Women-led arts ventures bringing new life to Waterloo

If you want to see the next wave of arts leadership in Northeast Ohio, check out the Waterloo Arts District. Three young women who are committed to leaving their mark on the local arts community are opening innovative, creative studios here. BRICK Ceramic + Design Studio, Praxis Fiber Workshop and Ink House Annex, Zygote’s off-site printmaking studio, are all setting up shop on Waterloo Road within the next month.

“One of the things we are really excited about is that these studios are accessible for curious novices and experienced artists alike. It will be exciting to have these spaces for people to get together,” says Brian Friedman, executive director of Northeast Shores Community Development Corporation. “It's a big game changer for us that these places are also going to generate a lot of their own consistent traffic in the area.”

Northeast Shores has played an enormous role in the rejuvenation of the area. The nonprofit organization secured $325,000 in philanthropic and government funding for the renovation of the three properties now set to house these bold artistic ventures. It took foresight and patience to invest in an area that had vacancy rates of 40 percent just 10 years ago.

BRICK, which just celebrated its grand opening on Friday, is a for-profit ceramics and design studio that hugs the eastern end of the Waterloo streetscape on East 161st Street. Valerie Grossman, 27, who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2012 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in ceramics, is founder and director of the communal, membership-based ceramic studio. BRICK is located in a long-foreclosed space that operated as an auto garage in the ‘30s.

The celebration won't end there. Praxis Fiber Workshop is set to open on June 6th during Walk All over Waterloo, the neighborhood’s monthly showcase. The fiber studio is located at the western end of Waterloo, adjacent to Waterloo Brew. Praxis was founded by artist Jessica Pinsky, an adjunct faculty member at CIA and Baldwin Wallace College. It contains over 26 looms and operates as a non-profit fiber art center in collaboration with CIA.

Last but not least, Ink House is the self-proclaimed “new old kid on the block.” Artists Liz Maugans, Bellamy Printz, Joe Sroka and Kelly Novak founded Zygote Press 19 years ago. The successful nonprofit printmaking studio, which has long been structured around a membership-based business model, is scheduled to open Ink House on June 27th during the Waterloo Arts Fest. The studio is directed by 2006 CIA graduate and adjunct faculty member Christi Birchfield.

“The true story is that three young women are spearheading three amazing, creative businesses within walking distance from each other," says Maugans. "They believe in creating something spectacular out of nothing, and it’s their spirit and talents that are making it come to fruition."

Although Grossman, Pinsky and Birchfield share proximity, a membership-based business structure and a collaborative spirit, each studio has its own distinct personality, unique set of equipment and plans for future growth.

<span class="content-image-text">Valerie Grossman</span>Valerie Grossman
BRICK: Ceramic + Design Studio

Even on the night before the ribbon cutting ceremony, Valerie Grossman made time for a late night trip to the studio to fire a set of clay plaques in her new kiln. During the soft opening on April 30th, she expressed her gratitude toward those involved in the project in a way that only Grossman would, with distinctive handmade ceramic plaques that said, “You deserve all the cakes.”

She presented a thank-you plaque to Northeast Shores, Scalish Construction, the City of Cleveland Storefront Renovation Program and the Michigan-based nonprofit IFF. She teared up a she handed one off to her mother. She didn’t foresee opening the studio so early in her career with such tremendous support from the community.

In the years after graduating from CIA with a BFA in ceramics, Grossman struggled to work full-time, non-arts related jobs and maintain a studio practice at the same time. She jumped at the opportunity to write a grant proposal through Northeast Shores and was the perfect fit for the project.

“BRICK was by far the idea that would bring the most energy,” says Friedman. “What we were looking for was something that was unique and authentic and would create daytime visitation to the area. There are also not a lot of ceramic co-ops available in the area.”

BRICK: Ceramic + Design Studio provides artists with access to a gas kiln, pottery wheels, a mold-making area, large work tables, a spray booth, a slab roller and a variety of bodies and glazes.

Initially, Grossman considered buying the property immediately. Luckily, after five years of renting from Northeast Shores, Grossman will have the opportunity to continue renting or to purchase the property and build her own equity in the community.

“Our intent is that our entrepreneurs and businesses eventually own the places they operate in. It’s best for the community,” says Friedman. “Historically, gentrification pushed out artists that spent time improving their communities. We want artists to know that they are the end goal and not just a stepping stone by offering ownership. We want to value the creativity and vibrancy that artists create.”
<span class="content-image-text">Jessica Pinsky</span>Jessica Pinsky 
Praxis Fiber Workshop

Praxis Fiber Workshop is a spacious studio that contains 26 looms, five individual studios, a spacious gallery and a dye lab for coloring natural fibers such as cotton, wool and silk. There are also plans to create a garden behind the studio for growing natural dyes such as indigo which can be used to dye denim.

Praxis was created a few years ago when CIA, which recently unified its campus on Euclid Avenue, announced that it would downsize its fiber department and merge it with existing sculpture and video to create a modified major called “sculpture and expanded media.”

