Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Behind the Third-Floor Curtain: A Peek Inside Artists' Studios at Gem Center for the Arts

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As housing grows scarce, square footage in Boise is becoming more valuable by the day. For artists, this means affordable studio space is nearly impossible to find—and it makes the appeal of the Gem Center for the Arts, a nonprofit offering studio rentals on the third floor of its converted Boise Bench building at $2 per square foot, practically irresistible.

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  • Lex Nelson

"All of my wonderful stuff that I had for art was packed up and in storage, because I'm up there in the North End and it's so expensive to have a place where you can fit an art studio," said Gem Center Executive Director Evelyn Mason, a 20-year veteran in the nonprofit world who was lured away from her previous job in part by the promise of free studio space. As she spoke, she waved a hand behind her desk, where boxes of art supplies and a half-finished charcoal drawing propped on an easel took up half her office.

From the beginning, the Gem Center was meant to fill a void in the Boise art scene not only for its renters, but also for its staff. Mason said founders Jane Tharp and Candy Canning "wanted to have a collective of artists' studios where they could get out of the loneliness of being an artist, and have people to collaborate and share with, and have clean and affordable work space."

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  • Lex Nelson

After more than a year of permit processing and location hunting, the Gem Center finally welcomed its first renters in February. In addition to studios, the four-story building also holds three galleries, an 800-square-foot community classroom and a 90-seat performance space it rents to local theater companies. Though the building is stark, with high, industrial ceilings and concrete floors, there is art happening in every corner—particularly on the third floor, where sculptors, painters, photographers and more with 24-hour access to the facilities work cheek-by-jowl in 20 small studios. Boise Weekly got a peek at a handful of these spaces for a series of interviews with renting artists, and found their stories as varied as the work they produce.

Chad Estes: Documentary photographer, 150 square feet

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  • Lex Nelson
A pastor-turned-photographer, writer and cancer research advocate, Chad Estes spends most of his time working on the Reveal Mission, a series of portraits and prose pieces chronicling the private struggles of women with breast cancer. He uses his corner studio—walled in by windows that pour natural light onto red leather chairs and a small gallery of black-and-white photographs—to interview women interested in joining the project, and to write their stories.

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  • Lex Nelson

"I had been working out of my home, but if [the women] hadn't met me yet, the home seemed a little too familiar to invite them to, so we'd meet at a coffee shop," Estes said. "But then a lot of times it would either end up with them crying, or me crying, or both. It was like 'Okay, I need a place that's professional, that I can have the interviews, I can have a box of tissues, and plus then they can see the work and really hear about the Reveal Mission in context."

Though the Gem Center is his public workspace, Estes' photographs are often partial nudes shot post-surgery, and he takes and edits them elsewhere to give his subjects privacy.

The studio space has also played a role in increasing public awareness about breast cancer. When the center hosts open houses on what it calls Third Thursdays, Estes said, people wander through his gallery and read the stories posted below each photograph.

A coffee table book about the Reveal Mission and its body image-focused sister project, Raw Beauty, is in the works.

"The whole purpose of the project, as far as the people that are involved, is to give them control of their story back," Estes said.

Suzanne Fluty: Ceramic artist, 102 square feet

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  • Lex Nelson
Like Estes, potter Suzanne Fluty creates her art in multiple places, with the Gem Center as her home away from home. She signed up for her studio—a brightly lit space crammed with work tables and shelves—after attending the nonprofit's very first meeting.

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  • Lex Nelson

"[Before getting this space] I was just working out of my garage," she said. "... But that was really problematic because there's no heat or really insulation, so working in the winter was kind of impossible."

Because her new space is heated year-round, Fluty no longer has to worry about the water in her clay freezing, which breaks down its structure and makes it useless for creating her bowls, mugs and plates. She still keeps her large kiln and raw materials at home, but her artistic process now starts at the Gem Center, where she can form, etch and dry her pottery before driving it home for the final glazing and firing. When she isn't making her whimsical, nature-inspired dishes, Fluty is a substitute teacher and an ArtReach instructor for Boise Art Museum.

The social aspect of the space was another major draw for Fluty, who enjoys getting to know her neighbors. She's even considering a collaboration with one of them, weaver Melissa Pierce.

"I would throw the bottom part [of a basket] and basically make holes along the rim where the could weave the rest of it," Fluty said. "I'm excited—I actually want to get started on some bowls for that this week."

Tyler Crabb: Mixed-media painter, 116 square feet

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  • Lex Nelson
During a tour of the third floor, Mason peered into Tyler Crabb's then-vacant studio and broke into a giddy grin.

"This is what I always pictured a real artist's studio looking like," she said.

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  • Lex Nelson

That's only fitting, as Crabb is likely what most people imagine when they think of an artist; just over two years ago, he was struck by a sudden inspiration to paint.

Though he still works as a graphic designer by day, Crabb visits the Gem Center at night to create large-scale, mixed-media abstracts in his studio. The space is lit by lamplight and piled with cans of brushes and chest-high rolls of paper, and his pieces—generally in monochrome or muted palettes, as he views eye-catching color as "a bit of a crutch"—reflect its vibe.

"My personal philosophy is, if you can make something striking in just black and white, then you can do it even better with color," he said.

Crabb first heard about the Gem Center in 2016, and said his studio, while tiny and without windows, is a big step up over working out of his bedroom at home. He particularly likes the 12-foot walls, perfect for working on his huge, horizontal paintings. Right now, he's preparing for his first solo exhibition, which is scheduled to open Tuesday, Sept. 4, in the Northwest Nazarene University Friesen Galleries.

Troy Custer: High-tech crafter, 121 square feet

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  • Lex Nelson
"I'd been looking for studio space for a while, just to get out of my daily grind," said artist Troy Custer, standing in the middle of his spotless, high-tech studio. "I spend most of the day doing really specific graphic design-type work, but I don't get to work with my hands much."

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When Custer isn't at the Gem Center, he works 40-plus hours per week as the creative director for LunchboxWax, but it's clear his heart lies with his hobbies. A big chunk of his studio is taken up by a cherry-red laser cutter, which he uses to cut and score paper, cardboard and more for his various projects, including intricate journal covers made with layers of digitally-designed cutouts, and origami-style gift boxes upcycled from old record album covers.

He found the Gem Center too late to snag a window studio, but his interior space is just under a vent, which he said is perfect for syphoning away the sometimes-unpleasant smells produced by the laser cutter.

"All this equipment and stuff that I'm doing, it's all new to me," said Custer, whose artistic background is in engineering and filmmaking. Still, he added, he'd like to start teaching some of the public classes offered at the Gem Center.

What's Next?

Away from the third floor, the Gem Center has several other projects in the works, including a 3,000-square-foot interactive installation and an outdoor sculpture garden. Mason said she'd love to do even more, but the nonprofit is still struggling with startup costs.

"Now here's the hard part—there's almost no staff," she said. "There's myself and one other person, and [we] are basically volunteering. So the struggle is launching the nonprofit with only 16 hours of paid staff time a week."

Still, she said, there are upsides, and thanks to a team of enthusiastic volunteers, the future is bright and class enrollment should start to grow.

"I'm really committed to this and I'm here all the time," she said. "And it's a beautiful space, so who wouldn't want to be?"