Jane Chapman (right) credits her close friend and fellow artist Nancy Smitherman (left) with having the idea to establish the art co-op in the empty warehouse. The pair, as well as other members of Studio 9170, frequently collaborate on both ideas and pieces. Photos by Joey Bordelon.

Studio 9170 artists create a space for exploration and spirituality

The building that houses Studio 9170 is devoid of flying buttresses, stained-glass windows and altars. Unlike the grand Gothic structures that are well known as homes of the sacred, this unassuming cream warehouse is easy to miss, as it is situated between several industrial businesses like an automotive repair shop and a diesel fuel station on South Choctaw Drive. However, what the structure lacks in architecture, it makes up for in art.

“Art brings people together,” explains Jane Chapman, one of Studio 9170’s founders and the owner of the large building, as she walks through the kitchen the co-op shares with the neighboring Temple of Deliverance Apostolic Ministries. “People who do art are drawn together. It’s people loving people and people wanting to share that love with others through their work.”

From retired art teachers to professional artists to grandmothers and even a past Exxon executive, the 13 artists who set up shop in the 14-by-14-foot spaces within Studio 9170 come from all backgrounds. However, what they have in common speaks to a shared passion and a shared devotion to something deeper.

“Art is so personal,” says Chapman. “You get in the zone and you create what you feel. It’s a way to express yourself.”

Gail Lloyd, Keith Morris, Monica Wood, Jane Chapman, Suzanne Cambre, Mark Boudreaux, Kay Wallace & Dana Mosby (back row); Nancy Smitherman, Betty Efferson, Tonni McCollister & Debbie Shirley (front row).

In the studio’s front display gallery, the white walls are almost completely hidden behind dozens of vibrant paintings and pottery pieces depicting everything from landscapes to Bible verses to abstract inspirations. And while each style is different, Chapman says all the works have something in common.

“They’re spiritual,” notes Chapman.

The time spent perfecting the reflection of a tree on water or the colors of a school of fish demonstrates an admiration for and keen attention to the details that make everyday life special.

“I want people to see my work and, in turn, see the beauty of the world around them,” says Studio 9170 manager Monica Wood, who pairs pottery with canvas painting. “I want the things I create to be a reflection of the beauty of the great Creator.”

Keith Morris is an artist of all trades. “I’ll paint anything you want me to,” he says. However, between wedding portraits and other commissions, the artist channels the inspiration he gathered while living abroad in Russia, where he started painting religious icons.

Past the gallery, the artists’ individual spaces are closed off by canvas curtains fastened into place using a system of PVC pipes hung from the ceiling and fashioned specifically for the building by one of the artists’ husbands. Originally a solution to an air flow problem, the makeshift dividers have taken on a major role in the studio’s development.

“I bought this building to run my wholesale gift business, Plain Jane, out of,” explains Chapman, who started the brand of slate plaques with Bible verses and quotes to put her daughter Jill through private school. “After 25 years, I sold the business to a company in Oregon and then the building was empty, other than the walled-off spaces that were leased. I invited my friends to come here, and this ended up being the perfect space for us to create together.”

Starting with nine artists—Nancy Smitherman, Jane Flowers, Lynn Washauer, Betty Lee, Betty Efferson, Monica Wood, Betsy Miller, Donna Kleinpeter and Chapman—in 2012, the group would come together in the large warehouse and paint at the extra tables that had been retired from their days holding slate. The open concept allowed nearly constant communication between the artists while they worked on different projects. Chapman says that it is this flow of conversation, which now happens between thin, perforated hardwood walls and includes nine new artists—Tonni McCollister, Debbie Shirley, Gail Lloyd, Dana Mosby, Joe Wood, Kay Wallace, Keith Morris, Mark Boudreaux and Suzanne Cambre—that continues to set the studio apart. Rather than just offering an office, the co-op has become a deeply connected community that brings artists together to lift each other up and draw each other out of the dangerous ruts caused by comfort zones.

Studio manager Monica Wood and her husband Joe share a space where they create pottery together.

“There’s an art student in everyone,” says Chapman. “Art requires a lot of studying and a lot of hard work. The people here are all interested in learning, and that makes a difference.”

And the difference can be seen in how much each artist’s style expands and explores new facets of artistic expression. It works well for this group, but Studio 9170 isn’t open to anyone. The current artists fill each of the available spaces, and they were each chosen through an extensive interview process.

“When Tonni first brought me here, I had no idea I would have to interview to get in,” explains Boudreaux with a laugh. “I fell in love with what was going on here, and luckily there was an open space.”

While each artist holds a key, the building is only open to the public twice a year for art shows in the front gallery, with the next show happening on April 13 and 14. The shows allow the artists to display the pieces they are most proud of in a safe environment. However, the work of the 13 artists can also be seen in homes and galleries across the city, as well as some pieces in museums nationwide.

“My paintings are alive,” says Betty Efferson, who is known to dance while she paints. “Like a sunflower, which moves until it dies, my paintings are moving all the time.”

But for Chapman, art isn’t about acclaim. Rather, she says that artistic expression plays an essential role in both the lives of the creator and the viewer, acting as a link to one another and the similarities that bond humankind together.

“My husband took me to the gallery of one of my favorite artists, Luc Leestemaker,” recalls Chapman. “I was in a warehouse with tons of his work and I was completely overwhelmed and inspired. I just wanted to stay there all day. That’s the power of art. It can connect with anyone and mean something different to everyone.”