A Fighting Chance? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Fighting Chance?

Photo by Elli Williams

Oct. 20, 1992. Naked Madonna is all over the dance studio. In one corner, she's straddling a fish. In another, she's kneeling in the surf, leaning against a bike, posing with a satellite dish in a So-Cal backyard. Clothed Madonnas are everywhere, too, stumbling in spiked boots, spilling cocktails on black corsets, tossing punked hair and dancing, to themselves, with themselves, sultry-moving to a new sound called "Erotica." It's the first time for everyone to hear Madonna's jazzy, house-inspired fifth studio album. People are digging it. Someone got an advance copy, and the release party in New York– the one where the real Madonna is playing Little Bo Peep– has nothing on the illicit festivities going down in Jackson, Miss., on this sticky Autumn night.

Across the room, a young artist concentrates on a slide projector, matching the beat of her finger to the beat of the music. Larger-than-life images pulse onto the sheets suspended from scaffolds, the entire scene an architectural fantasy of dancing platforms, chain-link fencing, throbbing bodies and raw emotion.

At one point, a female impersonator points up at the projectionist/artist, smiling beatifically. "Look at you!" she breathes. "You're God!"

At the stroke of midnight, balloons rain down on the revelers from 25-foot ceilings, and a man in a gorilla costume tears through the crowd, tossing out Tootsie Roll lollipops.

This is how the Mosquito did Sex (and Erotica).

Deciphering Decades
May 12, 2008. A panorama of cracked asphalt, modest dwellings and haphazard yards, Millsaps Avenue is occasionally punctuated by boarded buildings and scrawled graffiti. At midday, it's mostly deserted. A single family lounges in front of a duplex, a small girl seated, swinging her legs as a woman picks her hair, two boys jabbing sticks at the ground.

Commercial structures dot the last block of what is primarily a residential avenue. There's the concrete rectangle of Cafe Seven* and the tag-covered sanctuary of Seven*Studioz. Across the street, Pearl River Glass occupies three buildings. Next to N.U.T.S. secondhand shop, there's the Good Samaritan Center headquarters.

Millsaps Avenue links the bricked campus of Millsaps College with the sooty industry of Mill Street, dead-ending into what visual artist Tyler Tadlock calls "the best gallery on wheels–a steady string of boxcars, trudging south from the nearby Canadian National Trainyard. A convenience store, Mill Street Zone, doubles as an after-hours watering hole, and a block up the road, in the window of a massive graduate supply company, disembodied robes float eerily. In the midst of all this, at the northeastern corner of Millsaps and Mills, there's a complex–a 9,000-square foot warehouse, a former dry-cleaners, a shared gravel lot, a weedy yard with a skeletal merry-go-round and a scraggly wooded area.

Welcome to One to One Studio.

"We started off as alcoholics that just wanted to recoup," Tadlock jokes, self-consciously scratching his sandy-red hair.

His roommate and the Studio's "sort-of" manager, 22-year-old Austin Richardson, groans. "Don't say that, man. We just want to do something with our lives, right? Actually, I started off mowing the lawn," he says.

A few years ago, the warehouse was an eyesore in a neighborhood of eyesores. Owners Debra and Chip Billups had relocated to North Mississippi, and over time, an unsupervised menagerie leased portions of the building, including a music promoter with a history of skipping town, and a Jackson police officer who hosted reputed illicit stripper parties.

But Richardson knew that 15 years ago, 121 Millsaps Ave. was the epicenter of a thriving arts scene, and he wanted to do something meaningful with the space. He approached the Billupses, hoping to organize a studio collective. Chip appreciated Richardson's fervor, but he was still recovering from last decade's attempt.

"I was younger the first time," he says with a sigh. He told Richardson to "rent a room and live here for awhile, and then we'll talk."

So, in January 2007, Richardson moved in and got busy, clearing what had become an impromptu junk depository and ripping insulation off steel beams. By November, he'd lined up three more tenants and impressed the Billupses enough to secure the lease.

"I guess I'm the proprietor, or uh, founder of the entity, maybe," Richardson falters.

"The common bond," Tadlock supplies. "You're the guy who finds the people."

Richardson seems satisfied with Tadlock's assessment and, like the rest of the tenants, extremely conscious of the fact that he's merely a link, the continuance of a decades-old saga. When this story began, 121's current residents were still in diapers.

Breaking Ground
From his roomy office in the back of North Midtown Community Development Center, Executive Director M.C. Burks presses his palms together and says: "This is what I know to be accurate: From Fortification to Livingston, that's where the black folks lived. The more affluent white folks were from McTyre to Duncan. It was a social divide, and in later years the whole area declined. Those who could, left."

