Lofty pursuit

The guy in the corner of the lobby gallery of Continental Lofts doesn't live here, but he is camped out nonetheless. He's too tidy to be a panhandler, but too casual to be a security guard, even in Deep Ellum. His short ponytail pops up as he bends his graying head over a sketchbook. He alternately reads, draws, or writes, surrounded by large painted or watercolored canvases, hand-painted poetry text, and wall sculpture throbbing with bright splashes of color.

David McCullough seems immersed in what he's doing, until the unsuspecting loft dweller returns home from work. He hopes to engage them in small talk -- a chance to tell his story in the verbal medium he favors as much as the visual. "People who live here get tripped out by me, but I'm waiting for this conversation, this cultural experience that may or may not happen," he says. "I'm waiting for Godot."

One lobby visitor is studying the white wall where McCullough's "Sacred Messenger" hangs among his other like-sized watercolors. "These look like carpets," the viewer says after a thoughtful minute. "Wow," McCullough responds, "it's funny you should say that. I was just thinking of the first museum show I ever saw, before I knew I'd become an artist."

McCullough has hooked another stranger who becomes an audience-of-one for a performance piece of storytelling that is as much what McCullough is about as the art on the walls. "That first show had antiquities," he continues. "Turkish silk rugs hanging on the walls, lying on the floor..." Suddenly, McCullough is off and running, and the art-viewer seems surprised that a casual comment has generated this heartfelt but endless soliloquy.

This self-appointed Carlton-your-cultural-doorman is just one of a handful of artists who are contributing to a growing trend within the local arts scene: loft art. Burgeoning loft developments around Deep Ellum are transforming their lobbies and public spaces into galleries for reasons that range from the commercial to the cultural. The demographics of Deep Ellum loft residents are right for art appreciation -- upscale professionals looking for an urban living experience, thirty-to-fifty-somethings with net incomes in the high five figures.

Continental Lofts started its gallery both to please its tenants and out of a sense of loyalty to the area that spawned so many artists in abandoned warehouse lofts nearly 30 years ago. "Art absolutely belongs here," says Sunny Wood, property director for Continental Lofts. "I like the variety of rotating shows and giving emerging artists an opportunity for exposure."

Steve Warren, marketing director of Live Oak Lofts, donates empty loft spaces in his building at Live Oak and Good-Latimer to artists for a once-a-month art opening. "We built this building with 12-foot ceilings and lots of natural light, and artists love that," he says. Eliseo Garcia takes advantage of the temporary exhibition space to show steel and stone sculptures, two examples of which have a permanent position in the second-floor courtyard at Live Oak. Michael Marlowe painted the Mondrian-esque mural flanked by elevators in the parking garage, and shows his smaller work in the building's one-shot shows. Matt Stevens is about to move in, sensing that the airy living space will suit his aesthetic sense and that the wealth of neighborly contacts won't hurt his decorative arts business based in Dallas.

When Continental first opened three years ago, Wood asked Nancy Whitenack and Marty Walker at Conduit Gallery to "help us find artists and put up shows," she says. "They were our neighbors." Conduit pitched in for the first year, followed by Melissa Sauvage, then the director of the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts. Sauvage freelanced exhibitions for the next year. Shows by artists including Martin Delabano and Luciana Amirgholi have graced Continental's gallery, and were usually well-received by tenants and the gallery-going public.

But of all the art exhibitions at the Continental Lofts gallery, Wood says, McCullough's is generating the most response by far. "David's down there holding court on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday," she laughs. "Whoever walks through there is going to be approached by David." Along with the free exhibition, they're likely to get a lecture.

"Dialogue about art is an essential part of art," McCullough says. "My life in art is predestined, so I approach every encounter with another soul as a possibility for a sign."

McCullough, 53, sounds like a psychic healer when he waxes incessantly in his airy, metaphysical way. But he becomes decidedly more grounded when his attention is turned to how he got started in the art business. "It was like stepping into horseshit," he says of growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, where young artists embraced the New England watercolor society ethic. "There were young guys all around me who wanted to be the Homers and Wyeths," he says.

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Annabelle Massey Helber