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Ash Studios Near Fair Park: A Do-It-Yourself Arts Center?
by Jerome Weeks 30 Jul 2015

What would a do-it-yourself arts center even look like? Not a glossy performance hall or museum, certaily. It might look more like Ash Studios, a few blocks away from Fair Park. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports there’s a surprising amount of arts activity in this ramshackle, former metal-working shop and its crowded, gated yard.

Fred in yard

Fred Villanueva in the yard at Ash Studios. Photos: Jerome Weeks

Visit Ash Studios in the day and this is what you may hear:

    • an industrial fan inside the pre-fab tin shed, buzzing away in a vain attempt to lower the broiling heat
    • the rattle of a chain winch as artist Scott Shubin manhandles a 12-foot steel beam
    • and then the crash, as he lets it drop into place as part of one of his abstract sculptures.

This steel monument’s going to go out by Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Fred Villanueva explains, instead of like the ones Shubin has along Henderson Avenue, like the giant metal sunflower outside of Sleep Experts, one of the half-dozen mattress stores near Central and Henderson.

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Sculptor Scott Shubin manhandling some steel.

Villanueva lives upstairs at Ash Studios, he paints wall-sized canvas murals and basically runs the joint with Darryl Ratcliff. It’s a working artists’ studio. But it’s collaborative and “genre-agnostic,” he says, meaning just about any artist can pop up here, collaborate with them or just rent the space.

In fact, come back a few nights later, and a hip-hop house party is loud enough to be heard blocks away. Thirty- forty young people wander in and out, dancing to DJs, stuffed into that same shed Shubin had been working in. Two weeks earlier, in this same space, Ash Studios hosted an Austin-based puppet show, complete with a giant whale. Two weeks from now, it’ll be House Party Theatre presenting three short plays. And all his happens with paintings and drawings displayed on various walls, with sculptures out in the gravel-filled yard.

“So it’s kind of a do-it-yourself arts center,” says Villanueva. “A lot of folks may not feel comfortable in blue-chip art galleries or even museums that may seem kind of uninviting — for whatever reason. So part of our mission is, like, ‘OK, come to our space for the show, the DJ event or whatever. But then we get to spoonfeed you art and art ideas and how the two can co-exist. ‘”

Daryl Ratcliff says it’s all about making young people of color welcome around art. “I can think of having conversations with non-profit arts executives in, like, 2010 and you hear a lot of ‘I don’t know if there’s an audience for the arts amongst young people of color in Dallas. You know, where are they? Where are the artists?’ ”

So it’s gratifying, he says, to see hundreds showing up at Ash Studios these days. In the ‘70s, Villanueva’s father worked at the place when it made plaster prizes for State Fair contests. But then he turned it into a commercial metal shop making designer furniture and gates. After Villanueva himself graduated from art school in San Francisco and lived and worked and studied in New York and Europe, he returned to Dallas and bought it. In 2012 — after Villanueva had cleaned out all the old cars and trash — he joined forces with Ratcliff (they both had the same art teacher at Cistercian) and began working on Ash Studios as an ongoing ‘social practice’ project..

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Villanueva and Ken Rebel.

To call the space ‘raw’ is almost a compliment. It’s called Ash Studios because it’s on Ash Lane in a no-man’s-land of empty lots and warehouses, across the DART tracks from Fair Park. The enclosed yard is littered with half-finished artworks, a couch and the remains of an old bonfire — “a poor man’s Nasher,” Villanueva jokes. It’s all a ramshackle work in progress.

“It’s an artist’s space,” insists Ratcliff with a laugh. “It’s not pretty. It’s beautiful.

And it’s turning into something of an old-style apprenticeship program as well. The educational side Ratcliff and Villanueva hope to develop, possibly into an MFA program. That seems like a stretch, until you meet Joseph de la Garza.

He’s an Ash Studios regular, twenty years old, working a good job in his father’s screen printing shop (they currently have 35,000 t-shirts to print for UNT). But with a friend, de la Garza threw together tonight’s hip-hop event — in six days.

“Fred, he holds it down for the city,” de la Garza say. “All us kids, trying to throw a show? He’s there for us. He gives us a good enough price, us kids can throw shows and actually have a chance to book good artists.”

More young people keep coming in through the sliding glass door at Ash Studios. The big draw tonight is a Brooklyn rapper named Ken Rebel; one of his YouTube music videos has gotten a half-million hits. He also just finished a quick European tour. (“It’s definitely kinda cool,” says Villanueva, “to have Brooklyn in the house.”)

Tonight’s hip-hop show? It’s the very first one de la Garza has ever booked.

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Wednesday’s hip-hop house party at Ash Studios.

Saturday, Ash Studios hosts a music video release for North Texas funk artists Ducado VeGa and ZenYa Vye.

Closing music on the radio story: “Seven” by Ducado VeGa and ZenYa Vye

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