile radius all my life, where there’s this excitement of constant flux; I don’t have to go anywhere. And I’ve always lived on the waterfront. You can smell the ocean coming in and the mountain water coming out. But it’s neither here nor there. I realized: I’ve never been anywhere. So I said, ‘Let’s follow the river north a little bit.’”

They moved into a gigantic, cold and damp creamery in Accord, and soon realized that their working styles were not in sync. “It was like The Odd Couple. My wife does portraiture with a hundred people around and the radio on. I had this show coming up [at the American Contemporary Gallery in downtown Manhattan], and no way was I going to finish this artwork. So I found this place [in the Shirt Factory] in October.”

Degen’s work incorporates ideas from Abstract Expressionism with representational elements: bodies and pages of undecipherable text overlaid with grids of color and imbedded with patterns. He says, “Until recently, art movements were declarative; they had manifestos. You had to choose your team. Doesn’t make sense any longer, because we don’t deal with hierarchical information in the same way. Now it’s completely level, what you see on the Internet. Artists couldn’t even look at good color reproductions until the ‘60s. Now there’s this exciting moment, you can allow this interesting synthesis.”

His work is scattered with typography. “I used to work for a printer doing letterpress. The typography is literally a module of language – simultaneously the most abstract and the most representational thing. I like that it becomes this fulcrum point. In pattern, it becomes this complete abstraction.” He points to moments of balance flip-flopping in an image that’s going completely nuts, and then you recognize something” “‘Oh, there’s a four.’ So you don’t completely lose it. Without the typography, the chaos would become preeminent.”

Degen, who studied at and now teaches at Cooper Union, currently has a preoccupation with fish, and he talks about drawing from observation. “There’s something about holding the fish: really just looking at it and seeing how beautiful the structure of this creature is. The fish has grid, intrinsic structure.”

And about his move to Ulster County, he says “I love it here; I love Kingston. My studio was in Long Island City in Queens for eight years; it was the ‘blue belt’: industrial, working-class people. Then they pressed a button and these towers appeared. I’d be working in my studio, and in the time it took me to do a painting, they’d have built 15 stories. It was Chrome Shoebox Land. They tried to put a sequined gown on Long Island City. Kingston is not a pretentious place; it is what it is.”

Visit Degen’s website at https://benjamindegen.com.

 

Eric Anthony Johnson at Shirt Factory

“The human face is captivating, and the human figure in juxtaposition of a certain environment would be the universal theme,” says photographer Eric Anthony Johnson, whose first exposure to shooting pictures occurred when he was in high school. “I started going to a local portrait photographer every day after school and pestering him. Eventually he started to pay me, and it turned into a job. I did graduation pictures, weddings, the Miss Wisconsin pageant – all when I was just 18. Commercial portraiture had a tighter formula then than it is now, with influences of fashion and art in the mainstream culture. Before, you had clear rules of things you did or didn’t do with grad portraits – more conservative.”

Johnson ran away from his rural Wisconsin home at the age of 26 and ended up in New York. “I grew up with cornfields out the back door and a rock quarry nearby. Isolation stimulates your creativity to some extent, as long as there’s not too much. You find your own stuff to do.”

Hailing from generations of northern European stock, he claims a fairly unartistic heredity. “I felt I had to make my own way, because my brain seems to work differently than theirs did. I needed to move to an area where there was more artistic stuff going on.”

It was a shock to his system, however, coming from a place with no serious crime to a neighborhood where it has happened right out your front door. “I’d collect bullet shells on the street. It’s very safe now, but that level of constant noise leads to people’s stress level. The City is a good place to show art, but it’s not conducive to make art there. Artists need reflective time.”

Still, Johnson stayed long enough to establish himself, until the opportunity presented itself to relocate. A year ago, he and his photographer wife found a happy medium in Kingston. Now living and working on the fourth floor of the Shirt Factory, the couple looks out over the neighborhood and into the Catskills. “This space seemed so nice; that’s what made us really want to come here. It’s a little rugged, and we’ve been restoring it, like a part-time job. We’re modifying it to fit our photographic needs.”

Those needs cover commercial work for magazines, portraiture and art photography, straddling digital and more traditional methods. “I came up shooting film on a camera that had ten shots. You tended to put much more time into thinking about it. Now you take lots of shots and edit them. Most of the creative process happens in post-production. Getting pretty close to start with makes a lot more sense than trying to fix it after. But whole generations of people do the fix-it-after method, which is more about the software.”

He mentions reading The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes by Christopher James as he began experimenting with the 1850s technology of tintype. “I’m planning to take the tintypes out on the road when the weather gets a little warmer: go out and do a little bit of the landscape and buildings. The Hudson Valley lends itself to that kind of thing.”

Johnson’s work has been shown in major galleries, but he concedes that marketing is “a constant mystery.” Meeting people, building social connections and satisfying clients all take time. “People are overwhelmed with media and have to turn their brains off,” he says. “Talking to people and meeting friends makes the most sense. Eventually things happen. As for what things sell, and what they sell for in the art world…I can’t even comment on that. I just like having the space, the time and the environment to make things. There are wonderful resources here: good sources for materials, vintage stuff, the Hudson Valley environment. This is a freeing experience to work on other things, a wave of possibilities. There seems to be a priority in the Valley for that, whether you’re doing pottery or image-making.”

Johnson talks about how traditional photographic materials and services are becoming scarce, because the big corporations that produce them are pulling back or simply going out of business. “So in the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a huge movement [to experimentation]. People said, ‘I can make my own photo emulsion; I can put it on paper or metal or glass and make my own images from scratch; I don’t need you anymore.’”

Furthermore, he emphasizes, “People want to make things. Americans like to work. I live in a factory where people used to make things. It satisfies a basic human need, whether it’s artistic or utilitarian or both; it’s a driving force in humanity. They can ship all our jobs overseas if they want, but people still want to make stuff, and then they want to sell it.”

Johnson’s work can be seen on his website at www.eajphoto.com.

 

There are 3 comments

  1. gerald berke

    Boy, leave it to the Kingston Times, Ulster Publishing’s Almanac, to get it right. Outstanding newspaper journalism. The Shirt Factory is an excellent and successful repurposing of some solid manufacturing infrastructure, well run and well populated with some 50 creative, entrepreneurial tenants.
    Thank you.

    1. Ann Hutton

      Gracias. It is a pleasure to meet and speak with such talented, personable working artists. It’s the best part of my job.

  2. Larry Decker

    There is one main thing that makes the Shirt Factory work as well as it does, and that is Mike Piazza. His passion for art and respect for his artist tenants is sincere. He is more than a landlord; he is a partner in the project. He offers gallery space for art shows and works with us from beginning to end to make them work. If Kingston becomes the Art mecca that I hope it does then Mike is one of the people we need to thank. So let me be the first. Thanks.- Larry Decker (Shirt Factory Artist)

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