Once upon a time, Marina Williams had a dream. Picture an art gallery with the informal energy of a late-night warehouse art party — experimental, unapologetically lowbrow, and (above all else) fun.
In 2008, Williams gave fledgling form to her dream, creating a storefront called ARTpool on First Avenue North in downtown St. Pete. Inside the 1,200-square-foot space, she hung art and practiced photography; outside, she threw themed parties in an adjacent parking lot, featuring models covered from head to toe in body paint or fashions made from trash.
Four years later, like downtown’s artistic community as a whole, ARTpool has grown in dog years. Today, the art gallery and vintage boutique occupies a 7,500-square-foot industrial building — formerly an auto repair shop — in the Grand Central district that Williams purchased last fall. More than 35 artists sell their wares through the gallery, which charges a rental fee for space but doesn’t take a commission. Hipsters flock to its racks of vintage threads. And yes, there are art parties.
On Saturday, ARTpool celebrates its fourth anniversary with its biggest party yet. The four-hour shindig includes a pair of fashion shows (one featuring vintage-inspired swimwear by Natalie Lachall, the other a showcase of steampunk apocalyptic apparel by Nicole Shannon Blowers), a body art show, video art by David Meek, live painting by Bill Woo (king of St. Pete fish painters), an immersive installation by sculptor Karen Tremmel, a visit from Mitzi Gordon’s Bluebird Book Bus, and music by The New Math.
Phew. Oh yeah, and there will be cake.
(And free beer. And noshes by The Burg Bar and Grill, which hosts an afterparty until 3 a.m.)
The party’s all-encompassing spirit — characteristic of all ARTpool events — has transformed the space into one of St. Pete’s most distinctive art venues and an important launching pad for emerging artists. Its detractors, Williams says, complain about ticket prices to ARTpool parties (typically $15 or $20) or turn up their noses at the way the space mixes high and lowbrow culture — but that’s fine by her.
“I never want to have a space that is snooty and unapproachable for either patrons or young artists,” Williams says.
When the St. Pete native and New College graduate returned from earning an MFA at the University of East London, she pined for London’s warehouse art parties, where the “nitty-gritty” of art and fashion was on view, Williams says. Finding a lack of grassroots art spaces in downtown St. Pete in 2008 — before the 2010 revival of Central Avenue’s 600 Block — she opened ARTpool with about $800 and countless hours of sweat equity.
The experience launched the 23-year-old (she’s now 27) into the deep end of entrepreneurship. Williams worked quickly to establish the sources of revenue that still drive ARTpool — ticket sales to parties and rental fees from artists who pay for wall or shelf space to showcase their work. Then her mom, Becky — who has worked with Williams since the store opened — suggested that Marina set up a rack of the vintage clothing that she loves to wear and offer it for sale.
The resulting ARTpool trinity — vintage, gallery, art parties — kept the space in business, then fueled its growth.
“Being a hybrid is the key to having multiple successes and keeping your head above water,” Williams says.
In turn, ARTpool provides one of the few spaces in town where newly minted artists will find little to no barrier to entry, other than a $35-$150 space rental fee, which includes a page on ARTpool’s website. Recent Eckerd College grad Karen Tremmel is a good example (though her installation was curated into the anniversary party by Williams and is not an instance of rented space). The sculptor’s “Table for Three” consists of a trio of human-sized, anthropomorphized animals of species we recognize today as endangered: a white lioness and a lady gorilla in ball gowns, an elephant in a tuxedo. In Tremmel’s role-reversing scenario, the animals take high tea in a Victorian parlor decorated with taxidermy baby heads. Wacky and delightfully well-crafted, the installation is exactly the kind of thing ARTpool strives to support — art that’s courageous, quirky and wouldn’t quite fit in anywhere else in town.
Though ARTpool promotes many artists, its backbone is Williams’s own creative output. She crafts much of the jewelry on display (except the pure vintage stuff), using cast resin pendants and recycled materials to create necklaces and earrings. Many of the garments and accessories for sale bear some touch of hers, like the addition of peacock feathers to a black velvet hat. And Williams, who studied photography (and whose work has appeared in Creative Loafing), is often responsible for the images and graphic design that shape ARTpool’s publicity materials and its party catalogs.
Four years in, her labor of love is going just as strong as the day she dreamt it.
“If anything, I love it more,” Williams says.
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