Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen cut a path through the sawgrass, boots dragging in the marshy waters of the Everglades, their eyes open for artistic inspiration. The New York-based collaborators used the river of grass, an unmistakable Florida landmark, as their muse for the recently opened show at Locust Projects.
The result: a collaborative installation of immersive three-dimensional drawings, intended to evoke the enigmatic nature of the swamp itself. Drawn from the Everglades will be on display through April 26.
The show kicks off a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Locust Projects as a nonprofit organization that financially and ideologically supports local artists while welcoming internationally renowned artists for exhibitions, roundtable talks and lecture series. Director Chana Sheldon said the original mission to create a link between art and the community still rings true.
A decade and a half of projects that have made a mark on the community will culminate April 27 in a Spring Fling event that will bring artists and the community of art lovers and supporters together — the same mission that birthed the project in 1998.
“There’s always this amazing vibe of artists supporting their friends and art enthusiasts supporting a love for the arts,” Sheldon said.
What started with three young local artists who sought a free working space has become the origin of a stronger link between art and the community in Miami, with no limits on creativity.
Ruben Ochoa had the last exhibition in the original Wynwood studio before Locust Projects moved to its current location at 3852 N. Miami Ave. Ochoa used the opportunity to uproot the gallery and cut out the concrete floors, elevating them 10 feet. Like many other commissioned works at Locust Projects, the result was unpredictable.
“We don’t always know if it’s going to work,” Sheldon said.
As the executive director, she has worked with dozens who bring their inspiration to the 5,000-square-foot space; more often than not, the artwork spills out onto the Design District streets. Sheldon and the board of directors for Locust Projects have commissioned transformative pieces of community art like Agustina Woodgate’s billboard and bus shelter public installation in 2011.
“We’re founded by these artists that felt a need to fill a void to push their practice without the need to sell their work,” Sheldon said.
Woodgate, a Miami-based artist from Buenos Aires, proposed the billboard and bus shelter project with a one-sentence vision for layers of holographic film that would change depending on lighting and location. Woodgate sent in a 5-by-5-inch sample of the material. For the next six months, Woodgate would work closely with Locust Projects, the city of Miami, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and a crew of billboard workers who would make the idea come to life.
“Places like Locust Projects make this community even richer,” Woodgate said.
“Artist-run spaces and nonprofits that really believe in ideas have a different agenda from a gallery. A gallery can be really modern and risky, but in the end it’s a store,” Woodgate said.
Her billboard and bus shelter project was up for a month and a half, with one billboard overlooking the MacArthur Causeway and another on the Julia Tuttle and 30 bus shelters all over downtown Miami. Each had the same chameleon-type treatment. The reflective film presented a potential danger to drivers, which Woodgate and agencies worked together to fix before installing the project. Once the project was finished, Woodgate went to Overtown to take photographs of the billboard from below.
“The entire neighborhood came out to ask about the billboards,” Woodgate said. “It was an anonymous project, which I like, outside of the safety of my studio.”
That was the original idea in 1998 when artists Elizabeth Withstandley, Westen Charles and COOPER sought an open studio that would bring together artists, enthusiasts and collectors. At the time, Miami had a thriving community of collectors, but local artists were just beginning to emerge.
Longtime Miami collectors Debra and Dennis Scholl met the three artists then working in a combination exhibition space and open studio in a once-depressed neighborhood near the Design District.
“We loved the idea of what they were doing and how community oriented it was,” said Debra Scholl. “I thought they had so much foresight in the sense of finding a place in Wynwood.”
Scholl and her husband have been on the board of directors for the organization since 2000. In 2002, Locust Projects became a nonprofit, bolstered by grants from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (where Dennis Scholl is vice president/Arts), and Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs.
“We want artists to come in and experiment, young or old,” Debra Scholl said. “If you are a little older you get trapped into making art that’s sellable. We never care about that. We just want you to make what you want.”