The Last Sculpture Show 

Good studio space comes at a premium

Anyone got a spare room fit for an artist? Just a few simple requirements: sheet rock walls, no windows, a big slop sink, and no noisy neighbors.

Many visual artists in Charleston do work out of their homes, either through choice or expediency. But not everyone wants to flip their house into a studio, and for sculptors, the kitchen rarely cuts the mustard as an alternative work space; for one thing, they could end up with pluff mud in their pancakes.

Installation artist Paul Hitopoulos once felt fortunate to have access to a vacant house where he could test a piece before it was exhibited. "I don't work with an easel or traditional sculpture," he says. "I had 40 gallons of pluff mud to go to Kansas City, Missouri, and I wouldn't have been able to test the piece if I didn't have that space." Unfortunately, the arrangement was temporary. "I make money renovating houses, which is cool, but it's detrimental to be renovating a place and simultaneously destroying it with what I do."

Right now Hitopoulos is taking a hiatus while keeping an eye on the real estate market. To cover studio rent, he'll be relying on his sales as an artist, "which means I can pretty much afford nothing."

The myth-treated yet recognizably figurative sculptures of Tom Durham put him in a more traditional working realm. Yet he's also struggled to find an affordable place to work here — so much so that he's heading off to Philly instead.

"It's not that I dislike Charleston, I love it," Durham told me, "but I gotta make a living. I couldn't afford the 1,500 square feet I need, which is going for $2,000-3,000." Annoyingly, Durham found the ideal raw space sitting unused on King Street, but the owners were unwilling to rent. "They're waiting for a big sale, and I know those places have been empty for over a year," he says.

Even if the real estate bubble pops completely and prices come down, the net result probably won't help artists all that much; Hitopoulos is mindful of the last time New York prices hit a ceiling and started to fall — he reckons that at best, art studio renters there shelled out a couple of hundred dollars less than before.

Right now, the solutions to this problem are narrow. Pay up, get out, or move back in with your mom. After 11 and a half years of contented renting, Durham's lease agreement is up with Jupiter Realty, the latest owners of the Cigar Factory on East Bay Street. "They have to gut the building, so they're moving everyone out," he explains, "but they gave me over a year's notice, and I can probably still rent on a month-to-month basis until I'm ready to leave." Durham will be holding a farewell Open House tomorrow night (Thurs. Oct. 26) at 5 p.m., his final exhibition before he leaves town.

Despite his disappointment with the cost of studio space here, Durham is optimistic about his move. "It does open up a lot of opportunity," he says, "and brings me closer to the market that I have." He also welcomes new inspirations for his work, feeling that a forced move out of the city can be good for some artists: "Not everyone wants a picture of Charleston in their Charleston home."

Personally, I'll miss sneaking peeks into Durham's studio when I'm in the Cigar Factory, which has benefited greatly from the presence of his eclectic work. Likewise, there are plenty of empty spaces and warehouses in town that could handle the needs of artists like Durham and Hitopoulos. If they're not made welcome here, then there are other, more accommodating cities that will be happy to oblige.


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