A warehouse under the I-26 overpass downtown may not be the first place artists think of as a source of inspiration. But the industrial space at 656 King Street and the surrounding unused land were perfect for artists Nic Roberts and Lane Huntley.
"The first time we walked in, I guess you would say it was love at first sight," Roberts says.
The building is now home to Tivoli, an alternative art studio that has been a work in progress since last winter. The studio, which currently houses 16 artists, is the brainchild of Roberts and Huntley, who envisioned the space to be more than a loft to hang framed canvases.
"Tivoli was really the culmination of wanting to do something in the community related to the arts, seeing art facilities in town, and thinking that there's more to it," Roberts says. "I think there's certainly more to calling yourself a contemporary art facility than hanging two-dimensional art on a series of walls. I think we wanted to challenge the common understanding of what art is or at least what people expect out of it."
Although the resulting space is still evolving, it looks nothing like the traditional galleries on Broad Street. A stone-framed fountain adorns the entrance, which leads into the individual rooms that line the giant warehouse. The walls to the rooms don't reach the ceiling, making them more like privacy partitions. Populated with 10-foot-long canvases and metal sculptures, the studio seems fitting for artwork on a massive scale, which was Roberts' original intention. "If someone comes in and says, 'I need a space for a month to build a 20-foot aluminum structure,' I'd say hell yeah."
That's also where the extended outdoor space comes in handy. The property has a long back- and side yard that Roberts and Huntley have opened to artists renting space at Tivoli. Austin Norvell, who works with glass, is one artist who is taking advantage of the outdoors.
Norvell recently moved back to the Charleston area after studying glass blowing in North Carolina and found Tivoli on Craigslist. He uses part of the yard to do wax glass casting and he is working to set up an old shipping container out back, which will give him more space to work. The open nature of Tivoli, however, is not the only thing that drew Norvell to the studio.
"I've worked in solo studios, but this works out better, being able to bounce ideas off other artists and collaborate on works," Nowell says. "It works out really well."
Many of the other artists, who come from a variety of backgrounds, agree with Norvell. Amanda McLenon says she has enjoyed being part of a community at Tivoli and has learned techniques from other artists.
"I think it has been really great to have a community where we can feed off each other, having that creative energy we all share," McLenon says.
In addition, she says it is beneficial for artists to tell others they are part of a group.
"Instead of being an individual artist on your own, being part of a collective sort of gives you clout," she says.
Tivoli is open to artists working with virtually any medium, though there is a short screening process to see if they will mesh with the community. Roberts says he wants to ensure that everyone understands and benefits from the creative philosophy at Tivoli.
"I can usually tell pretty quickly when it's going to be the right fit," he says. "A lot of times when we show the space, whether purposefully or not, it's in such disarray with schizophrenic, buckshot art everywhere that an OCD kind of anal person is going to come in and have a hard time seeing what is going on and the potential the space has to be creative."
And Roberts has even more ideas for Tivoli. He has worked to make the warehouse green and sustainable. In addition to the new structural lumber that Roberts and Huntley used to create the individual rooms, they found a significant amount of their materials on the streets of Charleston. Roberts can point out an unusual piece of wood in the studio and name the street where he found it, or recall the time they found a load of boards they used to help construct the shipping container in the back. They even developed an unwritten code for dumpster diving, which includes not leaving an area messier than you found it and making sure the item is actually intended to be discarded.
The studio uses recycled water as well. With a simple filtration system, Roberts reuses the water that has run through the warehouse's tap. The result is $30 water bills, which keep the artists happy.
Roberts worked through the heat of last summer to plant a garden and create a bedding system to combat the runoff from the overpass. As a result, he says he wound up with not only a few vegetables but also flowers that attracted butterflies to what was once an unused gravel lot.
Roberts is eager to share what he has learned about sustainable construction and practices. He's working to make Tivoli more open to the community through educational programs for school groups to learn about the garden and see artists at work.
"Art can be so many things. It's almost a way of life," he says. "So we can use it as a really fun way to make improvements in a community that we love."