At 1 p.m. last Friday, I arrived at CentralTrak in Exposition Park for a next level sleepover. I would spend 24 hours at the artists' residency of The University of Texas at Dallas, and get to know its eight current residents. How do they live? How do they work? What is it like to be that cool? These were the principle questions I sought to answer, and I did so with some apprehension. I had no idea what to expect. Would I, a relative novice in the field of visual art, have the language to discuss it with people who make and study it around the clock? Or would I feel like I was trapped in the art museum scene in Woody Allen's "Manhattan," scratching my head at talk of steel cubes and negative capability?
I found director Heyd Fontenot, manager Laura Sewell and resident Jesse Griffith standing outside. They were waiting to greet UTD faculty, who were also coming by to tour the facilities. After brief introductions, Griffith offered to be my Virgil and guide me through the innards of CentralTrak. He's from Las Cruces, New Mexico and is pursuing an MFA in Arts and Technology at UTD.
Griffith walked me through the gallery portion of the building, which currently features an exhibit with apocalyptic themes, to a long hallway that would belong in any industrial style apartment building. First, we stopped at Griffith's own studio. It was a pretty generous space. A nice kitchen ran the length of one wall, and in the center of the room was a large desk, where photographs were splayed. The photographs depicted lenses, which he had used to manipulate light in interesting ways. Griffith turned on a projector facing an open wall and showed me a video of the same lenses spinning in darkness, set to eerie, ambient noises. Above our heads was a lofted bedroom, common to all of the studios. Griffith called it his "couch potato" area, since he plays videogames there too. Like most of the residents, he is also a teaching assistant at UTD. I quickly learned that between classes, schoolwork, TA commitments and the hours residents are obligated to work at CentralTrak, there's precious little time left for actually producing art. So, creating that sort of distinction between living and working space within one's studio is very necessary. The build-out of CentralTrak's residences was executed with the artists' needs in mind. UTD's first artists' residency was at Southside on Lamar. In 2008, it opened on Exposition Avenue as CentralTrak.
Next, Griffith took me down the hall to visiting artist Jeff Gibbons' studio. Gibbons has been at CentralTrak since 2013 and will be leaving in just a few weeks. The bones of his studio were the same as Griffith's, but his had a different vibe. Various sculptures, including a stack of old, flickering TVs, filled the room. My eye lighted on something interesting on every surface -- his room felt like an art exhibit in its own right. Gibbons was cooking a grilled cheese and preparing to install a show that would open the following evening at Circuit 12 Contemporary.
He's from Detroit originally, and I asked him what his plans are for life post CentralTrak. He told me that he's applying to other residencies and he's particularly interested in travelling to Asia, but his next destination is essentially unclear. He described his time in Dallas as positive, noting that because the art community is small and tightknit, it's relatively easy to become a local fixture. That may be true to some degree, but it's also Gibbons' modesty talking. He's become well regarded for projects like Deep Ellum Windows, a collaboration with Justin Ginsburg that set up exhibitions in vacant spaces around Deep Ellum.
I left Gibbons to his sandwich and Griffith took me to meet Clinton Butler, another MFA student. He was tidying up his studio when we found him, and he apologized for the mess as he ushered me in, the way that truly neat people always do. In fact, his studio was the neatest, most minimalist I had seen. We sat on his couch and he told me about a program he'd developed for Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset. He's created a virtual art gallery and is soliciting virtual art from his friends.
I inquired about life at CentralTrak, and about the extent of the residents' interactions with each other. He said he sees the others at class sometimes, and that they get together for potluck dinners on Mondays. As to living in Exposition Park, Butler likes it, but he doesn't have a car, so it can be challenging to gather materials for his projects. On the weekends, Butler sometimes works as a bartender at the Dallas Country Club, of all places. He's the only one who has a regular job outside of school. I jokingly asked if he gets hit on by cougars, and it turns out that he does.
Eventually, I drifted across the hallway to chat with Liz Trosper, who occupies one of the larger studios. CentralTrak has recently welcomed a wave of new residents, including Griffith and Butler, and Trosper is the last of the old guard. She is one of few female residents and is also distinguished by her interest in traditional media. UTD's programs place an emphasis on new media, so many of the residents fall within that domain.
An entire wall in her studio was decorated with sketches. They're blind contours of different spaces around CentralTrak, she explained. She's been doing them with kids she teaches. "Would you like to try one?" she asked. I nervously agreed. She timed me for one minute and instructed me not to pick up my pen. I sketched a ladder that was leaning against a wall. The result wasn't great, but it wasn't as terrible as I'd feared. "You didn't have the reaction most people have," she said. "Most people either laugh hysterically or feel ashamed because they have an idea of what it's supposed to look like." Like the others I had met, Trosper was open and kind and totally unpretentious. Already, the art world seemed more accessible. In describing her approach to work, she emphasized the importance of showing up to the studio every day, a reflection of her belief that inspiration is actually the reward for persistence. Trosper has a surprising background for an artist. Before pursuing an MFA, she worked in urban planning and was in communications at Dr. Pepper. She explained art making as a process of encoding something for the viewer to then decode. In that light, her past corporate life isn't as incongruous with her current one as it might initially seem. Trosper is still in the business of communicating, of creating an experience -- she's just using art as her medium.
