A palatial habitat for working artists

Katherine “Kat” Looney in her studio at the Zhou B Art Center (photo by Jim Barcus)

New Zhou B Art Center offers premier studio space and untold opportunities

A fresh start.

A reimagined legacy.

A chance for committed visual artists to not only inspirationally create and financially succeed, but to also join forces and be part of something far greater than themselves.

Those are among the promising possibilities of the stunning new Zhou B Art Center in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine District, transformed from a decrepit circa-1920s segregated elementary school for Black students into a palatial habitat for working artists, replete with impressive studio spaces, expansive exhibition galleries and other remarkably renovated interiors — some still under meticulous construction — that potentially can grow the local art scene, elevate its wider recognition and, not least of all, enrich the human trajectory of the surrounding community.

If that seems like a tall order, it is. But since the Zhou B opened in January, it’s what the 20 or more resident artists comprising the first wave of one-year leases (leaving about 20 studios left to rent) are collectively aiming for in their own way, day by day, project by project, client by client.

The germinal group of artists at the Zhou B includes oil painter Katherine “Kat” Looney, who, as well as anyone, embodies the hope and opportunity offered by the art center’s namesake stakeholders, iconic Chinese art duo Shanzuo and Dahuang Zhoushi, aka the Zhou Brothers. Looney was already familiar with the internationally renowned Zhou B Art Center in Chicago, founded in 2004, when she heard of the brothers’ plans to also establish a world-class art center in Kansas City.

“I saw this opportunity,” Looney says, “and it was like a battery being put on my back to try and get started again.”

Although a lifelong artist, who was first encouraged by her artist mother and artist grandmother, Looney had lost touch with her creative drive over the last several years.

“I didn’t feel like I had a place to create,” she recalls. “I changed jobs. There were life changes. People passed away in the family. Sometimes, when you just get a lot of adversity, you kind of hit these walls. And then the pandemic happened, and everyone was scared, and the world was on fire. My art just kind of went to the wayside. I was disappointed in myself when that happened. I knew that I had this urge to get back into it, but I didn’t know how.”

When Looney was accepted as a resident artist at the Zhou B, “I thought, this is it, this is my moment,” she says. “If I’m going to do this again, I need to do this right. I want a place where I feel inspired to work and I want the people around me to have that same mindset. I can take my art career to another level.”

Looney’s subject matter focuses on family, friends and occasionally other African Americans who capture her gaze.

“Growing up, my mom exposed me to art and we went to the Nelson (-Atkins Museum of Art) a lot,” she says. “There were beautiful paintings in there that dated back centuries, but we didn’t see a lot of people that looked like us in the work. We’re here and we’re beautiful and we’re vibrant. I just want that to come across in my work.”

Looney hopes to have her first solo show later this year, culling old family photos to paint as subjects, “but with a twist, with a childlike style to reinvent them.” In the meantime, she’s honing her “studio groove” with “wall space that is a godsend,” she says, as she increasingly gets to know and exchange ideas with her fellow studio artists.

“I’ve had more conversations with them,” she says. “I’ve been able to even come into some of their studios to see their process and ask questions: What do you think about this? Well, I’m going to do this with this. What do you think about this color? Whoa, that’s great.

“That’s valuable in itself to get those extra eyes, not just from other people but other artists, who are creative and have the same kind of mind that you have.”

Looney frequently reflects on the legacy of the building that she’s making art in. It’s a place where the unfair past meets the fairer, if however-flawed, present and beckons a better future.

“This isn’t just an art studio building,” Looney says. “People were educated here. People have grown up here. It had been closed down, but it just didn’t go to waste. I thought it was a good idea to repurpose a school and bring art into this space, because it’s almost along the same lines. Because with art there always comes education. Always. There always comes people learning and growing and it’s always bringing together community. Of course, it will be more diverse now. It was historic in the area at the time, but now it will be, I guess you could say, a new history.”

Looney believes that the Zhou B can attract more than art lovers — don’t forget about the folks who may yet discover their love of art there. Initially, public admission to the art center was generally limited to appointments with studio artists and special events. But with increased public awareness of the Zhou B, increased access seems likely. Stay tuned.

“People are going to be excited to see what’s in here,” Looney says. “This is actually a big draw. This is a magnet over here. Down the line, who knows what’s possible with the Zhou B Art Center. Anything’s possible.”

Don Wilkison with a slab of vintage elementary school blackboard that he salvaged from a dumpster outside the art center. He’s thinking about turning it into art.  (photo by Brian McTavish)

Making a Jewel

Interdisciplinary artist, activist, former scientist and self-described “bona fide senior citizen” Don Wilkison has worked in his share of studio spaces, and each has had something special to offer.

