In the Hope Worsted Mills warehouse on the corner of Swan and Kentucky streets, Forrest Boone drills into the end of a bronze Indian’s spear while his assistant, Michael Stephenson, holds the sculpted Native American steady. The statue, dangling from the ceiling by a chain, was constructed by famed Louisville sculptor Barney Bright. Its permanent residence is atop a waterfall at the Indian Springs Golf Club in the East End, but the statue is temporarily visiting Boone for a makeover.
Boone is making an armature for a new spear point, which he’ll craft from clay. It’s the first stage of his total restoration of the piece. “It is incredible work, but it’s in a state of disrepair. It’s oxidizing. When bronze or copper starts to oxidize, it turns green,” he says. Boone specializes in making “real fake rock,” but he’s versed in many kinds of materials.
Boone is one of about 15 creatives and crafts people laboring for their various arts in the 85,000-square-foot warehouse, which dates back to the early 1900s. The building’s landlord, John Gonder, purchased the property in 1999 to house his recycling business, but started filling studios with artists in the mid-2000s.
Gonder sees a place for Hope Worsted Mills in the community. “I think it can rejuvenate this neighborhood even further,” he says, adding that the location, with its easy access to downtown and the Highlands, has definite appeal. “The neighborhood is turning. Its compatible with people who are artistic.”
New things are in store at the warehouse. A six-day-a-week farmers’ market – with milk, produce, coffee and other items – will begin the week of July 4 in the huge, sunny, open entry space on the Swan Street side.
Throughout the light-filled structure, professional artists are planning grand commissioned pieces for new hospital buildings, fashioning furniture for swank restaurants, whipping old leather into beautiful new bags, and rediscovering the dinosaurs.
For Boone, the Indian improvement is just one of a plethora of projects in the works. He leaves the Indian for a bit and continues a fossil reproduction job he’s doing for a paleontologist. Boone and his assistant remove plastic paper from a huge rectangular bed of clay filled with wax fossils, which instantly gives the studio the feel of an ancient excavation site. “I can wave my magic wand and I can create any fossil that he wants,” says Boone. “Archaeologists are the beginning. They get them out and try not to break them apart, but then we do our magic. We’ll make rubber molds of all the parts and then cast them in resin, and that way they’re preserved. And then we antique (the reproduction fossils) and make them look like they’re a hundred million years old.”
Boone bends down and works a wide knife around an Allosaurus rex skull, then carefully lifts the wax skull from the clay bed, brandishing it like a proud archaeologist. “Look at the choppers on that guy,” he says, smiling and showing his own teeth.
While Boone delves into the past, in another wing of the warehouse, Sue Schofield sits on her studio floor surrounded by leather scraps and racks of jackets, pants and other pieces of used clothing waiting for their second lives as Sue Schofield originals.
She’s unpacking a suitcase filled with her handmade belts, purses and other accessories. Schofield, who has been at Hope Mills for three years, has just returned from the Arts on The Green Fine Arts and Crafts festival in La Grange, where she won second prize for fiber art.
Schofield’s pieces are fashioned from recycled leather. Her company, called Inherited Leather, sells the wares at local and regional art shows, and venues such as The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and boutiques in Chicago. She also has a booming custom-order business.
What she extracts from the suitcase are soft, shiny and stunning; small fringed bags made from gold leather pants, to which she has sewn gleaming butterfly and octopus charms; a light brown suede shoulder bag adorned with a wooden owl face; and belts with beautiful hand-painted buckles.
She’s particularly pleased with a simple, stylish pea-green purse. “I don’t find a lot of colored leather,” she says, as she examines the effortlessly chic piece. “It just is what it is; super simple. Lately, it seems bags are heavy, even with nothing in them, and have a lot of clips and hardware going on. What I’ve found is people are gravitating more toward simple and lightweight.”
Schofield notes that the Hope Mills artists do not form an official co-op, and that it’s freeing to have a choice of when she wants to be social and when she wants to just hole up and work like a maniac.
“There’s just a vibe in here,” she says. “We all are very solitary and very focused, but inevitably we’re going to see each other at the water cooler or coming out of the bathroom. There isn’t a single person here that I don’t enjoy seeing.” She adds that the diverse artists are friends who are always willing to lend equipment, a pair of critical eyes or whatever their fellow tenants may need.
Today, the weather is so perfect outside the huge windows in Schofield’s studio that she takes a break from her tasks to soak up some sun on the warehouse loading dock. She is soon joined by friends and artists David Metcalf and Nathan Morgan, and the conversation quickly turns to their crafts. Schofield is preparing for an upcoming show and tells Metcalf she’s in search of some shelving and display tables.