By this point, Laura Sewell and Clinton Butler had trickled in and Trosper offered us all brownies. "They're not special brownies," Trosper quickly clarified. "They're my grandmother's recipe." Laura Sewell grew up in Dallas and her background is in theater and art management. Despite having two young children, Sewell is at CentralTrak many nights and weekends. You can tell CentralTrak is a family to those who live there, and she and Heyd Fontenot care for their brood very intently. "A lot of people don't know that CentralTrak exists or what we do," she said. "But we're a hub for North Texas. We're one of the only artists' residencies in this area." CentralTrak is hoping to raise its profile, even within UTD. That's why they had hosted faculty earlier that day.
According to Sewell, a principal goal of CentralTrak's is to make Dallas an attractive place for artists to live. "We hope the people that come through CentralTrak will fall in love with the city," she said. That was the case for alumnus Akirash, a Nigerian born artist who now considers Dallas his home away from home. But mostly, Sewell's passion for CentralTrak stems from her desire to encourage its artists in residence to go all in on their artistic ambitions. Trosper added that it's necessary in the current climate, one that is hostile to artists.
She said that when she called herself an urban planner everyone took her at her word, whereas people who identify as artists are universally regarded with suspicion. She then told the story of Cortés, who sank his ships so that his men wouldn't harbor fantasies of turning back, and argued that artists have to do the same thing in order to succeed. Around 5 p.m. we gathered in Sewell's office to caravan to the exhibit "Stranger than Fiction" at the Pollock Gallery at SMU. Another resident, Bradley Cruse, also joined the group. Heyd Fontenot assured me that outings like this one aren't typical, and that it was proving to be an unusually social day. However he also insisted that, "there's no typical day at CentralTrak." On the way to the gallery, we stopped for dinner at La Madeleine. Outside of Pollock, the group paused to admire some macaroni covered mustangs that had been discarded by a dumpster. Somewhere, there are spirited SMU students who should be flattered to know that some of Dallas' most talented artists admired their macaroni art. At "Stranger than Fiction" we ran into more CentralTrakers, including alumnus Shawn Mayer and current visiting artist Christopher Blay, whom I hadn't met yet. "Some people run into their friends at clubs," Fontenot observed. "We run into our friends at art galleries." The group made a second gallery stop at RO2 for the exhibit "On Paper." A band of hooligans who go by Contre-Culture was there performing an icebreaker, which in this case meant wrapping each other in toilet paper for a mummy effect and screaming loudly. I've lived in Dallas for many years, but none of my experiences on Friday felt familiar. I was truly taking a vacation within my own city.
We returned to CentralTrak around 10 p.m., at which point I stopped in at Bradley Cruse's studio. Cruse is from Cincinnati originally and his mix of artistic interests is intriguing. On one wall was an assortment of beautiful realist drawings -- he studies both at UTD and at the Texas Academy of Figurative Art in Fort Worth -- but he also showed me a computer program he'd coded to respond to the movement of the player's body. The unifying element is an interest in the psychology of gesture, he explained. Cruse also produced some tiny 3D prints of human forms. At one point, Jesse Griffith came by to ask Cruse for his opinion on the video he'd shown me earlier. The residents clearly capitalize on the opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other.
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I had been told that the residents often work at night, and sometimes all night. Loud music emanated from Christopher Blay's studio around 11p.m. and when I checked on him, he was cutting shapes out of vinyl and taping them to the wall. The resulting images looked like stained glass windows and depicted famous instances of police brutality. Blay's studio was also decorated with large pieces from his last show, "Satellites," which was about the difficulties of communication.
Blay said his studio time at CentralTrak has been useful because it's allowed him to envision how his pieces will look in a gallery before he actually installs them. Blay started out as a photographer fifteen years ago, but his work gradually moved toward installation art. Like Jeff Gibbons', Blay's tenure at CentralTrak will be ending in December, and CentralTrak will welcome two new visiting artists. Blay's current plan is to return home to Fort Worth. Around midnight, Jesse Griffith and Bradley Cruse wandered into Blay's studio with goblets of wine and began playing chess. Soon, Heyd Fontenot also poked his head in, and before long, most of CentralTrak's characters had assembled. Jeff Gibbons even joined, having successfully installed his show. More alcoholic libations were poured and Blay retired his work for the evening, but not before Fontenot verified that we weren't imposing. Fontenot is particularly attuned to the sanctity of studio time because of his sixty-hour workweeks as director. He arrived at CentralTrak in 2011 as an artist-in-residence, but the University noticed the energy and charisma he brought to CentralTrak and he was quickly transitioned to the role of director. Now, when Fontenot finds himself with time to make art, he regularly enforces a do not disturb rule.
The group listened to records and passed around a Victorian era viewfinder belonging to Christopher Blay until 2 a.m., at which point everyone said goodnight. I slept a heavy, drooling sleep, and when I awoke around 10 a.m., there was not a sound to be heard. I made the fifteen-minute walk to Murray Street Coffee Shop and returned at noon to find Clinton Butler in the gallery. The gallery is only open to the public on Saturdays, and the residents take turns holding it open.
Save for the odd visitor, CentralTrak was quiet. Butler set up the Oculus Rift for me to try. The effect was more realistic than I'd anticipated -- so much so that it made me slightly nauseated. To my amusement, his virtual gallery contained a Jeff Koons balloon animal sculpture, which he told me was meant to be a joke. One of the first pieces Butler has commissioned for the gallery is a pattern-changing couch that Jeff Gibbons will design. Before I left, I asked Butler about the rest of his day and he said that one of his duties was to produce a blog post for the CentralTrak website. "Maybe I'll write it about you being here," he said. "I'll write about you, writing about me. Pretty meta, huh."