How the Washington Avenue Arts District may become a national destination for artists

Apr. 26, 2015Heights Leader

Artists like Geoff Wilder say belonging to a creative community is everything – that’s why the woodworking artist is excited to be among the 200 or so artists within the Washington Avenue Arts District.

“Everyone wants everyone else to do really well,” Wilder said. “The better your neighbor is doing, the better it is for you. You don’t get that everywhere and Houston really is becoming that place, especially this area.”

Wilder, born and raised in Houston, joked that he went on vacation in Colorado in 1997 and discovered his “home sweet home” for the next 18 years or so. During his time there, Wilder built large, multi-million dollar homes and would often save extra building materials and exotic hardwoods to create art pieces. He said he previously had gotten a degree in art, and he returned to the area to pursue his passion.

After returning to Houston just months ago and surveying the scene, Wilder said he anticipates great things in store for artists at the surrounding Winter Street, Spring Street and Silver Street studios near Washington Avenue and Sawyer Street.

“I’ve seen and talked with people who speak about the building development that’s going on around us, and the greenspace, walking paths, bicycle paths – it’s so inviting and it’s all surrounded by art,” Wilder said. “I really feel lucky that I’m here.”

Cliff Gillock and Suzie Gillock had similar thoughts. Cliff spends his time at Winter Street Studios painting and Suzie creates shell art.

“This place has completely taken off,” Cliff Gillock said. “It’s been spectacular seeing how this area has changed and just how many artists have really taken to calling this area home.”

The studios occupy several former warehouses in an area which was previously heavily industrial as little as ten years ago. John Deal, whose own Deal Company, owns the Spring Street, Winter Street and Silver Street Studios complex, will be adding nearly 80,000 square feet more space with the Silos on Sawyer inside of the former Riviana Silos. His company has owned Winter Street Studios since 2004, Spring Street Studios since 2010 and has owned Silver Street Studios as part of a joint venture since 2013.

The area has changed dramatically since he first bought Winter Street Studios.

“When we bought Winter Street Studios there wasn’t a single townhome in the district,” Deal said. “There were lots you could buy for $20,000 in the area and now they’re up to $250,000.”

Meeting the Demand

Deal said many artists are attracted not only to the leasing options and the product he offers to his tenants but also the communities that have developed both inside and outside of the studios. Each studio offers a variety of different studio sizes, spanning several hundred square feet to several thousand, and can meet the demands of artists of all types.

“We have over 200 artists within three buildings and, once we add the Silos, it will be over 300 artists,” Deal said. “It’s kind of hard to match a community anywhere like that in the US. It certainly has something to do with our location here in Houston, but now we’re seeing the demand and desire is to be part of what we have built.”

The growth in the interest and the number of artists has been instrumental in the formation of the Washington Arts District, officially recognized by the State of Texas last summer. The district now joins the 30 or so cultural districts throughout the state, including Houston’ own iconic Theater and Museum Districts among others.

Director Susannah Mitchell said, with 300 artists working in half a square mile within the district, it may have the highest concentration of working artists in the entire state.

“In addition to that particular neighborhood having a rich history of being home to working artists, today you will find all sorts of independent creative studios with everything from painting, to glass sculpting, to wood working,” Mitchell said.

The group’s most recent event, April 18th’s Spring Biannual, invited residents from across Houston to an open house exhibition across all three studios. Leader-area residents could also lend their hands, and their paint brushes, as the group helped paint bollards lining the bike trail from Sawyer Street to Holly Street.

“We’re working together to brand the area as a destination for people both inside and outside of the city,” Mitchell said. “Our goal is to highlight this area’s cultural offerings and paint that picture of what Houston is for fellow Houstonians and visitors.”

That picture has been embraced by fellow artists at the studios almost entirely through word of mouth, Deal said. In fact, the first 18 studios at the Silos were leased within 18 days of being put out on the market.

“We haven’t hung a lease or ‘coming soon’ sign at any of our properties,” Deal said. “We did so at our Silos location as we really needed to show people the vision we had for the exterior of the building.”

Deal regards these studios as more of a “creative campus,” and there is acreage in the surrounding area offering room to grow in the future. Some artists are even patiently waiting for spots to open up via waiting list, much like Wilder did before securing his place back in town.

“The district has been moving at a pretty good pace, and it’s not just a special place for local residents – ultimately this may become a tourist destination,” Deal said. “It’s certainly headed in that direction.”