GREENVILLE - An artist who found herself priced out of this downtown's prospering real estate market ended up moving a few miles west and creating a similar Renaissance there.

It started 12 years ago with a big gamble by Diane Kilgore Condon, who found a way to buy a large, vacant building built about a century ago as a general store for those who worked at Brandon Mill and lived in its village.

Today, the building is a large studio and gallery known as ArtBomb, which not only attracts hundreds to its special events, but also has served to spur dozens of new galleries, artist studios and restaurants just down Pendleton Street.

No one seems more surprised by the transformation than the woman who did so much at first to set it in motion.

"On paper, it shouldn't work," Condon says of ArtBomb. "There's divine providence. God has to be in it somewhere - in a big way."

A year of miracles

More than a dozen years ago, Condon and a few other artists learned their rents would rise on their downtown studio space, and she set out to find them a new home.

The cavernous store at 1320 Pendleton St. was in rough condition, but it had an undeniable appeal: its owner was willing to sell it for only $75,000.

Also, it was located just outside the city limits, making it easier to get the permits to renovate it on a shoestring budget. She got a dozen of her fellow artists to sign a paper committing to rent studio space there, and she got a bank to loan her the money.

She then formed a nonprofit and was able to arrange an $85,000 loan from the Appalachian Development Corporation to buy and refurbish the building.

"I made a business plan up completely by the seat of my pants," she said, and ArtBomb opened about a year later after long hours of volunteer labor and Condon's skill of finding ways to get by -like the time she had only $50 left and needed to prime the interior. She was able to buy four five-gallon buckets of primer from the local Habitat for Humanity store.

Or when she salvaged doors, windows and other material from an old Mexican restaurant that was being converted into a German bakery.

"It was a year of absolute miracles," she said. One of those miracles occurred on opening night, when the artists unlocked the door without knowing what to expect.

"It was packed," she said, including visitors from the city's upscale neighborhoods, its local art museum and other unexpected guests.

'It pushes you'

Since ArtBomb first opened, the space has continued to prosper, attracting new artists as others leave. "We are a family," Condon says, "and the family constantly changes."

Currently, the building houses painters, sculptors, metal workers and those who work with silk-screens, digitized photos, paper, wax and other materials. For Condon and others, it's the camaraderie and the adventures that mean the most.

"We've rescued 37 dogs in this neighborhood and found homes for them," Condon said. "We bought a dog for $1.75 off a crackhead."

She then told the story about a collection of bowling balls that once belonged to pop star Natalie Merchant's mother and that now form a piece of garden sculpture out back. "There are many stories like them," she said.

Cathy Zaden Lea began leasing a studio in ArtBomb two years ago, not just because her husband was asking her how much longer her paints would be cluttering up their kitchen at home.

She said she likes interacting with other artists who encourage her to experiment. "When I come into the building, time stops. I think that's key to painting," she said. "That's what I love about this place. It is overwhelming, but it pushes you to be better than you thought you could be."

Outside the building, a walk down Pendleton Street found 10 galleries in other village storefronts, along with a pasta restaurant and a "cruelty free, toxic free, mostly vegan" make-up and skin therapy salon.

Clemson University's Center for Visual Arts recently opened its own gallery down the street, and the Greenville Journal also plans to move its offices here.

Blues musician Mac Arnold recently decided this would make a great spot for a new restaurant, which he opened earlier this year.

"Since I play music and I'm also in love with art, physical art, I decided this would be a good spot," he said. "It's going to be mega because this is the next up and coming development area of Greenville."

Catching up fast

Unlike Greenville's downtown's revitalization - which was spurred by decades of city investment in rebuilding sidewalks, parking garages and new parks - the West Greenville Renaissance has been led solely by the private sector.

Greenville Mayor Knox White said it's the only example he can think of locally where that's the case, "but that's great, and that's because of a couple of key people with a real passion for this area."

White likened West Greenville today to Charlotte's NoDa (North of Davidson) historic arts and entertainment district.

"They (Charlotte) are ahead of us on the curve," he said, "but we're catching up fast."

White said the city is looking to do some sidewalk and street work along Pendleton to make it even more appealing. "I think the challenge is going to be maintaining low enough rents to maintain a true art community," he added.

At ArtBomb, that is expected to less of an issue. It has remained true to its nonprofit roots, though the nonprofit does not receive any outside support, only the modest monthly rents from the artists themselves -and the occasional $600 payment when someone holds a wedding in the garden out back.

Condon said keeping ArtBomb's monthly rent affordable - it's currently about $150 for a studio space - is important "because it keeps the art what they (the artists) are after - not what they have to be after."

"We're not in it to flip the building and buy a big house at the beach," she added. "This is a very redemptive place. It feeds you - and it's not just the artwork. It is a most rich life, and I never saw it coming.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.