Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Artisits

Stepping from the grimy hallway into the large room with white walls, floor and ceiling and large glass block windows that let light pour into every corner is like entering another world. Jo Q. Nelson calls it Softbox.

Softbox is a live/work loft occupying part of a warehouse’s third floor on the western edge of Sunnyside, Queens. Nelson’s neighbors are mostly textile businesses and her residential use of the loft is legally questionable. Despite this, Softbox will be open to the public for the first time this Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

This weekend’s open house is part of Living Room, a 10-site art show organized by Flux Factory, a Long Island City artists’ collective. Designed as a changeable space, Softbox is a sculptural experiment able to host not only artists’ work, but artists themselves.

“I wanted to create a place for artists who are first moving to the city or visiting for projects to stay,” said Nelson, 31, a part-time master’s student at “Studio space is expensive and hard to find. This way someone can arrive in the city and have a place to live and work right away.”

The loft contains two “pods” constructed of wood planks and corrugated, translucent white plastic. Both are set on rolling platforms, which glide easily despite weighing about 400 pounds. One pod is Nelson’s bedroom and work space while the other will be used by visiting artists, whom Nelson will charge a small fee.

“The pods are discrete in terms of live/work spaces,” said Nelson. “Having another artist here doesn’t take over the space – you can still use this corner for a show or move the pods to make room for a new piece.”

Examining spaces and how people interact with them is the focus of most of Nelson’s work, which made her, and Softbox, a natural fit for Living Room. The project’s 10 sites in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn are normally private spaces such as homes or apartment building rooftops. The show was organized in conjunction with openhousenewyork’s sixth annual OHNY Weekend, an event that celebrates New York City’s architecture and design by opening about 200 sites in all five boroughs to the public.

“A lot of Flux’s projects are about what it means to inhabit a space and live there,” said Chen Tamir, 29 and executive director of Flux Factory. “Living Room is about blurring the lines between public and private and encouraging people to engage with and explore their own city.”

Using multiple locations for the project is part of Flux Factory’s effort to cope with losing their living, work and gallery space earlier this year. Their building on 43rd Street was seized through eminent domain by the Metropolitan Transit Authority to make way for the East Side Access project that will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.

Losing affordable places for artists to live and work across the city was one of the driving forces behind Nelson’s idea for Softbox.

“I’m very romantic about SoHo in the 70’s when artists could have huge lofts for $75 a month, even if people were burning cars outside,” she said. “Then, you could survive by painting one apartment a month and spend the rest of the time working on your art. Softbox is my attempt to keep New York accessible for and networked with the artistic community.”

The light industrial corridor west of Sunnyside, humming with business activity, is unlikely to become an artists’ ghetto reminiscent of 1970’s SoHo. But for Nelson, carving out nooks where artists can live and work cheaply may be the key to maintaining a thriving creative community in the city.

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