Less stress, more art

Tacoma's Speakeasy Arts Cooperative emerges to help local artists flourish

January 24, 2010 

The minds behind Tacoma's Speakeasy Arts Cooperative envision their new space - open downtown since October - as a one-stop destination for concerts, painting, sculpture, Tarot card readings, acting classes, locally handcrafted furniture and jewelry, massage and more.

It’s a creative bouillabaisse of homegrown arts and crafts that started simmering in June, with three local women getting together to vent about unemployment, bills and finding time for their artistic pursuits.

“I had been recently laid off from work, and I decided to take this opportunity to live my dreams,” said Desiree Flerchinger, 39, a full-time portrait painter who had worked at a Tacoma sign shop.

Fellow artists Angela Jossy and Sherrie Minter paid Flerchinger a visit shortly after she lost her job. Minter – a 36-year-old singer, painter and Tarot reader who performs as Voxxy Vallejo – read her fortune.

“Through the cards, we discussed that she was a talented artist and (her day job) didn’t give her time to focus on her artwork,” said Minter.

The three struggling artists contemplated pooling their resources and renting a live-in studio space where they could pursue their art with less stress.

“We started talking about how great it would be,” said Jossy, 38, who makes her living working creative freelance gigs — everything from event planning to graphic design.

“I thought it sounded like kind of a utopian scenario,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Why not? We could do it.’ So we started looking at different places.”

Circumstances kept the trio from living together. But their quest led to the 5,300-square-foot space at 746 Broadway that had housed Lik’s Antique Mall on Broadway.

Rent was more than they could comfortably afford on their own, and, with a lack of living space, the venue didn’t quite fit their original vision. But Jossy, for one, was smitten.

“I felt compelled to do something here,” Jossy said. “I can’t explain it. Just something about this place just had really good energy to it.”

So she met with owner Alan Gorsuch, of nearby Antique Row business Sanford & Son, and made a pitch. She had built a large network of artists and musicians over the years, and her plan was to find partners willing to chip in $100 a month, plus utilities, in order to establish a new arts co-op.

Gorsuch cut a deal, slashing rent for the initial six-month lease. And Jossy exceeded her own expectations by finding 15 partners right off the bat, five more than were initially needed. Then came the difficult but rewarding part.

“Seriously, we had no template for this thing. So we’re sort of inventing it as we go,” Jossy said.

“It’s been a lot just to get this thing up and running and figure out (the) details of business that none of us were really versed in. And it’s been great because people walked through the door with those different skill sets.”

Jada-Moon Gridley, for example, tapped into her bartending experience and familiarity with Washington liquor laws to become event manager.

Gridley initially joined the co-op looking for an ideal place to showcase her crafts, which include henna and making belly casts for pregnant women. But, increasingly, she has poured her creative juices into throwing elaborate parties at the Speakeasy.

“I’m really getting more inspired to use it as an event space and follow through with some ideas I had been coming up with right around the time (Angela) was coming up with the idea to do this place,” she said.

On Saturday, she will host a private, post-Apocalypse themed costume event called Salvation. As part of their membership, the co-op’s participants can throw one event a month – concerts, parties, workshops – and keep 100 percent of the proceeds.

“I really think bands should consider joining Speakeasy,” Jossy said. “It’s a pretty nice alternative to playing in bars and stuff where you only get a small percentage and you don’t have control. And if they work with an nonprofit, they can even have a bar.”

On Thursdays through Sundays, when Speakeasy is open during normal business hour, the space functions mostly as a gallery.

A 7-foot-tall, stainless steel heron, forged by local sculptor Gary Jackson, stands sentry at the front door.

On the walls hang Minter’s three-dimensional painted portraits, John Wise’s cloudy landscapes and Suni Cook Boucher’s recycled metal flowers. A colorful, lumpy collage of paint, fabric and old phone book listings beckons “please touch” in small letters, a message from creator Aaron Voronoff Trotter.

Gridley’s life-sized paper-mache mermaid, art prints, exotic soaps and jewelry are on display upstairs in the mezzanine level marketplace. In the near future, organizers anticipate guitar lessons, massage and fortunes being read with the music and healing arts rooms in back.

Jossy ran an open mike night in conjunction with last Thursday’s Art Walk. She strummed acoustic covers of Live and Guns N’ Roses as her brother, David Boesen, and friend Gretchen Playle watched from folded chairs in the front row. Gridley painted henna and chatted with friends nearby as her canine sidekick – a three-legged, slightly pink pooch named Pogo – scampered around the gallery.

“It’s very neat. It has a good atmosphere,” Playle remarked of her first visit. “It would be a really nice place to have a party.”

Guitarist Gene Vallejo dropped by to meet up with his band mate, Minter. The 30-year Tacoma resident lamented that a whole generation of artists lacked a consistent place, like Speakeasy, to share and develop their ideas.

“Now I see this as a place where, 365 days a year, they can come, hook up, hang their art on the wall – support each other,” Vallejo said. “It’s kind of like we’re gettin’ thrown back in the ’60s, with a little Haight-Ashbury thing going on.”

Local artist, musician and photographer Houston Wimberly III stopped by with handbills for a Haiti earthquake benefit (being held today at Tacoma’s Swiss Tavern.) He said he was considering joining his friends at Speakeasy, which he compared to previous, short-lived art and music events, such as Kulture Lab and the Helm Gallery.

“A lot of the stuff you’re seeing out there is putting it out there, trial and error, and finding out what works,” Wimberly said.

“That’s something that sets us apart from Seattle,” he said, “that we still have that connection. Seattle’s so big that I think sometimes they have a disconnect. We may not always agree, but we definitely come together.”

For now, co-op member Stephen Bucklew, a Seattle musician who grew up in the South Sound, thinks it is just the sort of environment that up-and-coming Tacoma artists need to develop.

“It’s relatively inexpensive,” Bucklew said. “That’s the thing us starving artists need. It provides a sense of community. It provides a destination. It gives voice to creativity.”

“It reminds you this is what you’re supposed to be doing,” Minter added. “When you realize there are other people that are sacrificing so much to do their art, it helps you not feel crazy. It kind of gives you some validation.”

“It’s so exciting to collaborate with so many people and have all those energies come together,” Gridley said.

The best case scenario is for the Speakeasy to grow into a non-profit business with enough members to form a board, Jossy said.

“We want this to be an arts incubator so we can do some different business training with (artists),” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll be graduating from this and maybe opening their own store and selling tons of stuff.”

Granted, the co-op has a few obstacles to overcome before things get to that point. Daytime foot traffic has been light, with only a handful of curious passers-by dropping in on a typical weekday. And in order to be sustainable, Speakeasy organizers need to recruit at least eight more members by April to afford a $1,500 increase in rent.

“I said from the very beginning, I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Jossy said. “It’s an experiment. We’re gonna try it. We had this opportunity. We may as well see what we can do. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work.”

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389



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