Following the Civil Rights Movement, Midtown's insular communities began to integrate–and deteriorate. Burks admits that there is probable correlation, but he is hesitant to speculate. By the mid-'70s, Midtown had become a "rough" part of town. A then-JSU student, Burks was new to Midtown. He remembers a northern exodus of homeowners, leaving deserted houses to harbor criminals.

"Maybe it was economics," Burks says. "There was outward migration, but I can't put my finger on the motivation. Once people with the wherewithal (to upkeep property) left, it affected the tax revenue, which affected the infrastructure, the schools, the entire neighborhood. A majority of the population became low-income renters."

Around that time, 23-year-old glass artist Andy Young set up shop on Millsaps Avenue. A few years later, another glass artist named Susan Ford joined him. When art enthusiast Debra Billups visited their studios, she became fascinated with the neighborhood's decaying commercial spaces. One warehouse was particularly appealing.

Built in the 1940s as an awnings-to-order operation, at that point it was mostly storage. Billups envisioned refurbing the large central room, making it a permanent home for her pet project, Jackson's Modern Dance Collective. So in 1986, Billups and her husband Chip began to negotiate the purchase of 121 Millsaps Ave. By 1987, the Modern Dance Collective was settled comfortably in its new venue, and upstairs, artists rented studio space.

Growing
Mixedmedia artist H.C. Porter moved to 121 in 1989. She was barely 25, brimming and hopeful. "We'd get together at lunch and dream, talk about how we were going to make a living as artists. We had time on our hands, and the whole art world in front of us," she says.

But Porter's printmaking fumes permeated the building, and other artists complained. Less than a year in, the Billupses asked her to move to what is now Ezra Brown's jazz café . "I cried," she admits. "It was this big block building, musty and ugly."

Then something revolutionary happened. Unlike 121, her new studio was firmly situated among neighborhood homes. Curious kids began to knock on her door. "Who are you, what do you do, can I do that, too?" she remembers.

With the help of other artists and her partner, Karole Sessums, Porter got a $500 community grant and started Avenue for Art. Eight weeks a summer for five years, she sectioned off her studio and 50 kids in mask and printmaking. For the first time in it's brief history, the Millsaps Art District seamlessly blended with the street's indigenous population.

At the end of each summer, Porter hosted a show, selling the kids' work for $3 to $5 a pop. "It worked like real gallery," she explains. "The kids keep half the money, and the rest goes toward next year's program. We had 8-year-olds walking out of here with $45."

Eventually, she started photographing the neighborhood kids and transferring them to canvas as serigraphs, establishing the tonal work that is still her trademark today. "Picasso saw cubes, Mondrian saw line and color, and I saw Millsaps Avenue," Porter declares.

Reaping
By the early-'90s, 40-plus artists were registered in the now city-sanctioned arts district, and the 121 building housed many of them. Operating as a co-op gallery, the artists shared maintenance duties, held annual Holiday Studio Tours and publicized their efforts through mailers or word of mouth.

Wanting to increase gallery traffic, a group of tenants opened Gallery Restaurant, "a white-tablecloth, valet-parking affair, started with maybe $500," glass artist Elizabeth Robinson recalls. "It never became profitable, but it was a lot of fun."

The Billupses donated the space, and the artists did the work themselves, installing glass brick and painting concrete floors. Robinson credits James Prime as "the true creative force–he had this great sense of how to do something out of nothing. He'd haul huge pieces off the street and make these decorative items that went up to the ceiling."

"The street was lined with expensive Northeast Jackson cars," Porter says, "because it was this hidden spot where you could get excellent food. Sometimes women's groups held meetings there." Painter Richard Stowe recalls how "(Hinds County) Sheriff (Malcolm) McMillin would eat there almost everyday."

To up the ante after dark, the tenants "put pool tables out back, and overnight, we had 800 college kids," Robinson recants. Sitting around the courtyard one evening, they tossed around names for their newest venture. Young slapped at a mosquito and grumbled, "We should call the thing Mosquito, because that's what's back here."

So they did. Young designed a graphic, and a nightclub was born. With help from promoter Malcolm White, Mosquito started booking bands. "We got great response from the musicians, because we'd feed them from the restaurant. We'd have themes, like once we had a folk event with guest artists from Memphis, and we cooked up soft-leaf kudzu. It wasn't very good, but we served it anyway. Because that was the point," Robinson reminisces. "And every little trend, we'd be on top of. We had raves and smart drinks, mosh pits, cabaret, sometimes costume parties. If we got two hours of sleep, we were fortunate." She shakes her head, long brown hair swinging adamantly. "I was thankful for clean underwear. It was just that point, where life works that way."

