Welcome to the Art&Seek Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the stories and artistic efforts being made by creatives in and around North Texas. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
Denton’s known for it’s world-class music scene. But the city’s filled with all sorts of artists. In 2012, two of them decided to start a collective, hoping to build a more supportive and collaborative arts environment. In this week’s Spotlight, Art&Seek infiltrates the group and learns they’re catching a whole lot of artists in their web.
It’s a scorching Sunday afternoon in downtown Denton and the square is all but empty. The only folks around are dressed in cosplay costumes, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes outside J&J’s Pizza.
Inside the restaurant – down in the basement – there’s about 60 people. There’s a dude in a Spider-man getup, a women dressed as Harley Quinn and a few characters I don’t recognize.
“Welcome to Spiderweb Salon,” says the collective’s co-founder Courtney Marie. “We’re a performance and art collective, and we do all sorts of things. This is our first SpiderCon. We don’t normally go this nerdy. I mean, we’re super nerdy. But this is portion of nerdy that we don’t often delve into.”
Today’s event is billed as “A celebration of Sci-fi, fantasy and all things strange.” Which is perfect, because as Courtney Marie said, this nerdy collection of creatives dabbles in numerous art forms.
“We do showcases like this one that brings in poets, performance artists, theater troupes and musicians, comedians… We do a little bit of everything,” Courtney Marie reiterates.
More than 150 artists are caught in the spider web. Some, like Courtney Marie, work with text. Others, like her co-founder Conor Wallace, are musicians. Mathew Sallack – a visual artist and the group’s zine advisor – says it doesn’t matter what sort of art you make or even your experience level.
“We’re all inclusive,” he says. “If it’s your first time to read we want to give you that platform, just like we’d give someone who’s a touristing writer a platform.”
Courtney Marie says the collective isn’t pretentious. And that sets it apart.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about it. Nobody’s like, “We’re doing this, because we have to be the best at it.” We’re doing it because it’s fun and because we’re exploring our boundaries as artists,” she explains. “It may look really bizarre to the outside world, but we’re doing it and having fun and that’s kind of the point. (laughs)”
The group takes on all sorts of projects. For example, there’s a songwriting scholarship. Recipients get their songs professionally produced at a Denton recording studio. Elia Tamplin’s “40 Days & 40 Nights” is a recent winner. Listen here:
On top of all that, the group programs weekly workshops on everything from puppetry to watercolor painting.
“There’s so many things you can just grab in the spider’s web, like baking, poetry, performance, music. All of those different aspects of your art are caught in the spider web,” says Seth Malloy. “It’s like the place to get stuck”
Malloy’s a part-time poet and a full-time father. The IT consultant brought his three kids to SpiderCon to watch him read. He says lots of groups put on events, but Spiderweb’s path to access is the easiest to cross.
The award-winning sci-fi author, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, agrees.
“There’s so many different genres at a Spiderweb show that you can come to this and just get inspired by hearing stuff that you wouldn’t normally hear,” she says.
Stufflebeam’s short stories are regularly published in magazines and anthologies, but she says writing’s a lonely gig and Spiderweb Salon helps with that.
“Like I’m sitting at home and I’m on my computer, you know for however many hours a day, and I’m not getting out of the house. So being part of Spiderweb kind of gives me a local community and local support. Like we get together and we have writing days where Courtney gets out all of her typewriters and we make up poems on the spot,” says Stufflebeam.
It’s a flexible community that’s safe for artist of every medium, gender, sexulaity and background – the kind of spiderweb you’d actually like to have in your corner.
Courtney, will you take me back to 2012 and tell me why you and Conor Wallace decided to start Spiderweb Salon?
So first off, Conor Wallace is Spiderweb’s co-founder. He says, ‘Hi!’ and apologizes for not being available. That being said, it all started with a summer of serious depression.
I had just quit my job under horrific circumstances and Conor was a contract employee for the school district, so he had the summer off. We were sort of spiraling and looking for something to do. I wasn’t having a good time.
See, I’m a writer. But at the time, I wasn’t really writing. And I wanted to start making efforts to actually create the things I had always imagined I would be creating. Conor and I knew a lot of people in the same position as us. So we were like, “what if we did a fun little show?” We wanted to do something that wasn’t music-based, because Denton has a solid music scene, and at the time there wasn’t a terrific community-based arts and literature scene. Thankfully that’s changed. We’re totally in support of everything happening now.