But it took Wilkison’s move to the Zhou B Art Center, in the process of being transformed from an old school building, to provide him his first vintage slate chalkboard.

“I walked past the dumpster and there was this chalkboard that had been broken and wasn’t needed anymore,” Wilkison says. “And I was like, ‘Well, that’s exactly what I need.’”

That’s because Wilkison often makes art out of found materials that he can repurpose. What would he do with the chalkboard? He wasn’t sure.

“It represents the actual history of the place, because it’s been here since the building was built,” Wilkison says. “It also represents how we pick and choose what we want to keep.

“One thought is, okay, we fix it in a way and just frame it and hang it on the wall here. And we say — and this is like real conceptual art — this is the work. The work is the chalkboard and the repair and the history and all of the ideas, all the thousands of things that were drawn on this thing, and it’s all imbedded in this work. And I don’t have to say anything more than that. That may be what it is.”

After all of the makeover dust has cleared at the Zhou B, what might it optimally become in Kansas City’s perceived art ecosystem?

“I’d rather not think about it in the context of some Crossroads or East Crossroads or other (art) areas,” Wilkison says. “It would be better if it became such a jewel that it defined itself and sort of supplanted maybe some of the other things that are happening in other parts of the city.”

To see that occur, Wilkison says, it will take active and ongoing input from Zhou B artists.

“If you have artists in play, you have to listen to their voice . . .” he says. “Let’s have this event or let’s do this thing. There’s space here for music and outdoor events. There’s space for things that could be tied to food.

“I want it to be a place where all aspects of contemporary art are embraced. And that’s from the whole gamut of painting, sculpture, music, art installation, experimentation. Actually, maybe the most important thing would be what kind of experimentation comes out of this place. Because I think that’s when the most interesting and vital art happens. It’s when people have the freedom and ability to do that kind of stuff.”

A Good Fit

Portrait artist and illustrator Anita Easterwood had a gut feeling about renting her studio space at the Zhou B Art Center.

“I knew it was going to be a good fit,” Easterwood says. “The space was calling my name.”

Indeed, she wanted to be an artist at the Zhou B — one who looked like the kids who would have been there many decades ago, when it was a segregated school.

“And I wanted to represent the artists still in that area,” Easterwood says. “The artists have always been here in the neighborhood. Talent has always been here . . . and if they don’t have a studio here, they can come to what’s offered here, whether it’s workshops, exhibitions, whatever.”

Easterwood’s highly detailed graphite art depicts Black life, Black beauty and Black struggle.

“I create Black people in my work 99.9 percent of the time, because that’s the story I want to tell,” she says, adding: “I’m not the one that needs to show diversity. If you want to see whiteness or something else, you can find plenty of other artists to do that.”

When Easterwood gives community talks and works with students in after-school programs, “I tell everybody about this studio space,” she says. “I just want it to be in their minds that, hey, there’s something close by that’s for you, that’s for your family, whether you’re an artist or not.

“I’m always thinking about that aspect. How can I get the next generation to get a look inside of my world? And so I tell them (the art center) isn’t done yet, but you can reach out to the organization here to see when you can get a tour, so you can bring your family, you can bring your class and you are more than welcome to check out my space, as well. I was a school teacher for a couple of years, so that’s my passion.”

Morning Light

Zhou B Art Center mixed-media artist and designer Hollie Blakeney has lived in 47 places around the world.

“I’m always like, ‘Well, let’s go here,” Blakeney says. “I don’t collect things. I collect experiences. And being in this space is really just adding something else to my collection of experiences.”

So far, so great, at the Zhou B, Blakeney says, including the prized light that streams through her studio’s massive windows.

“I love the morning light,” she says. “I’ve got windows that are 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide, and I’m facing due east exactly. I’m up high and I can see as far as the horizon in the distance, so that light is a lovely light. And it changes in my space.”

One thing that doesn’t change: Blakeney’s multi-layered mixed-media work must sell. And working within the decidedly upscale environs of the Zhou B can only help business.

“Things are still very new,” Blakeney says. “There are still people moving in. The building isn’t complete yet. But the potential moving forward is huge — is huge — as an artist. Just being associated with the name, to be able to put on my business card ‘Artist in Residence at the Zhou B Art Center of Kansas City’ has a bit of cachet to it. I honestly think that it will develop the reputation of being a place that, if you have an affiliation, people will maybe take you a little bit more seriously than if you’re just working out of your spare bedroom.”

Commerce aside, Blakeney is also looking forward to the art center’s prospectively increasing impact on the public.