Freaking
"In the '90s, this big crime wave came through and sort of freaked everybody out," Richardson says. "From what I heard, it was rolling along, and just, in a matter of months, it was gone–the whole art district."

"Yeah," Young says reluctantly, "I guess you could say there was a crime wave. It seems like a long time ago, though. What happens is, you get a couple of guys breaking into buildings, but then they move out of town or get arrested, and it stops."

"I would stay at the studio overnight and the next morning, I'd have no tires," Robinson laments.

"Around '93, Midtown was considered more of a 'war zone' than a community," admits Habitat spokeswoman E.J. Rivers, referring to the heyday of the nation's crack epidemic, which did not spare Jackson.

"You'd pick up the paper and people (would) be killing each other all over the place," Miriam Weems, 13-year veteran of 121, says. "Clients would tell me they didn't feel safe coming there."

"Midtown reached its lowest ebb in the early-'90s," Burks explains. "North Midtown Community Development Corporation formed in 1993, and about that time, Habitat stepped up their involvement with Midtown."

Young shrugs. "You wish people would leave your stuff alone. But if they don't, maybe you have too much stuff anyway."

"And then there was a death in the family," Robinson says bluntly, addressing the elephant in the room.

The facts are murky. "I've heard someone say, 'My friend got murdered on Millsaps Avenue. I don't go down there,'" current tenant Drew Davis says.

"That didn't happen anywhere in the neighborhood. It's farce to think in those terms, so I'm not even going to discuss it," bristles photographer Gretchen Haines.

"But (the killers') car was spotted outside the Mosquito earlier that evening," Robinson insists. "I think maybe it was supposed to be a robbery." She hesitates.

"It was such a painful experience for so many people."

Documented crimes did increase in Midtown throughout the 1990s, but the collapse of the Art District can be traced to a single event. The death of Brad Dew, a Mosquito employee and Millsaps honor student, was too traumatic for the close-knit community to survive and too frightening for the patrons to ignore. His wrecked, bullet-pocked car was found one night after he closed the club and then failed to meet his friends at W.C. Dons. The story obtained urban-myth status, and even now, details are muddled.

But one undisputed fact remains: The car was found at the intersection of West and Mayes Streets, several miles north of Millsaps Avenue. The Mosquito flashed across local news anyway, "as if it had happened right out the front door," Robinson says. And that was it for the nightclub and Gallery Restaurant.

For a brief period afterward, there was a hamburger joint called Ernie's, then a casual restaurant called Goodness and an attempted reopening of the Mosquito as Boulevard dance club. Nothing stuck. Several studios remained on Millsaps Avenue, but the honeymoon was over.

"Only a few of us actually lived at 121. Most people left because they wanted to consolidate space, maybe buy a house," Stowe says. "The decisions were very personal. Some people got married."

Young drums his fingers thoughtfully. "It never reached critical mass, never got big enough to have the synergy to take on a life of its own. So things have stagnated for 10 years."

Metal artist Ed Millet agrees. "If Jackson were a bigger city, the turnover would have kept its own. As it was, people just moved on in life, and there wasn't anyone to take their place."

"People said, 'Oh, the arts district disappeared," Haines says, shaking her head. "It didn't disappear. We were just busy making a living–getting jobs, paying bills. Sure, the party quieted down. People seem to infamously attach partying to art-making, and the fact of the matter is, if it's going to be valid and viable, art is more about introversion."

Transitioning
So Jackson-at-large was done with the Millsaps Art scene, but for those intimately invested in Midtown, the work was just beginning. Habitat was constantly constructing new homes (currently, 198 in the midtown area), and North Midtown Community Development Center implemented a work-ready program, after-school activities for kids, a G.E.D. program, and a credit program to help people find housing, Burks says, counting the offerings on his fingers.
"We're the only satellite Department of Human Services station in the state. We organize community awareness to fight crime. We contact absent landlords and let them know when their property becomes a liability," Burks says.

A few long-time Millsaps artists spent time on the Center board, including Young and Haines. "This is a business district, and that's what I represent," Haines emphasizes. "To integrate the residential and the business sides are what the magic and beauty of this little area is about. It's the inner-city concept of small-town revitalization."

As everyone amplified efforts, Midtown slowly became a safer place to live, work and play.

"There's been a Renaissance in the quality of life in north midtown," Young says. "Fifteen years ago, you'd hear gunfire all the time. 'Bang, bang, bang' every night. You learned the difference between a 22, 45, 38. A 45's a really loud noise, but a 22 sounds like a firecracker. Now, you don't hear guns anymore."

