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The evening is still young. You’ve eaten a sumptuous meal but aren’t quite ready to click your heels and go home. There’s time to revisit the area where the old North Hill Viaduct, demolished in 1978, connected the end of downtown to North Hill, leaving the north side hanging out there in space like Oz. You can view the gleaming lights from virtually the edge of the Emerald City of Akron.
This area refused to give up or give in to modernity. Consequently, for the past 20 or so years it continued to be a gathering place that has attracted working artists and new businesses that integrated with the old and established. A catfish sculpture by John Comunale decorates the entrance up the hill from Howard Street, where the Northside Lofts, restaurants and various galleries, studios and artists add a new palette to the already colorful canvas.
“The art district came to us,” say Michael Martell and Claudia Zeber-Martell, of Zeber-Martell Clay Studio at 43 Furnace Street. “Since being in our studio for over 18 years, we’ve seen many changes to the neighborhood and all for the positive. We’re excited that people who haven’t been to our studio in the past have taken an interest in the area.” They unite their talents to produce pottery that is ornamental yet utilitarian. Michael’s expertise is form and balance, which complements Claudia’s rich color and painting. They say that being challenged helps their creativity, producing a diverse style of functional and decorative earthenware, wall décor and furnishings in their studios and adjoining gallery.
43 Furnace Street presents a wide variety of artists including Andrew McAllister Photography; Fred Yoder Studio; Chris Klassen Studio, fine artists; Incite Creative, a marketing and graphic design business; and Kathleen Lucas Walls Studio, with jewelry and accessories; Housecalls for Macs and PCs, a professional, on-site computer and network support service; Bell Harp Tech, harp maintenance and restoration; Magoun Pewter with custom pewter castings and design; and The Works, with construction and cabinetry by Craig Abraham.
Stewart Freedman, of Freedman Piano Service, owns the building and has been a piano technician and pianist in the area for more than 30 years. “The philosophy behind 43 Furnace Street has been to create an environment of like-minded craftsmen and artisans. Artists have been working in this building long before the idea of an arts and entertainment district was ever conceived,” Freedman says.
Denise Taylor of Deetaylor8 Design has been the art director for the Akron Art Museum for more than four years. A graduate of Kent State, she started her business five years ago when she moved back to Northside from Los Angeles. “A couple of things have happened in the Northside District that have made it an attractive location for artists,” Taylor says, citing recent renovations the city has done and the opening of Chrissie Hynde’s restaurant as a few examples.
Neil Leeson Décor Floral is a full-service wedding and event design company, offering daily fresh flower delivery as well as residential holiday décor. The work is “high style, from classic to ultra-modern, all with an artistic edge.” Leeson, who has a background in fine art and visual merchandising, says the art walks have given people something to do besides shop at local malls. “They’ve helped raise awareness in the area of just how talented the artists in Akron are,” he adds.
Troy Myers would like to see more artists living and working downtown. “We have the space, but many do not know how to go about making these spaces into places to live and work. Another key factor is finding property owners who are willing to repurpose their buildings into loft/studios,” says Myers, who contrasts Akron with New York’s SoHo district. “Many artists (in New York) did the renovations themselves and often with little money. But they had the support of property owners,” Myers says.
Todd Volkmer, curator of the Red Light Galleries, says his mission is to create a destination location. “I would love, and frankly the city would love, to see artists of all kinds, painters, performers, musicians, actors...performing their crafts down in the Northside District on Fridays and Saturdays whenever the weather is permitting. Come down, set up an easel, or put on a hat and show Akron what you got,” he says. For now, the Northside art scene is a grassroots effort. Many of the artists don’t have a marketing budget, and so the biggest challenge is spreading awareness, Volkmer adds.
Red Light Galleries displays works of painters, including those of the group Raw Umber. But the newest addition to Red Light Galleries is Lindsay Jean-Marie Boutique, which is the first retail establishment at Northside and features sophisticated apparel that is unique and classic. “The clothes are designed to have significance anywhere in the world” says Jean-Marie, who designs and handcrafts the clothes herself and is a graduate of The University of Akron in Fine Arts with a focus on Fashion Merchandising.
Across the street is Millwork Galleries, which accommodates several local glass artists who use the studio’s digital electric furnace to produce optic-quality glass. Jack Baker, owner of Architectural Greenery Inc. has spent the last 12 years at Northside. He co-founded Akron Glass Works with John Boyett, whom he met four years ago while blowing glass at Steinert Glass School in Kent. The pair welcomes the public to watch the glass blowing process, talk with the artists and browse the gallery/showroom for great gift items, decorative containers and original one-of-a-kind glass pieces.
No longer involved in Millworks is David Leas of The United Akrons. “Most of the artists that were involved in creating the Northside are no longer there,” Leas says. “The Northside had its potential with the Art Walks that started in ‘06 with artists doing the work. Now the city is managing the Art Walks and participation has dropped.” Though Leas no longer has gallery space at Northside, he is an independent working artist in the area and continues to exhibit his work in other local venues. He and some other working artists won’t be participating in the Art Walks of 2008. “Two thousand seven was a year of many exhibits and lots of work outside of making art,” Leas says, “so we have gone back to the studios for the 2008 year. I hope to say differently come 2009.”
On the flip side, Red Light Galleries’ Volkmer sees the city’s involvement in the Art Walks as positive. He credits Suzie Graham and Dave Lieberth with giving support and promotion to the venue. The Art Walks incorporate a larger part of the Northside of Akron including Troy Myers Studio, Summit ArtSpace, Akron Art Museum and Mocha Maiden Art Gallery & Coffee House and Musica at the Maiden Lane Historic District.
Akron is filled with artists, many of whom are located in the Northside Art District. Some will stay, others will move on, but as new galleries and studios open and the street in Emerald City is filled with entertainment, why not come for a night of cultural fun and trade your red slippers for the red light district of Oz, Northside style?