On the west side of Wappoo Road in West Ashley sits a little structure among a cluster of commercial buildings. It’s an odd duck: Fabulon, a Center for Art and Education.
Part gallery, part schoolhouse, part meeting place, Fabulon is run by artist-educator Susan Irish, who opened it three years ago.
“As a practicing artist, I was looking for a place where I could work, teach and celebrate art,” she said.
A transplant from the Northeast in 2009, Irish has become a staunch West Ashley advocate. That part of the city had little in the way of art galleries and studios when she arrived, and Irish had this idea bubbling in her brain.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind to have a place where people could meet.” To make art. To talk about art. To teach art. And to conspire to enrich the community.
The space she occupies now once was a grocery store, a martial arts school, a sewing store and a bread shop. It became available to Irish in 2015 when a previous lease arrangement fell through. She grabbed it, dressed it up and flung open the doors to artists and art lovers. But now she has until the end of February to vacate the building and make way for a commercial enterprise.
The unexpected news is throwing Fabulon for a loop. Irish will forge ahead with the scheduled exhibit called “Not Your Typical Love Story,” now in its third year. She will host a book talk by Lisa Lindahl on Feb. 22. And she will host classes and private lessons and help administer the “I Love West Ashley” photo competition from the space — until she can’t any more.
Irish and her many supporters are keeping their eyes peeled for a new space, but it’s difficult to find something appropriate and affordable, she said. Many property owners are sitting on their assets, waiting as property values rise. Speculators are scooping up buildings left and right, many of them fixer-uppers.
So Irish is worried, but hopeful. Good thing she curates art shows at a space at Avondale Therapy and at Northpoint Bank in Park Circle. At least Fabulon’s resident and guest artists will continue to be able to show their work after the little building on Wappoo Road closes for good.
For the moment, Irish is focusing on the exhibit, on view through February.
The point of the show is to offer an alternative presentation of love on and around Valentine’s Day, not a Hallmark version, but something thoughtful and personal and inclusive, Irish explained.
“I felt like there is so much hateful language in the news,” she said. “We need more love for each another. When someone says ‘I’m hurting,’ drop all your swords and just feel for that person.”
Like Puerto Ricans still without electricity. Like immigrants who aren’t feeling the love from the U.S. government. Like parents and children who struggle to understand one another. Like lovers whose private feelings offend strangers.
Sometimes, the show includes an interactive element. The first year, people wrote a few words about their most and least romantic experiences on a large canvas.
“People poured their hearts out,” Irish recalled.
Last year, there was a big Styrofoam cactus into which visitors inserted wooden coffee stirrers on which they wrote their romantic complaints.
“It was so cathartic for people,” Irish said.
This year, guests will be invited to write a 13-word love story or poem addressed not to an individual but to the world, the government, the universe, the community. Here’s what Irish wrote: “Colin taking a knee screams disrespect / while cries of homeless vets go unanswered.”
Printmaker Lisa Lindahl will have two pieces in “Not Your Typical Love Story.” She said the unpretentious gallery often keeps visitors longer than they intended. And there’s rarely just one thing going on. While patrons view art on the walls, children are busy with afterschool activities and musicians might be performing during an exhibit reception.
Lindahl attributed the success of Fabulon to Irish’s approach.
“I think it’s her background as an educator and an artist herself,” Lindahl said. “She knows how to engage people. I’m really a big fan. I really hope she finds a space that has a reasonable rent and is large enough so she can keep doing (what she does). She can’t disappear. It would be such a disservice to the community, to Charleston.”
Dale Aren, a West Ashley advocate and activist, met Irish at community meetings concerning the revitalization of the area and found a kindred spirit.
“I do photography and showed Susan some of my abstract photography work, and she encouraged me to enter one of (Fabulon’s) shows,” Aren said. “That’s how I got started.” After participating in a couple more exhibits, Irish asked Aren to become one of the gallery’s several resident artists.
She said she has organized or attended several community meetings in the space, as well as planning sessions for art projects. Currently Aren and Irish are helping to organize the I Love West Ashley Photo Competition, funded by a modest grant from city of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
Now she is wondering what comes next.
“(Irish) has tremendous support from the community,” Aren said. “Everybody’s got eyes and ears peeled for space that would work for Fabulon."
In some ways, the challenge faced by Fabulon signifies a larger question for all of West Ashley, Aren said. What do residents want? What are their priorities? How important are quirky, community-based arts organizations? Do they take a backseat to car dealerships and speculative real estate investment?
“It’s a dilemma,” Aren said.