“It can be a catalyst for things,” she says. “As an artist, someone comes in with their kids from the local community and I meet them and talk with them. And the next thing you know, we’re figuring out how to have outdoor art workshops for kids in the neighborhood. You have to have some way to make connections. And this space, I think, will be very conducive to that.”

Edwing Mendez (at right) who has an advertising background, shares a large studio full of colorful prints, mixed media, design work and portrait paintings with painter/muralist/metal sculptor Rodrigo Alvarez, printmaker Erick Felix and painter/muralist Isaac Tapia, whose painting “Stay Pimpin” appears at left. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Cultural Nuance

Designer Edwing Mendez shares a large studio at the Zhou B Art Center with painter/muralist Isaac Tapia, painter/muralist and metal sculptor Rodrigo Alvarez, and printmaker Erick Felix.

Part of the quartet’s artistic mission is to authentically represent their cultural heritage, which all too frequently is misrepresented by stereotypes.

“All four of us have a very strong perspective on cultural identity being ingrained into the work that we do,” Mendez says. “So we can show and share who we are.

“But it’s not always trying to represent specifically a traditional Mexican point of view. It’s also being able to show what it looks like when we create our own stories for those of us who have been here for a couple generations or have mixed identities. That’s where we really look for that nuance, because no one type fits all, even when you get down to something as narrow as Mexican American.”

The quartet’s colorful studio is adorned with an amalgam of artworks carefully arranged to first catch the eye of visitors and then pleasingly lead them through the space.

“As a designer, I really enjoy thinking through the user experience,” Mendez says. “If you design websites and apps, as I do, those are just digital versions of the physical world. So whenever I’m in the space, I really like thinking about how it’s laid out. How are we using it? The person that walks through that door, what is the first thing they’re seeing? That’s one thing that I’ve been excited to bring to my studio mates.”

As much as Mendez loves some of the other artist spaces that he’s viewed in Kansas City, he was seeking a “level of polish” that the Zhou B undeniably delivered.

“I was looking to feel like I’ve made a step up,” Mendez says. “And this space gave me that. When I walked in and saw the tall ceilings, the big open windows and the view of the skyline, I felt, if I’m here, I’m going to get that sense of moving forward.

“And I definitely am excited to see what happens when we actually are able to get public access, and we can have more consistently open studios. We can have events where we bring people in more regularly. I want to see how that might change the dynamic.”

Artist Bryce Holt (left) and his brother and business partner Kyle Holt in a studio they share at the Zhou B Art Center (photo by Jim Barcus)

Blown Away

Granted, some things in life are complicated.

Other things not so much, says story-driven surrealist acrylic painter Bryce Holt, who, with his brother and business partner Kyle Holt — who together call themselves the Patrons — have been nothing short of amazed since taking up residency at the Zhou B Art Center.

“This is real, real simple,” Bryce says. “Artists need their work to be seen. And the best way to support the arts is to acquire art from artists. That’s a challenge for anybody. But the Zhou B is already opening those doors.

“It’s got plenty of art gallery space. It’s got a huge amount of studio space. It’s got beautiful wall space. There’s nothing that when you walk in, you’re, ‘Ooh, I can’t bring a client in.’ You’re actually like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to bring my clients in here.’ This is a class-A art space for any artist that comes in. If you walk into an art space like Zhou B, you’re going to be blown away.”

Wait, there’s more.

“Everyone who comes in and sees art at the Zhou B is somebody that I otherwise likely would not have been able to touch with my own connections,” Bryce says, such as the dozens of potential business contacts, including CEOs, who attended his two gallery shows earlier this year at the Zhou B.

Significant sales were made from those gallery shows, but only after the conversations.

“And the conversations started organically,” Bryce says. “Anytime that you can have people come into an art center as beautiful as this and strike up a conversation, that’s a huge win.”

The Patrons was formed by the Holts in 2021 after the brothers sold their successful e-learning business after 20 years. Up until then, Bryce’s painting had been a hobby.

“I told Kyle, ‘I want to paint full-time the rest of my life,’” Bryce recalls. “And to his credit, he was just like, ‘Well, you paint it and I’ll promote it,’ and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

Kyle’s take: “If he was on his own, Bryce would move at a third of the speed. By having me here, he can move so fast in his creation. And that allows me to constantly have new concepts for events and ideas.”

“I’m a fast painter,” Bryce says. “I can paint about 70 pieces a year. And you can do all that work, but if you’re doing it in a silo, if you don’t have the ability to bring those people into a place like this, then you miss a huge part of your opportunity. And the place makes the artwork better.”

For more information, www.zhoubartcenterkc.com

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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