The Chron profiles two artists that were affected by the recent fire at the Winter Street Studios.
At Winter Street Studios, red caution tape draped an X pattern over an entrance to the building, a workspace for Houston area artists. The door is gone and black stains from a fire around the outer entrance are a stark contrast on the exterior of the large white structure.
Further into the building, chunks of the pillars are blown off, revealing brick and concrete. In one hallway, clean white squares where paintings used to hang stand out against the charcoal of the wall. In the area where Montgomery County based artists Toria Hill and Rebekah Molander have their studios, hallways that were once white and adorned with vibrant artwork are now soot stained.
The scene is a heartbreaking one for them both, especially since a person who was tied to the arts community was deemed responsible for the fire. It is testing Molander’s sense of security.
“It’s a safe place. What would be safer than an artists’ community?” the 38-year-old Woodlands artist said. “Who targets a group of artists and who destroys art? Of all things, art and music bring people together. Now that feeling of safety has been damaged.”
Molander had 18 pieces on display at the gallery in Sawyer Yards when authorities said it was set on fire on Dec. 20. The arsonist targeted the first-floor worksite of Bohemian Photography, then died by suicide days later, according to the Houston Fire Marshal’s Office. Bohemian owner Jack Potts and the man who set the fire were friends and reportedly had a disagreement over $1,000 in equipment.
The fire destroyed hundreds of pieces of art at the gallery, where about 110 artists rent space among the 77 studios to create and store their work. Some of the artwork may be salvageable, Hill and Molander said. All the artists are sharing notes on how to recover their work.
Hill will soon turn to an art restoration group, hoping her work can be salvaged. She suspects, however, that nothing is resellable. She had what is called “show insurance” that covers six pieces. But that only covers the supplies, like paint and brushes.
“They all smell like they’ve been sitting in someone’s chimney,” Hill said. “We’re learning it’s hard to get the smell of smoke out of your canvas without ruining the work.”
She’ll be focusing on creating more work before big shows like the Bayou City Art Festival in March and The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival in April.
Molander, part of an artist collective called The Seekers who work out of the Taft McWhorter Art Gallery, couldn’t get in the building until the week following Christmas. She and her husband donned masks because the smoke smell was so thick. They took the 18 pieces that were on display, wrapping them with commercial grade plastic.
Once home, they’ve been airing the pieces out in intervals.
“One issue is that some soot, especially from the back of the canvas, could seep in and further damage the paintings in the next six months,” Molander said.
She also purchased a tool called a soot eraser — a dry chemical sponge — to clean the canvas.
“When you swipe down, the sponge comes out black. It’s incredible the way it works,” Molander said. “Right now everyone is trying to be as positive as they can. This isn’t anything I’ve ever dealt with but it’s giving me a lot of hope.”
The Houston Arts Alliance has activated its emergency relief fund, first created in 2020 to support artists during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help those whose studios were damaged. Donors can contribute to the fund at the alliance’s website https://ready.haatx.com/.
See here for the background, and please do consider making a donation to the support fund. I went looking for more stories to see what news there has been in the intervening weeks, and I found this from about ten days after the fire. There’s a lot of background about the studio and its history and purpose, but what really caught my eye was towards the end, about its immediate future.
The arson victim was a behemoth of a building: the 75,000 square-foot space at 2101 Winter Street, a historic brick-and-concrete structure dating from 1928, originally built by E.A. Hudson for the Houston Transfer Company. The rambling two-story fortress later become Harris Moving & Storage, before being turned into studios for rent for professional artists by developer Jon Deal in 2005. Deal took a chance on rehabbing the rambling elephant of a building, betting artist-generated income could be financially successful.
The developer also had to convince the permitting department, which granted the building the first permit ever under the groundbreaking Artist Studio Ordinance in the City of Houston.
Flash forward 17 years, and Winter Street had become the bedrock of what would morph into one of the largest communities of working artists in the country. The thriving Sawyer Yards complex, that has also birthed under Deal and other partners, a plethora of pendant properties for artists, other creatives, stores and restaurants, led by Spring Street Studios, Silver Street Studios (home to the international biennial of photography FotoFest) and The Silos at Sawyer Yards. Winter Street Studios has also been the headquarters, thanks to generous owners, of countless fundraisers, mostly notably the art auction benefiting affordable housing and artists, the iconic Art on the Avenue presented by Avenue CDC.
What Deal once did to rehab the raw, cavernous space of Winter Street — later replicating that model throughout Sawyer Yards — makes many confident that he can and will do it again.
We reached out to Deal the Friday before Christmas. Within hours he emailed back details to PaperCity of his new plans that provide uplifting news to not only the Winter Street Studios artists, but also members of the Houston art family at large.
“Definitely arson,” Deal tells PaperCity of the cause of the devastating fire. “I reviewed some of the video with the arson investigators and it was a targeted theft and firebombing of a specific studio. With our building and campus cameras we were able to follow the thief/arsonist’s steps from the time he entered campus to the entry into Winter Street Studios then directly to the studio door without hesitation at any turn.
“Clearly he had been in the studio before (photographer Jack Potts’ studio). On the video you can see him leaving the studio at a rapid pace and then seconds later the explosion.”
“The eastern 1/3 of the building, Section C, looks like a war zone on the first level,” Deal details of the damage. “The remainder of the building (Sections A & B) suffered severe smoke damage, which left a thick soot. The second level of Section C shows signs of structural damage due to the heat of the fire.”
Now that a plan is in place. Deal has a timeline in mind.
“Our plan is to have Sections A & B (2/3 of the building) cleaned and ready for the artists to move back in in February,” he tells PaperCity. “Section C will require some structural repairs and complete rebuild of about one half the studios in that section of the building. We are estimating that it will be six months before we are able to get those studios ready for the artists to move back in.”
As to who will rebuild Winter Street, Deal dispatched his own crews immediately.
“The fire occurred at 5:20 am Tuesday, December 20,” Deal details.” We had crews on site at 7 am on Wednesday, December 21, and have already made it possible for artists to enter their studios in Sections A & B. Many already have. We made the decision to remediate in-house (Dealco) as we felt like we were able to mobilize quicker with more manpower and equipment than the remediation company could.”
Another silver lining is the nearby presence of warehouses under the Sawyer Yards umbrella.
“Silver Street opened up warehouse space that had recently been vacated and is allowing the Winter Street artists to store their artwork there until we can get them back in the building,” Deal shares. “We are prepared to open two of our warehouses a little further away if needed.”
And wall space will be provided, Deal notes.
“Alexander Squire, Sawyer Yards creative director, will be coordinating with management and other building artists to help the Winter Street artists to display what artwork they have left during the second Saturday event in January and in February if necessary,” Deal tells PaperCity.
You can click over to see some pictures. I’m very glad to hear there’s a plan in place to rehab and recover, and I look forward to the grand re-opening. The Leader News has more.