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SoWA: The Artist’s Hub

Halls of SoWa.
Halls of SoWa. By Courtesy of Kit A. Terrey
By Kit A. Terrey, Contributing Writer

Down a windy corridor in Boston’s South End lies a hub of art and design dubbed SoWa. The district — named for its location south of Washington Street — is home to the studios of over 80 Boston artists housed within the South End’s characteristic brick buildings. Massive warehouses and factories, nestled together along Harrison Ave, part to make room for an alleyway and courtyard that hosts a wide array of vendors on Sundays in the summer. During the winter months, SoWa’s Open Market shuts down operations, but the studios lodged within the complex at 450 Harrison Ave remain in full swing throughout the year. Every Sunday and on the first Friday of every month, the building’s artists welcome the wealth of visitors who pass through the complex’s art-speckled hallways.

Many, but not all, of the artists working inside the building are members of the SoWa Artist Guild. Founded in 2005 by entrepreneur-artist Stephen Silver, the Guild has grown within the past two decades from a collective of 20 artists to its current size as an organization of over 80 studios. Silver designed the high-density work environment — three of the former factory’s floors provide studio space for about 20 artists — to promote a sense of camaraderie throughout Boston’s artistic community.

Oil painter Rachel Brask moved into her studio in the complex in late February, but she said she has already felt the welcoming embrace of the other artists in the building.

“The very first week I was here, it felt a little bit like the first week of freshman year when you are moving into the dorms,” Brask said. “I had people, when the door was open, just popping by, saying, ‘Hi, I’m this person from units this thing,’ or, ‘Welcome to the floor — just wanted to say hi.’”

Brask’s studio is located on the building’s fourth floor, accessible by elevator or the winding metal stairs that snake up through the old factory. Vast windows cover the far wall of her studio, letting in the sunlight that catches the veneer of her colorful oil paintings. Brask does most of her work in the well-lit space, just as many of the other artists in the building work in their own studios throughout the week.

Studio in SoWa.
Studio in SoWa. By Courtesy of Kit A. Terrey

Having access to a studio outside of one’s own home offers artists a welcome separation between their life and their work, artist Cynthia Chapman said.

“It’s nice to have that overnight period if you’re second-guessing your working process,” Chapman — a multimedia artist who has been a member of the Artist Guild for eight years — said.

However, the transition from a home studio to an art-making space in downtown Boston can be rocky at first.

“In the beginning, it was an adjustment to the noises and various things I just wasn’t used to,” said Paula Ogier, a digital and mixed media artist.

Ogier will be celebrating her 10th anniversary with the Guild this year. After a decade in her studio, Ogier said that its downtown location connected her with a new audience. Communicating with a new clientele about her art required Ogier to “develop a visual vocabulary” for their conversations, a process that “opened up a whole other world” for the artist.

Hundreds of visitors flock through SoWa’s alleyways and venture up the ex-factory’s staircase on busy Sundays, bringing with them diverse perspectives — and often a desire to purchase. SoWa’s artists are some of Boston’s most well-respected. Boston Children’s Hospital commissioned a piece from Ogier, and the building’s other artists are not without their own accolades.

A spot in a SoWa studio confers respect, but more than that, it grants one access to the sort of community Silver sought when he founded the Guild 20 years ago.

“Yes, it can be competitive, this, this, and this,” Brask said about the arts community. “But ultimately, artists helping other artists is how we all thrive and we all win.”

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