From 1997 to 2004, the 121 building held a handful of live-in studio artists, including Millet, Haines, Richard Stowe and carpenter Tim Jones. "I liked that it was off the grid. The railroad tracks had the sense of an industrial river, maybe. I could make a lot of noise and have a lot of space," Millet says.

"The neighborhood kids used to bring their bikes to Ed. He'd fix their chains and axles, get them involved in recreational activity. He was like a Mother Goose for the 4-9 sect," Haines says, smiling.

In 2004 Millet moved to Louisiana to care for his aging parents, and Haines moved to Belhaven, but she keeps her studio on Millsaps Avenue and continues to manage the dry cleaners building that adjoins 121, spending a portion of nearly every day in Midtown.

Then one of Haines's Belhaven College students, 25-year-old Elli Williams, heard about 121. In June 2005, she and her husband Joe moved into the dry cleaners. "There was nothing very public going on," she says. "But for a while, there was a neighborhood dance troupe–they did crunk and booty-dancing and practiced in the big room. None of us knew where they came from, just 14-to-18-year-old girls, with no real leader. I went to one of its performances."

A photographer and modern dancer, Elli started using the space for yoga and personal choreography, and Joe and Jones incorporated as Studio 2, working together on carpentry gigs.

Awed by the sheer scope of area at their disposal, the Williamses began to explore ways to bring people together. They tried holding weekly improv nights. "The first few were awesome," Joe says. "There was this cool, intense scene happening, people getting crazy and being artsy-weird, but then it turned into this hang-out where everyone came to drink beer."

"There'd be a drum circle over there, and over here, maybe five people on electric guitar just trying to jam. It was too much, became a selling point for trying to have a little structure, keeping things more productive," Elli adds.

In many ways, the Williamses laid groundwork for the current 121 tenants. Today's 121-hosted M.I.A. (Mississippi Improv Association) events are rooted in Elli and Joe's drum circles and improv nights. The garden they planted still feeds current tenants, and the association intends to explore the same grants Elli procured to fund seasonal art shows.

"The shows were probably the biggest thing we did," Elli says.

The 121 garage was transformed into a temporary gallery, Young opened his studio, DJs set up on the street in front of Seven, sponsors provided snacks, kids bounced in spacewalks, and Richardson and his friends gave skate-demonstrations up and down the Ave.

"Two grants covered all three shows, including security," she recalls. "It was, let's see, spring and summer of 2005 and one in the fall of 2006."

Around this time, the Williamses were planning a move to Oxford, so Joe could finish school, and Richardson was hanging out and talking big. "Honestly, we were exhausted," Joe says. "We had support, but it was just the two of us really doing things, and it's not something I want to do with my life, be an events organizer or gallery owner." He offered Richardson guarded counsel. "I said, 'Man, I hope it works.' You know, we went in there with big ideas, but it takes a lot of community interaction, and we hit barriers and really had to push through. Austin had all these grand schemes, but he's a young fellow. I just wanted to press on him that it would be difficult, involve big money and disappointment. But so far, it's gone pretty smoothly."

Richardson also consulted Haines before approaching the Billups. As they worked in the garden, Haines told Richardson what she knew about the neighborhood and why she'd stuck around. "You wait and wait and get tired sometimes," she says. "Then Austin came. He was innovative (and) had a vision. I admire him very much."

"It's a tough neighborhood," Robinson acknowledges. "There are people having a hard time. But it seems to me like the group that's there now, they're very gentle, and that's probably just what the neighborhood needs." She pauses a minute before chuckling. "We weren't really all that gentle, I guess."

During the first Millsaps Art scene, Midtown was caught up in the zeitgeist of the nation, a rambunctious, aggressive propulsion. Post-millennium, five years of international war and a decade of local violence later, the kids at One to One Studio are focused on grass-roots efforts of sustainability and community inclusion. "It's a new era, a different energy," Robinson reiterates.

Dreaming and Doing
Sprawled around Davis' bedroom, 6oo square feet of paint-splattered concrete floors, high ceilings and enormous windows curtained in bubble-wrap, 121's contemporary tenants are an enthusiastic but self-possessed bunch, representing a variety of backgrounds and talents.

Shaggy-haired Richardson spends much of his time skating or constructing furniture from industrial material. He and skate-buddy Moses Mallory, at 20 the youngest in the crew, were 121's sole occupants when they met Davis in November 2007. Tall and lanky with wire-rimmed glasses, Davis looks like the computer programmer that he is.

And yet, he isn't, and sometimes, he doesn't. In a perpetual uniform of thrift tees, flannels and Levi's, his hair plastered to his forehead after a morning of gardening, Davis often resembles a relic from '90s Seattle. He spends as much time with a video camera as he does in front of a computer screen.

