Realizing Fort Houston: A Proposal for Responsive Project Space
Seated at a long wooden meeting table, I prepare to chat with Ryan Schemel, one of a handful of innovators behind Nashville’s artist and makers’ space Fort Houston. Flanked by a scarf-clad taxidermy stag head (Uncle Buck) and a lovely faux forest of split tree trucks, Ryan recounts the trajectory of Fort Houston’s conception.
“Initially we wanted to move into a place this size or even larger but we just couldn’t. We didn’t have enough money and we needed to get our feet wet.” With a woodshop and a photo studio in the same room, the first iteration of Fort Houston was logistically flawed. “People were confused. We knew it didn’t all make physical sense, but we were trying to promote the idea of consolidating these resources,” Ryan explains. With a determined “stick with us and we will all get there” mentality, The Brick Factory, as it was first called, existed for a little over a year, offering classes and hosting art and music events, but without much workspace or productive flow.
“We were hoping we could just start out with this great facility and have lots of makers working out of it… Needless to say, it didn’t happen that quickly. The initial motivations were simply to provide resources, both tangible (tools, machines, equipment) and intangible (networking, pool of creators) and establish a long-lasting sense of community.” Gaining experience and spreading the word, the guys began acquiring studio equipment with a larger space in mind. Clearly relocation and expansion were inevitable, but the crew was thrust suddenly into action when they got word that their first home would no longer be available. Seeking a space large enough to foster a functional cooperative studio for people working in various mediums, they banded together with The Zombie Shop, a raucous motorcycle rehab garage, also roving for a new base in Nashville. “We were under the gun. We had to find a place in less than three months. And finding a big enough space that’s move in ready in three months: impossible. Had we found something with the right price tag we would have acted on it regardless of the neighborhood in order to stay open. It just so happened that it worked out in the most perfect neighborhood for us.“
After scouring the city for affordable and appealing options they hit on an obvious choice. The fact that other artists and craftsmen already inhabited parts of the building on Chestnut, coupled with the affordability and quickly growing creative vitality of the neighborhood made the current space in the Wedgewood/Houston neighborhood a prime location for the group’s communicative purposes. With seemingly endless prep work and days and nights of hard earned progress, the crew of Fort Houston has managed to carve out a beautiful and compelling functional workshop. Besides the transferred and greatly expanded woodshop and photography studio from The Brick Factory days, the new space houses a screen-printing studio, a darkroom for printmaking and photography, a vintage motorcycle and moped garage, an exhibition space, an office, a meeting room, a vast expanse of privately rented work-stations, and soon even a kiln. There are classes offered to people of all skill levels, but whereas classes were the focal point in The Brick Factory, membership is now the glue of the new Fort Houston.
“Over the course of our 9 functioning months at The Brick Factory we only signed up a grand total of 17 people,” Ryan laughingly admits. There are now 66 people who work consistently out of Fort Houston, yet only a handful use the space to solely create works of fine art. Most of the members are working on projects related to their own creatively minded and often craft-centric businesses. “They are making products and commissions to sell or install. People making things for purchase have the money to pay for the space we offer and the need for high-end equipment. We thought we would mostly attract hobbyists, but once so many professional level people started coming in it raised the bar all around.” The shift to accommodate the businesses utilizing Fort Houston is reflected in the price of memberships and packages as well. The most popular membership is the Team Membership, which offers multiple people access to all facilities, and includes a large private worktable.
Ryan and his collaborators Josh Cooper and Zach Duensing handle most of the current operations at Fort Houston, but the melting pot of resources and the space itself is a labor of love for a large group of individuals. It is the unique networking aspect of the building, fostered by the members themselves, that is the driving force within Fort Houston. Such close and cooperative quarters for so many creative entrepreneurs has created a group of people who feel a loyalty towards one another and an investment in one another’s endeavors. The exchange of ideas, labor, passion, and good fortune between its members is the heart of the project at large, and the most critical achievement of Fort Houston as it currently stands.
Nashville, as a city, is certainly a star on the rise. Stories and visual markers of the city’s revitalization (so-to-speak) abound, but of course this means that visual artists and musicians alike are looking for square footage and resources with growing costs. Fort Houston and an array of spaces nearby are now loosely hosting an event under the banner, Arts and Music in Wedgewood/Houston: a packed evening of exhibitions, pop-ups, mingling, and music that runs concurrently with the First Saturday Art Crawl downtown. The past few months of the AM@WH have featured DJ sets, video installation, performance work, live music, painting, sculpture, photography, environmentally and politically minded exhibitions, flea markets, and great food and drinks. The area is quickly gaining a reputation as the new arts district in Nashville and renovation continues on buildings in the area that will soon offer blank studio and event space. The growth of local businesses and a residential influx will help promote the sort of “roll-on-in” mentality and traffic that Fort Houston operates on. “Fort Houston is open everyday. Anybody can come in on any day to check out the artwork on our walls,” Ryan affirms.
“We want to help collectively raise the bar in Nashville. Maybe we don’t have as many visual artists in here as we do craftsmen, but if there are ways for us to team up or have events and openings with the people who are directly related with that world then we’re definitely going to do it because it takes everything to the next level for the city as a whole. That is one hundred percent why we are doing the AM@WH, because we want to compliment everything else that’s going on in the art world here in Nashville even though we aren’t a gallery per se.”
Although the exhibitions at Fort Houston haven’t lent themselves to artist talks thus far, further engagement and discussion remain a possibility for future projects. When I ask if anything like an artist residency is in the works, Ryan is enthusiastic. “Hopefully we are fostering the kind of environment that would attract and support an artist residency. Ideally we will want to have three times the amount of space we have even now, and there would be space for someone like that to work in.” As Fort Houston continues to grow in the coming year, manifesting as a contractor for build-out projects and dipping into the web of businesses and craftspeople it connects, the opportunity for artist involvement is vast. Potentially, Fort Houston has a lot more to offer artists than simple exhibition or production facilities. Whatever lies in store for Fort Houston, it currently remains a place of many facets and multiple entry points.