Thinking outside the ‘white cube’

Dayton’s Blue House redefines creative spaces

By Susan Byrnes

Photo: The Blue House on Catalpa Drive is a gallery and studio space for local and visiting artists; photo: Nicholaus Arnold

The Blue House is exactly that: a nice, conventional house on Catalpa Drive with a welcoming front porch and bright red door. Though you might not suspect it, the Blue House is also this: one of the most unconventional experimental art venues in Dayton.

Located in an old northwest neighborhood, the Blue House is a contemporary art gallery, studio space and artist residency run by artists Ashley Jonas and Nicholaus Arnold. Since the space opened in summer 2014, they’ve held 12 shows including artists from all over the U.S. and hosted one artist in residence. The building also serves as a residence and studio facility for Jonas, Arnold and visiting artists.

With programming still in the developmental stage, the exhibitions are in full swing. The curatorial objective is to find relationships between local artists and emerging artists from outside the community and get a conversation going, or to find work that is totally different, something people haven’t seen before. Sometimes, the gallery functions as “project space” where artists are invited to create something specifically for that space, so they have an opportunity to take creative risks with new work. Shows have included Cerreality by Connecticut artist John O’Donnell, featuring sculptures created with brightly colored cereal; Pomp and Plastic Things by Georgia artist Justin Hodges that included a green chromogenic living room; Reasonably Nice Things, installations based on the notion of home by Dayton artist Charmaine Renee; group shows like Self As Subject and Trompe L’Oeil: Paintings in Other Media featuring national artists; and Future Thinking, a collaboration between UD and Wright State art students.

Jonas and Arnold have crafted a strong mission statement for the Blue House that includes a real focus on the audience. Their goals are to create a place where people can comfortably converge and exchange or interpret ideas; bring in artists from across the country to collaborate and contribute to regional culture; and challenge ideas and advance notions of art.

Jonas says, “The thing that’s really great about the Blue House is that it is not a ‘white cube.’ It could never be taken as pretentious because of the fact that people live here; it’s a house. People feel really comfortable coming in here either knowing what they’re looking at, or not knowing what they’re looking at. We’re able to have conversations with people that are educated in the arts and people that have no idea about any of it, and both of those conversations are equally as thrilling and equally as important.”

Their audience includes everyone from college students inspired to see art in a setting different from typical galleries, to area artists and art faculty, and people who grew up in the neighborhood coming back to visit their families, just checking out what’s new.  Making an impact is an important aspect of the gallery. To provide the community with an exchange of exposure, the Blue House brings artists to Dayton who wouldn’t ordinarily come here, and arranges for them to speak at area colleges. Arnold and Jonas also involve students in shows in an effort to get ideas cross-pollinating. Jonas said, “If you want your community to be thriving in culture, you have to do a lot of work. You have to educate people as far as what an art experience can be—a plein-air painting, a photograph, a really insane installation, we have to really open up the possibilities of what things can happen.”

Diana Cordero, the owner of the Blue House, made an investment in those possibilities. A neighborhood resident, she didn’t want to see the foreclosed home deteriorate, so she bought it in 2013 through HUD with the idea to create an art gallery.

“As soon as I looked through the front windows,” she remembers, “I knew that the main entry room was perfect for an art gallery/exhibition space. It already had some accent lighting and nice cathedral ceilings; it just needed a clean white wall. However, it was really the rest of the house that shaped the project as a whole. With 3,000 square feet, it was easy to picture multiple studio spaces on both floors and in the basement.”

Longtime friend Arnold, a Dayton native, and spouse Jonas, had returned to Dayton with recently minted MFA degrees, and were open to the idea of helping Cordero renovate the property while practicing their art. Originally planning only a brief stopover in the city, the couple became more involved with the Blue House and began to see longer-term opportunities. Jonas and Arnold wear multiple hats in order to run the gallery and make their art, working as adjunct faculty at several colleges to pay the bills. Both take it in stride as necessary to live a life in the arts. “That’s the career path of being an artist nowadays,” Arnold said, “Spreading yourself in every direction possible.” He adds, “Doing things in a charted path is never the right answer, at least when it comes to art. I never saw it as going to be easy for me. I decided, ‘Why don’t I just start my own shows?’ so I got with a group of friends and we came up with larger conceptual ideas, did pop-up spaces and activated space kinds of projects. That was my method.”

As for Jonas, “It’s about how my life can align with my practice, and where I want to be and what things are priorities,” she says. “I can grow a vegetable garden and work in the studio because it’s pretty affordable here. It’s been easier to make connections here and to talk to people that are part of the cultural community. It’s great—we’ve gotten a lot of support from community members.”

“But,” she adds, “I still want more people to come out for shows.”

The Blue House is located at 3325 Catalpa Drive in Dayton. The show Plight of Abundance by Emily Sullivan Smith opens on Saturday, July 11 6-9 p.m. For more information on exhibitions, directions and gallery hours please visit thebluehousearts.com or find The Blue House on Facebook.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Susan Byrnes at SusanByrnes@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Susan Byrnes
Reach DCP freelance writer Susan Byrnes at SusanByrnes@DaytonCityPaper.com

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