Arts & Entertainment

Culture Watch: Drop by the Workspace

In a move that can influence local tastes, several artists are now opening their studios to the public and showing the works of fellow artists there as well.

BY December 3, 2014


It’s a Saturday night and a central Fort Myers strip mall is dark except for a single storefront. Inside, the shop is teeming with people laughing, mingling—and talking about art.

By night’s end, some 200 people would filter through Howl Gallery/Tattoo, and Andy Howl would go home knowing he had again done what he’d set out to do when he and his wife, Alainna Zwiernik, opened the business five years ago—expose people to new art and artists to new audiences.

Howl is among several Southwest Florida artists who have flung open their workspaces to the public, creating places that serve as hybrid studios-businesses-exhibition spaces, driving business for artists and influencing Southwest Florida’s artistic tastes.

“Apathy is the No. 1 enemy of small businesses,” Howl says. He organizes monthly art shows and plans to invite more local bands in for gigs; a newly acquired liquor license lends the feeling of a hip, urban bar.

Howl’s space is one of several opened in the past few years that are creating cultural hubs—blending creative, social and entrepreneurial—together under one roof.


Veron Ennis moved into the Alliance for the Arts campus in Fort Myers last March, taking a unit adjacent to the Union Artist Studios where artists David Acevedo, Xavier Brignoni, Paul Rodino, Cindy Jane, Reina Lombardi, Jason McDonald and Nick Orlando create their art, teach and find ways to drive public participation.

Her space includes her studio, where on a September afternoon she’s painting a piece for a fundraiser, and a small exhibition space, where she displays
 her work or the work of other artists whom she admires. She promotes other people’s work and swaps trade secrets with those who seek her out.

“I’m a firm believer in ‘all of us rise together,’” she says. “If someone had told me certain things 10 years ago, I would be further in my career.”

She calls the space VEMA, for Veron Ennis Modern Art, and she likes visitors. People will stop by on their lunch breaks. On Saturdays, she opens her doors while the Green Market takes place on the Alliance grounds, welcoming attendees who want to learn a little bit about what she does.

“Someone described my space as a live Facebook wall,” Ennis says. People drop by and “post” their news to her.

Together with the Union Artist Studios, Ennis hosts bi-monthly “Art Talks” where artists and art lovers can gather to discuss art, ask questions, help each other solve artistic challenges. At one such gathering a few months ago, photographer Dennis Church brought his work to share with the crowd.

“It was an impromptu portfolio review,” Ennis says.

She hopes these efforts will topple walls between artist and patron and ease the intimidation some feel around contemporary art.

“We are able to give them a warm feeling about fine art,” she says. “It’s a little bit more cozy here.”

Arturo Samaniego waited years before going into art full time, but when he made the leap from the computer industry, he found ways
 to bring art lovers and fellow artists along on his journey. Samaniego has been in Naples for a decade now, and is settled into his third studio, on J & C Boulevard. His two-story unit includes his workspace, a classroom where he teaches painting classes, and an exhibition area for his work and that of other artists.

And that exhibition space is where Samaniego pushes Naples’ still-conservative art scene to open up. You won’t see “vacation art” on his walls.

“Art is not about decoration. It is something a lot deeper,” Samaniego says. His own work can be rather haunting—raw emotion emanating from his portraits, inviting viewers to interpret the expressions, the colors, the areas where the artist shifts from realism to abstract.

He’ll organize three to four shows this season, exposing Naples to the kind of artists rarely shown in the area’s art galleries. Sometimes he’ll combine elements, bringing in musicians or culinary artists to complement the visual art—and to share their own work.

He is glad to offer such a contribution to an evolving art scene. Samaneigo is happy to see shifts such as the developing Design District along 10th Street South and new programming at places like The Baker Museum at Artis—Naples, where contemporary artists are gaining new exposure.

“I only wish it were faster,” he says of the shift. But the work he does at Samaniego Art Gallery will no doubt push the evolution along.


Back at Howl, artist Todd Carignan is surrounded by a small group of locals who came to enjoy his exhibit, which ranged from impressionist-style street scenes of his mother-in-law’s native Vietnam to pop art portraits of famed rock stars to abstracts. “This is the furthest I’ve ever gone for a major exhibition like this,” he says. He’s a college friend of Howl’s (the two attended the Savannah College of Art and Design) and paints and teaches in the Wilmington, North Carolina, area. “I’m trying to slowly move out of that region, and this is the first step.”

Among the guests is Martin Miron of Naples, who seeks out opportunities to see contemporary art and enjoy the company that it attracts. Southwest Florida, he says, is gradually shifting in its artistic tastes—thanks to the efforts of artists like Howl.

“We read about centers (like this) in other cities, and I think this one here has a lot of potential,” Miron says. “I think it’s a great thing for the community at large.”

Howl says he is trying to “bridge the gap” between underground and commercial art and high art. The art he shows is unlikely to be exhibited elsewhere; this season, for example, he’ll display the work of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta.

In addition to opening his shop, Howl was a driving force behind downtown Fort Myers’ ArtWalk and MusicWalk, monthly events that promote the arts.

“I don’t think we changed the world, but we are trying to bring more of a contemporary, urban feel here,” Howl says.


Related Images: