Just a few hundred feet from the Congaree River, in the brand-new Stormwater Studios art space, Columbia Development Corporation director Fred Delk is engrossed in a piece of art hanging on the gallery’s west wall — Charles Clary’s Be Kind Rewind, a piece made from multiple found VHS boxes ornately decorated with hand-cut paper.
“Look at this up close,” Delk says, hinging at the hips to crane himself closer to the piece. “This guy, I don’t know how he did it. This won a $25,000 prize. Everything in here did.”
The ArtFields exhibition features winning works from the Lake City art competition’s first five years; it’s the first time many of these pieces have been moved from the Lake City site, let alone been exhibited outside of it. It’s a notable exhibition, and one Delk specifically requested for the first exhibition at Stormwater Studios, which opened last week.
“We thought it was a good idea,” says Wim Roefs, ArtFields’s executive director. “I think [Stormwater is] a fantastic new venue for Columbia. It’s just gorgeous, and it’s in a beautiful setting. It’s too bad that Vista Studios had to go, but this is surely a very good replacement.”
Indeed, as much as the show serves as a promotional vehicle for April’s ArtFields festival, it’s also an example of the caliber of work expected to come from the new Stormwater Studios space. Nestled on a small outcropping of Pendleton Street along Kinsler Creek in the developing Huger Street corridor between Gervais and Blossom on the western border of the Vista, Stormwater is the new home to the displaced artists of what used to be Vista Studios, which for nearly three decades made its home at 808 Lady St. in the Vista.
The 10 artists working in Vista Studios — Eileen Blyth, Stephen Chesley, Heidi Darr-Hope, Pat Gilmartin, Robert Kennedy, Sharon Licata, Michel McNinch, Kirkland Smith, Laura Spong and David Yaghjian — moved into Stormwater a few weeks ago; they rent their studios directly from the Columbia Development Corporation.
The CDC’s owned the 1.5-acre parcel since 1984, and the intention had always been to use the lot for the arts in some way. Plans for the million-dollar studio had been in development limbo for 13 years, but when it became clear a few years back that Vista Studios, which the CDC helped create, might have to leave Lady Street, Delk kicked the project into high gear; keeping art at the heart of the Vista, if not necessarily in the heart of the Vista, he says, was the guiding force behind Stormwater Studios.
“We had this chance of taking this real institution, this 25-year institution, just breaking apart,” Delk says. “And that wouldn’t make any sense. You can’t allow something that good to go away.”
Vista Studios, which opened in 1990, was a catalyst for the growth of the Vista from a decaying warehouse district to a lively entertainment hub flush with restaurants, bars, shops and hotels. But supply feeds demand, and the success of the area has come with rising property costs. Artists have been pushed out of the Vista for years; City Art and his own if ART Gallery are really the only spaces left in the neighborhood’s core, Roefs says.
“It’s a loss for the core of the Vista that Vista Studios won’t be there,” Roefs says. “Because the core of the Vista becomes less art-oriented.”
For more than 25 years, Vista Studios rented its space at 808 Lady St. from the architectural firm Molten Lamar, which owns the building, but in recent years the artists faced increases in studio rent, a cut in lease terms (from yearly to month-to-month) and a reduction in the gallery space, taken for use by neighboring businesses. When the lease ran out and the space came up for repurposing, the studio wouldn’t be able to pay the going commercial real estate rate.
“Prices get too high, and artists can’t afford to be there any more,” Delk says. “It happens over and over. People can’t afford to be there any more, and these groups, these really key groups, split up, and they’ll go and it’ll start over. But that makes for hard years for those people.”
Vista Studios isn’t the first of the Vista’s longtime denizens to move from the district’s core to its fringe. Clark Ellefson, one of the first artists to settle in the Vista more than 30 years ago, was one of the first to uproot to the Huger Street corridor; he moved Lewis + Clark, his handmade-lighting studio, there in 2013 after finding the property more than a decade ago. He’s one of Stormwater’s neighbors; he even designed the studio’s kitchen space. And Ellefson, Delk says, purchased the land that houses Lewis + Clark and One-Eared Cow Glass because the CDC owned the adjacent lot and would one day put it to good use.
“We’ve got a little artists’ rush here now,” Delk says.
There’s enough critical mass down on Pendleton Street now, Roefs says, that it’s become its own destination, and he expects Stormwater to form the core of a new artistic pocket community. The gallery space, he reasons, is big enough that it could maybe even hold some concerts, like he does at if ART.
“Fred Delk had some real foresight,” Roefs says. “He’s always had in mind that this would be a sort of arts village, if you like. With Stormwater now, it’s really starting to take shape.”
Plans are to build two more structures on the site: industrial studios — big spaces with high ceilings for welders and sculptors — in the 500 feet or so north between Stormwater and Williams Street; and a larger two-story building with a corner gallery, loft spaces and artist studios flush with Pendleton.
When it’s not showing works made by its in-house artists, Stormwater will be available for rent to other artists as a high-quality location for local, regional or national art shows — shows like the ArtFields show. Plans are for Stormwater to present up to 25 exhibitions a year, but it’s also meant to be more than just an art space: The complex is designed to draw in the public, with an interactive outdoor space and room for events and parties, a sculpture garden and a short trail along Kinsler Creek, which feeds into the Congaree River. If the unused property along Williams Street and the old train tracks behind Stormwater gets developed, Delk says, there’s even potential to tie the trail into the larger Congaree greenways.
“Huger Street is going to really develop over the next 20 years,” Delk says. “The Corporation, we own the property, yes, but our interest in doing this is to preserve the arts in the community, to bring activity closer to the river. This will absolutely have that catalyst effect for other development along Huger Street and toward the river.”
The new space has invigorated the artists, too.
“The building’s a work of art,” McNinch says. “It’s given us a new excitement. Now that we’ve come here, and it’s so beautiful, we’re all ready to turn a new leaf and create great work.”
“We’re just the beginning,” she adds. “We’re just the first artists who will be here. For many, many, many years to come, different artists will come in and out of here. This time, we won’t have to move out.”
Indeed, Delk’s promising the artists a bulwark against future displacement.
“This is permanent,” Delk says, his voice reverberating in the studio’s lobby. “We’re not going to discontinue their leases. The point is to keep this as a permanent thing and build, for lack of a better term, an art village next to the river that is permanent, that will always keep quality high and that will always be open to the community to come in and look.”
He nods, and turns his head to look out toward the river.
“I think it’s going to work.”
What: ArtFields Winners 2013-2017
Where: Stormwater Studios, 413 Pendleton St.
When: Through March 31
More: 803-252-6134, facebook.com/StormwaterStudios