"I went to a prep school, then I went to another for college. Then I dropped out and lived in Bushwick (Brooklyn) and drove cabs," he says. Now he archives One to One functions, a skill briefly honed at NYU Film School.

"I can color balance on myself," Davis holds out his wrist, displaying a faded series of circles, the Vend Diagram Test Pattern.

"He can color-balance on his own wrist," Richardson guffaws, the easy camaraderie evident. Davis and Richardson designed the business structure of what would become One to One Studio, LLC. By January 2008, One to One was leasing a few workspaces and hosting parties and shows.

In May, Tadlock curated One to One Gallery's grand opening, a showing of Hosik Kim's sculptures. "We don't sell the artwork, but we provide artist contact," he explains. "What right do we have to put a price on creativity? Art has become this thing that you've got to pay for. And in Jackson, if it's art you can't sell, there's no venue to show it. What if there was a place you could come and be exposed to all that without a catch?"

A recent Belhaven College grad, Tadlock grew up in Pearl and describes his upbringing as "sheltered." More than the others, he struggled with the decision to get involved with One to One.

"I was attracted to the space–it's cheap as hell and big and awesome, and I can work here, but I was thinking, 'What if I get mugged?' I'll admit, it's been a learning experience for me. I go down the street, this white suburban kid, and then one day, it hit me–there's this house down here with eight or nine kids living in it, and they're always outside, and people are out grilling, and I think, these people live here, and I'm no better than these people." He shakes his head emphatically. "I don't know a plainer way to put it. Who am I to be like, 'Oh, I can't go there because I might be in danger?'"

Conversely, Mallory and friends were skating the streets of Midtown before even graduating high school. "I lived in my car, going to skate competitions and sleeping in front of skateparks. Went to college in Nevada for a month. Got a couple of fines for skating on campus, go in trouble for smoking in my dorm. Anyhow," he trails off dismissively, "didn't work out. Now I'm a half-assed janitor for this place."

"Yeah, you are half-assed, to tell the truth," Richardson quips affectionately. "Moses is a DJ, so he brings this critical element of hip-hop to the warehouse. That really helps us tie into this neighborhood and Jackson as a whole, because Jackson is an undiscovered mecca of roots hip-hop."

Thanks to Mallory's influence, DJs and breakdancers use 121 as practice and performance space. "Moses lives here, but his studio is Mill Street," Richardson says with a grin.

Emily and Johnny Bertram, current dry-cleaners residents, are also an integral part of what's happening at One to One. The couple came to Jackson from Portland in summer 2005 to work for the John Perkins Foundation. By 2007, they were considering a return, when they met the Williamses. The 121 building piqued their interest, so they decided to stick around. Now Johnny spends his days at Old House Depot, and Emily waits tables at High Noon Café, but Johnny's afternoons are full of composing music, screenprinting and playing kickball with the neighborhood kids. While pursuing her masters in sociology from JSU, Emily maintains the 121 garden and is working on a program to introduce locals kids to their own yards as food-space.

Being a viable part of the community is essential to what 121 hopes to accomplish. Already, the tenants have established close ties to specific neighbors, including Mike Wiley, who lives next door and keeps an eye out for loose pets (121 doubles as an asylum for stray dogs), helps with clogged drains, and provides know-how in matters such as re-glazing windows and re-working doors.

"We help him too, take him grocery shopping or wherever he needs to go," Tadlock says. "Really, it's the way you would expect any community to work."

Soon the tenants hope to offer art classes, mixing socio-economic levels, "where those who can pay do, and those who can't, don't," Richardson says. There are almost weekly concerts in the old dance studio, conducted on a stage that resembles oversized Olympic rings, a creative recycling of saw-blade shipping containers. The shows are free, although merchandise sales and donations are encouraged.

"We're really just a think-tank right now," Tadlock shrugs. "The long-term goal is to fill up the place, but mostly we're using the performance space to feed the energy and let people know we're here." He grins before adding, "And the whole summer's already booked."

"We're going to fend for ourselves, react to the demographics of the city. We're going to fight for this," Richardson underscores.

"I see Richardson as kind of a pied piper," Young says. "He's selling an idea and a dream, and people are buying in. The public is starting to support them, and I'm really glad they're here and meeting with success. What they're doing is a timely and appropriate thing to do."

Which is all the more significant, coming from the Millsaps artist who's been around the longest. Where the art district is concerned, Young has seen it all. With support and encouragement, with people like Young behind them, One to One may truly have a fighting chance.

For more info and show schedule, go to One To One Studios.

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