Art schools on a national level have been downsizing many traditional art practices both as a way to consolidate space and as an effect of digitized applied design fields growing in popularity. Without the creation of Praxis, this historic equipment that has been used by artists for decades would likely sit in storage or be taken apart and sold piece by piece. Although the fibers major is defunct, Praxis will maintain an ongoing collaboration with CIA.

“We are leasing 30 looms to Praxis for $1 a year and we provided some logistical support to Jessica as she was going through the process of establishing Praxis as a nonprofit organization,” says Ann McGuire, director of communications at CIA. “We’ll be offering continuing education classes there for community members, and our students who wish to take fiber arts classes will take them at Praxis. It’s a wonderful partnership.”

Pinsky began as a painter, attending New York University for her undergraduate work and Boston University for her graduate degree. At a certain point, she began to cut up her paintings and sew them back together, which marked her transition into the world of fibers.

Pinsky moved back to Cleveland four years ago, just as the city was emerging from the doldrums of the last recession. She had traveled extensively for 10 years, living in Israel, Italy, Maine, and Oregon. She first took a position as CIA’s technical specialist in the fibers department.

“When I moved back to Cleveland I realized it was my favorite place that I ever lived,” Pinsky exclaims. “Part of it was familiarity and a sense of home, but I also realized that young people are truly doing things here such as opening galleries and owning businesses.”

Praxis’ building dates back to the ‘20s and used to be a furniture store before becoming an eclectic resale shop called The Flea Market. The building belongs to Cesar and Erika Ruggeri, who own the adjacent Tony’s Furniture Refinishing, a family-owned business for 25 years.

Pinsky hopes to plant roots in the Collinwood community. She purchased a home on Huntmere Avenue through Northeast Shore’s rehabilitation program and received her first grant through The Cleveland Colectivo to teach a free, four-week community class to adults in North and South Collinwood.

“Weaving is attached to Cleveland’s history and community as part of our industrial history,” says Pinsky. “I think that fiber and textiles has a commonplaceness in everyday life. Everybody has clothing and blankets and there’s a lot that’s community-based that can be accessed through public classes.”

Praxis is a nonprofit co-op that operates on a membership-based business model ranging from a basic membership for $40/month to a studio membership for $275/month. The studio will also offer elective and continuing education classes and twice-weekly open studios that will be free with a CIA student ID.
<span class="content-image-text">Liz Maugans</span>Liz Maugans 
Ink House Annex

Ink House Annex is an airy, light-filled studio in a residential home on East 156th Street across from Loren Naji’s Satelite Gallery. The studio features a Charles Brand etching press purchased from CIA and will serve as a satellite printmaking facility, in large part for artists looking to produce series. It will also be used to create fine art and limited edition concert posters.

“The idea of making a painting is that you make one and the idea of making prints is that you can make many and send them out into the world to speak democratically,” Maugans says. “Prints are interpersonal without becoming precious.”

The creation of this satellite campus was part of the natural progression of the work flowing into Zygote. Customers frequently inquired about making prints for artists showing in galleries, and the location is designed to create multiple prints that are all bit different.

“Printmaking is a very collaborative endeavor that requires equipment that is too large and expensive to have in your house,” says Maugans. “Quite frankly, you feel kind of guilty if you don’t share this stuff because it creates an atmosphere of open dialogue and learning where people are interested in what other people are doing and that collective feel is the absolute backbone of Zygote.”

Ink House is one out of 14 foreclosed houses on East 156th that were purchased by Northeast Shores. “They’re all work-first live-second studio spaces. There’s an unmet demand in the neighborhood for studio spaces,” Friedman says. 

This street also includes the estate of great Cleveland folk artist Rev. Albert Wagner, who was once named by the New York Times as the “Moses of East Cleveland.” His family hopes to gradually raise $100,000 to build the Rev. Albert Wagnar Museum dedicated to his life and work.

Ink House is managed by Christi Birchfield, a CIA adjunct faculty member who was recently featured in the Women to Watch exhibition. She graduated from CIA in 2006 and attended Columbia College in Chicago before moving back in Cleveland in the summer of 2011, when she began serving as Zygote’s shop manager. She hopes to utilize the upstairs apartments as an artist-in-residency program in the future.

Friedman believes that these new co-op studios on Waterloo will become an excellent complement to future development on E. 185th Street – perhaps most notably the reopening of La Salle Theatre as a recording and performance studio in May 2016.

“As businesses continue to boom on Waterloo, I think it’s important to thank all the amazing people who stuck it out ten years ago and helped to pave the way, “ says Maugans. “We have seen glimpses of amazing hope that have caused us to want to move here and become part of the neighborhood. You are like the unsung heroes.”

Jacqueline Bon
Jacqueline Bon

About the Author: Jacqueline Bon

Jacqueline Bon is a freelance writer that has been contributing to Fresh Water Cleveland since 2014. As a journalist by trade and self-taught photographer, she has a lot of curiosity in people and their stories. She is a graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and has pursued film and digital photography for a decade. She is likely to be the first person on the dance floor, especially if you put on Prince.