Danny McSweeney and how to create a venue for the arts 

Just Screw It

Since 2006, Danny McSweeney has learned the delicate balance between artist and business person. This is reflected in his gallery, Spark Studios, which manages to feel clean and professional — with its smooth white walls and black track lighting — but also creative and spontaneous.

The front gallery houses the current exhibit commemorating Spark's two-year anniversary. Beyond lies the rudimentary workroom with its pottery wheels and shelves crammed with sculptures in various states of finish, the whole area here and there encrusted with dried clay. In the far back are several studios rented by local artists.

It's intriguing to imagine how McSweeney, 30, could have singlehandedly carved Spark out of a dilapidated house in an area of Charleston that has remained untouched by gentrification despite its proximity to MUSC. Attracting an audience to Hagood Street north of the Crosstown, with the gallery located on the edge of a more socioeconomically depressed neighborhood, has proven challenging. Even so, the anniversary suggests ways to overcome even the most insidious stereotypes that persist in Charleston.

It's also ironic: Even as McSweeney and his cohort celebrate the founding of a unique creative space, the Charleston Arts Coalition, a slap-dash ensemble of artists, patrons, and arts supporters, is discussing the city's perpetual lack of space. On Tuesday, the group met to discuss ways to create what it's calling the People's Arts Center, a unified center for the arts. Spark, however, is the kind of venue that the Coalition says is needed in Charleston. Perhaps McSweeney's achievement is not only laudable but instructive.

A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, McSweeney has been making art from clay his entire life, beginning with the stuff he found in the riverbed behind his childhood home in Richmond, Va. His previous experience as a gallery owner was limited to a small venue that he and several artist friends ran briefly in Columbia. After leasing the building in late 2005, McSweeney found he had to be as malleable as his medium of choice: "From the beginning, I knew I had to do everything in order to survive," McSweeney says with a small laugh.

"Everything" really meant everything. He acquired building permits. He shepherded the architectural review board process. He renovated the building, repairing everything from the ceiling to the toilets. Since mid-2006, McSweeney has graduated to maintaining the gallery space, renting affordable studios to artists, and teaching an array of classes — as well as keeping up with his own creative work.

The anniversary exhibit currently on display is tastefully curated by McSweeney, each work handpicked from among artists that have shown at Spark. The result is a celebration of the progress the gallery has made over that time in a show that is colorful without being gaudy, varied without feeling scattered. The show gives the impression of an artistic community — that these walls and pedestals are filled with pieces by artists who, despite disparate styles, probably like, or at least appreciate, each other's work.

This exhibition space is a place for the artists to be themselves, expressing whatever is on their minds, whether profound or playful. An untitled black-and-white photograph by Yulian Martinez depicts a beach scene that starkly contrasts the more saccharine representations of blue horizon and wind-surfer speckled sea often found in Charleston. Dry, twisted dead tree trunks create a border that, coupled with the blanched sky and sand, give the setting the feel of a Western desert. This atmosphere is heightened by a solitary man picking his way across the empty beach, his hat peaked sharply like a cowboy's, the brim overshadowing his face and giving him the impression of one intent on his path.

Philip Hyman has contributed a couple of untitled works exploring the portrayal of women in art as well as in society at large. In one, a classic female silhouette is cut out of black paperboard, a perky-breasted nude with a high ponytail holding onto the back of a chair with one leg lifted coquettishly behind her. Filling the background behind the silhouette is a collage of old newspaper clippings portraying 1950s and '60s vixens preening for the camera, most undressed to some degree. The collage also includes scraps from articles about baseball and World War II heroism, characterizing the image as "all-American" even as it seems to question the validity of the stereotype.

Across the room, two works by R.T. Shepard embody the artist's capacity for sweet spontaneity. "Woman in Theatre Box" is a simple, softly colored graphite and pigment sketch of a woman with dark hair and a thin-strapped dress looking intently ahead. The viewer can almost imagine the artist drawing this anonymous character in the middle of the performance, reminding us there is more to watch at a theater than the advertised performance. Shepard has also contributed "Ancient Greek Torso," a small piece of mounted driftwood, curiously twisted into a shape reminiscent of a human figure, paying homage to the art that exists intrinsically in nature.

The exhibit also features several ceramic sculptures by John Davis, who has been renting a studio at Spark since the gallery opened, plus two paintings by African artists, courtesy of the Tanzania Education Foundation in Charleston. Fortunately, McSweeney hasn't left himself out of his own party. A few of his sculptures are showcased in the center of the gallery. The most striking is "Screw Art," which displays the versatility of clay, a medium that McSweeney is clearly on his way to mastering.

The sculpture's foundation is a ceramic cube treated with an iron oxide wash that makes it look deceptively like metal or wood. A huge, shiny green screw stabs violently through the cube at an obtuse angle, ignoring the old-fashioned keyhole decorating a different face of the cube. Dark glaze rivulets stream like blood from where the screw penetrates. "Screw Art" is compelling enough as a pun. Yet after meeting McSweeney, the mind can't help but move to other connotations, principally the bucking of trendy art and its often vacuous social and economic obligations. The work invites artists to make and show their work on their own terms, but moreover, to demand more from their lives as artists in general.

In future years, McSweeney hopes to develop ways for greater artist interaction at Spark — more artists hanging out simply because they're artists, cultivating partnerships and creative ideas that transcend individual, physical works. Similar to Redux Contemporary Art Center and the Halsey Institute of Art, Spark Studios' main goal is to usher more people through the gallery to see solid works by artists outside of the mainstream.

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