Monday, September 21, 2009

Reuse as Art

Recycling bottles and cans and other stuff can be darn boring. Yet a new use for an old building took an exciting turn in Amarillo, Texas. A former shopping mall, sitting forlornly in a sea of cracked asphalt, was transformed into a thriving arts center.

Air-conditioned hallways that sat empty after department stores and specialty shops closed or decamped for bigger malls are now lined by artists’ galleries and studio spaces, as well as the Amarillo Arts Institute, the Panhandle Arts Center, and the West Texas A&M Gallery and Studios. Replacing a big swathe of the old parking lot is a sculpture garden. Lively casts of frolicking children, bathing women and a buckaroo on a rearing horse arrayed amid flower-fringed pools greet visitors to the main entrance of the Sunset Center, near the corner of Plains Boulevard and Western Street. The recycled mall is in a commercial area along the historic Route 66 corridor that got bypassed by the nearby interstate highway, I-40.

“I’m an artist and I couldn’t have found a more enjoyable place,” Marsha Clements, a native of Amarillo, a small city on the vast plains of the Panhandle region of Texas, wrote in the current issue of Route 66 Pulse, a newspaper for history-minded motorists. “I love to stroll through art galleries and visit with artists about their work. It inspires me to paint something new, just be creative.”

The galleries, workshops and special events at the Sunset Center have become “a hub for the art community of our region serving artists from the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma,” Clements noted.

The faded 1950s-era mall was transformed by Ann Crouch, a local businesswoman with a vision, and the creative work of numerous artists. Many area residents drop by during the day to stroll the hallways, chat with artists and check out the displays of paintings, photographs, pottery, jewelry, woodwork, metalwork and other forms of art. During a visit this summer, an aunt and I were greeted by B.J. Smith, who fashions gourds into a fascinating array of painted, beaded or otherwise bedecked artwork, and invited in for a tour of her studio.

“A fellow artist and friend (Ann Crouch) had a dream and purchased (the mall) several years ago,” artist Bob “Crocodile” Lile said in a recent interview in Route 66 News on the opening of his new gallery in the arts center. “Personally I never thought it would be a success, but with time and effort it has grown into about 46 galleries and is the premier place to teach and learn as well as show and sell art in the tri-state area.”

The arts center grew in stages, noted a recent article in on the arts scene in the city. It began with the 2001 opening of the Panhandle Art Center, an exhibit area for artists set up in a wing of the sprawling mall. The Amarillo Art Institute offered art classes in 2004, followed by artists opening individual galleries in 2005. The sculpture garden opened last year.

First Friday Art Walks, held the first Friday of each month, “now draw thousands of visitors,” Crouch said in a recent article in “We have a growing art market,” she said. “We're starting to get attention from people driving through on the interstate."

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