“I have two smaller card tables I borrowed for Christmas and never gave back to my mom,” Metcalfe says.
“The more options I have the better,” says Schofield, lying on a stack of lumber.
Metcalfe turns around in his chair and spots a small wooden table lying upside down on a worktable. He picks it up, flips it over and presents it. “What about this?” he asks, adding that the table is his own work.
Schofield lights up. “This is perfect, exactly,” she says, approaching the table and crouching over it. “This is what I was thinking – this on top of a card table.”
Before it became an oasis for local artists, Hope Mills went through several incarnations. It was conceived by draftsman Joseph Dominic Baldez, who is best known for designing Churchill Downs. It was indeed a woolen mill in the beginning, Gonder says, and remained so for more than 20 years.
Gonder says it was an ideal location for a mill because the neighborhood grew up around the expansion of the L&N line, and it was a convenient place to gather and distribute goods transported by rail.
After its life as a mill, the building was bought by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and used for tobacco storage until the early ‘80s. Then it became a storage facility for a company called Rosalco, which deals in imported furniture.
In 1999, Gonder bought the building from the owner of Rosalco for $550,000 and planned to use it for his recycling business. But he also had another intention.
“My base motivation was an environmental project; to take a building that was in jeopardy and save it from going under the wrecking ball,” he says. “The physical energy that was put into this building is amazing. It’s all handwork.”
The inclusion of artists was an idea that came later. It seemed like a good way to raise the monthly mortgage payments and enrich the neighborhood. The entire top level is still vacant, and many studios are still available.
The neighborhood has a history of attracting artist communities. The LAVA House, founded by artist Aron Conaway in Smoketown in 2001, burned down in 2008. While in operation, it was a co-op of about 15 artists, mostly fresh out of art school. “We were doing shows together, really trying to support each other, sharing resources,” Conaway says.
Conaway is currently developing another warehouse space, The Mammoth, located at Thirteenth and Maple, just south of Broadway. The building dates back to the Civil War. “We’re carrying on our philosophy of building an artist community in an area that isn’t developed and isn’t real popular right now,” he says.
Not far from Hope Mills is a warehouse in development by local photographer Frankie Steele. It is home to Art Sanctuary, a nonprofit that once shared space with The Alley Theater in Butchertown. At that time, Art Sanctuary put on art shows and events, but did not host artist studios. Now, the organization has its own headquarters at Lydia and Shelby streets in Germantown.
Art Sanctuary founder Lisa Frye says that several of the 12 artist studios in their new home have already been rented by painters, ceramic artists and graphic designers. The warehouse also features a recording studio, a photography studio and a shop that sells residents’ work. “This new incarnation is what we should have been the entire time,” she says.
Back at Hope Worsted Mills, the tenants seem quite pleased with their surroundings. “John Gonder is amazing,” says glass artist Johnny Gordon. “He’s the best landlord ever. The rent is reasonable.”
Gordon and glass artist Amy Pender share a first-floor studio and work both individually and collaboratively. They were lured to the building by glass artist Jonathan Swanz, who has a basement studio he wanted looked after while attending grad school in Hawaii. While Pender and Gordon do some of their work downstairs, they much prefer being above ground. “Now that we’re upstairs we have tons of natural light,” Gordon says.
Currently, the two are focused on a massive collaboration. They were just awarded a commission from Marian University Hospital in Indianapolis, and will be creating five individual wall panels for the new Osteopathic Healing Center. ”They’re more like sculpture than gigantic wall panels,” Gordon says. “They’re going to be backlit, so they’re like humongous light boxes. The goal is to finish by May of next year.”
Pender and Gordon are still in the planning stages, as evidenced by sketches, glass samples and a huge piece of white paper bearing the blueprint of one panel on the worktable.
Meanwhile, in another studio, artists and craftsmen Metcalfe and Morgan are enjoying some downtime after months of making banquettes, patio furniture and other furnishings for upscale Nulu restaurants Rye and Wiltshire on Market.
Piles of wood, including a cross section of an oak tree, are stored in the studio. A British flag hangs from the ceiling in honor of Morgan, an English native.
Metcalfe, who has worked in three different spaces in the warehouse, is charmed by the building. “I just liked the light, the really high ceilings and the fact that it was kind of rough, so you didn’t really have to worry too much about spilling paint on the floor,” he says. “You couldn’t really mess something up without trying real hard, which is good for what we do, both with furniture and also with painting and sculpture.”
Morgan loves the location and the spirit of the artists. “It’s a really nice working environment. Everyone gets along really well. There’s never any drama,” he says. “It’s like an island. You’ve got the railroad tracks that cut it off at the back and this huge yard. There are all kinds of weird little nooks and crannies. For a creative mind, it’s really inspiring.”