ANYONE WHO HAS TAKEN an art class over the past quarter century probably will recognize these warehouse paintings. The spare, often dark, sometimes sad shells of industry still ooze machine oil through their polished floorboards, mechanical tears, perhaps, or industrial blood, its distinctive odor mixing with smells of dry wood, lead paint, and rusting metal. Greasy dust congeals along the length of the exposed steel girders, blunts every corner.
The building’s original use expired, it now is inhabited by practicing artists, scurrying clever as rats around the top few floors or in the basement. Their paints, thinners, oils, and turpentine compete with the ancient manufacturing smells, though their individualized hand-labor is antithetical to the site’s mass-produced past.
These former warehouses and factories, long since abandoned but still dominating the New England landscape in plain, boxy rectangles, often are distinguished by their slate roofs, brick facades, and occasional naive scrollwork above their copious windows and doors.
Too costly to tear down, they take up major space. Empty monuments to an optimistic age when they were a town’s major employer, before cinder blocks and prefabs, before environmental and safety laws and outsourcing, they retain some historic value. Commerce keeps attempting to reinvent these spaces, no matter how small the local population has dwindled, as offices, bookstores, clothing outlets, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts.
These retrofitted industrial buildings-turned-mini-mall are quaint, museum-like, faintly evoking the small-town life that reigned when their smokestacks were billowing. But for the most part, they cannot sustain an economic revival. The modern-day businesses come and go, unable to attract the mega-shoppers who gravitate to the centrally located, all-purpose malls.
The painters, potters, sculptors, printmakers, bookbinders, metal fabricators, and photographers remain, eagerly, gratefully inhabiting these vast rooms. They need the space, and the price is right (away from the main floor) — as long as the slow, rickety elevators hold. The windows, opaque or nearly so from lack of cleaning, nevertheless let in plenty of filtered light. The high ceilings, the ancient heating ducts and open spaces help disperse the toxic smells of paints and solvents.
There is plenty of room for bulky presses, wet canvases, or paint-spattered easels, or leaving work out between sessions without always having to put things away. The floors creak and the walls are unadorned, but they make serviceable exhibition space.
For artists, the warehouse is a place to practice their craft on a large scale, a three-dimensional canvas for building identity, learning technique, and trying out ideas. That many are forced to be there, for economic reasons, adds a romantic, bohemian flair, about doing more with less, about making something out of nothing.