That’s it? You just threw a small event? Where was it? Who attended?
Conor’s parents have a nice house on Southridge and they have a gazebo, so we went and cleaned up the gazebo and then we asked if we could borrow it. We asked them, “Can we invite a bunch of people to your house and drink beer and read each other poems and stuff?” (laughs) We invited 10 people and we told those 10 people that they could each invite one other person and then we had a show!
After the show, people asked if they could perform at the next event. And it sort of grew from there. We had poets, performance artists, comedians and all sorts of people wanting to perform. And these are people who mostly weren’t professional artists, so we gave them a place to showcase their efforts. It didn’t take long for us to start having like 100 people at our events.
Were you doing shows every five or six weeks?
In the beginning, we were having shows every three weeks. We were very ambitious in the beginning. There were so many people who wanted to be a part of the shows and a part of Spiderweb Salon and I wanted to include everyone. It was also really cool to see how people evolved, you know? Some of these people would be in three shows over the course of nine weeks, so it was cool to see how their performances improved.
So the same people were always performing?
We had some people who were performing in all of the early shows. Those folks were just really ambitious about helping and doing everything they could to keep this going. You know, we didn’t really call Spiderweb Salon an art collective at first, but it sort of made sense. There was a collective of people pitching in and running everything. It was inclusive. So eventually, all of us getting together and making art together… it just made sense to call us that. That’s what you call a bunch of people getting together to make art. (laughs)
Wow. So you all have been going nonstop since things got started six years ago? Because online, on your website, there is a giant roster of people who are part of Spiderweb Salon. I counted like 22 members of the crew and more than 150 participating artists. That feels so big.
It’s constantly evolving and it kind of just fits… Like whoever has the time and dedication and motivation to make things happen are the folks that are involved in whatever we happen to be doing at that time.
I mean, there are about a dozen of us who’ve been holding it down from the beginning, but our roles are always changing. I don’t even perform in our shows anymore. It’s funny because I started this because I needed an outlet. But I’ve been able to find other outlets.
It’s also interesting to see what comes out of all this. Like seeing people hang out and then become collaborators.
I’d like to talk about the Spiderweb Salon shows. I went to the SpiderCon last Sunday. And I noticed that some performers were more polished than others. Would you talk about that? Is this a venue for unfinished works?
I think that there’s more of a focus on being creative and what that means for each artist. I mean that outside of an academic setting or even a capitalistic setting. It’s just like what would you like to make and how would you like to show it to people? So if you’re a writer, you can explore visual art or music or performance or whatever. I think our workshop series has really helped with that.
We have vocal workshops, watercolor workshops, photography workshops… last week we had a puppetry workshop! These workshops have inspired folks to work outside of their normal means of creativity. It’s also made us more of a community. We’re not learning these things because we have to. We’re using them as an opportunity to hang out. We talk about heavy things like discrimination or representation. The workshops give us a reason to hang out and learn new things. And those usually end up in our showcases.
Can anyone join the Spiderweb Salon community?
Well, as long as they’re not a jerk.
How does North Texas affect how the group operates?
We’re sort of in a collegiate mecca here in Denton, so a lot of the people are people who’ve graduated and never left or they’re completing their higher level degrees. I think that has been helpful. People staying behind definitely has generated members.
Was there a time or a moment when you realized this was a real thing?
We still haven’t had that moment (laughs). I mean it’s very much a real thing… Honestly, I guess it felt real from the beginning cause we started out doing so much so fast. At this point we’ve done more than 80 showcases, a ton of workshops and various events and we’ve printed so many zines. But it’s always kind of felt real… even though we don’t really know what it is.
What sets Spiderweb Salon apart from other arts collaborative in North Texas?
The fact that we haven’t stopped since we started and we haven’t stagnated is impressive. There are always lots of really cool arts groups that show up and do amazing things, but they go away. And I’ve never been on the inner circle of those groups, so I don’t know why they disband or whatever, but I would say consistency sets us apart.
Also our inclusiveness. A lot of groups will talk a big game about being inclusive, but for us rather than talk about it, we just do it.
Finally, it’s not really a pay-to-play sort of situation. If people want to be here, I want them here. And that goes for shows too. If someone cannot pay the cover, I will put them on the guest list. No questions asked. So those are the things that I think that set us apart. It’s not like anything I’ve experienced before… and we made it. (laughs)
Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.