Emerging Artists in the Spotlight: Foxes in the Fortress

Artist-Run Vulpes Bastille Specializes in Studios and Shows for Emerging Artists

What’s an emerging artist in Kansas City to do after art school? Caranne Camarena, like so many of her fellow Kansas City Art Institute painting majors circa 2012, had to decide: Stay or go. Return to hometown XYZ? Embark for coastal art capitals or Chicago? Maybe grad school? Stick it out in KC with a group of friends and splash into the frothy local scene?

About halfway through her senior year, Camarena and her non-artist parents — dad an entrepreneur and mom in corporate finance — were kicking around ideas for real estate investment. Camarena knew plenty of artists, herself included, that would need studio space after graduation to continue their work.

Finding affordable studio space is always a challenge for artists in Kansas City. The options were, and still are, limited. That’s what activated the idea of finding a building to convert into functioning art studios leased at affordable rates with utilities included. They envisioned a studio space for young artists who would stay and thrive in Kansas City. It got even more real when three of Camarena’s friends said they were in.

The East Crossroads was just far enough off the beaten path that there were still some interesting abandoned buildings for sale. In 2012 Camarena and her parents found an old print shop right off 18th and Locust that might’ve been an older dancehall, built in the 1920s. The three went into business together. Vulpes, the genus name for the fox species, and Bastille, the infamous French fortress/hideout/prison, was the unusual name Camarena came up with.

The shoebox interior space facing the street still had hexagon mosaic tile and an ugly drop ceiling, but the rest of the building was a large cavernous warehouse, a grubby blank slate. Camarena modeled the ten-by-ten-foot studios on the one she had in school. It was pretty rough and took a couple years to finish out, one row of studios at a time. They built, and the artists kept coming. Rarely was there a vacancy.

Camarena never intended to have a gallery. But when asked to hang a senior painting show in the mostly unrenovated front space, she agreed. When exhibition requests looked like they would continue, she and her parents decided to invest in rehabbing the space, exposing the 16-foot ceilings and building proper gallery walls. Camarena soon realized she needed help.

Mark Allen, a KC native who’d studied art at Pepperdine University and spent time in Los Angeles, came back to town and got a studio space at Vulpes Bastille. He volunteered to take on event organizing, communications and photography needs. Thomas Luna, a classmate of Camarena’s at the Kansas City Art Institute, came on board with an interest in curating. He had interned at the nearby Studios Inc residency program, where he developed his gallery installation chops. The gallery exhibitions were gaining momentum, as they put on several group and solo shows, usually of studio residents, their friends or their own work.

Five years have flown by, but the learning curve has been constant. The VB crew has rented to a wide variety of artists and gotten better at discerning who will be actively engaged in making. They’re currently at capacity with 10 artists on site. The residents feed off of, support and critique each other. In an era of colossal student debt, this could be a compelling alternative to chasing the tarnished MFA grail.

With the team in place, the exhibition program has taken on a life of its own. The shows are sophisticated, expanding on the collective artists’ art-school smarts, but maintaining an under-the-radar vibe.

“Wounded Nature” brought together a wide span of artistic disciplines – sculpture, sound, fiber, installation and painting – by artists that embrace the tension of contradiction and dissonance in the work.

“DISCO TURF” was a collaborative event that combined a fashion show launching a new ready-to-wear collection by Anna Van Gheem, the debut issue of “Likewise Magazine,” and a short film screening by Camile Messerley.

Luna curated “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” presenting seven artists that demonstrate an unshakeable commitment to their practice and the role of intentionality in their processes.

“When We Wake to Desire” featured work by Patricia Graham, Kristina Noelle, Braden Bandel and Molly Dillon exploring “the interaction of color, figure, and frame to communicate individual encounters with desire.”

In January 2018 VB studio artists Phillip Bakala and Emily Wilker teamed up to present recent experiments with landscape. As Allen summarized: “Some seem post-apocalyptic, some seem to resonate with childhood nostalgia, and some landscapes seem to feature other-worldly atmospheres.”

The East Crossroads is well on its way, with new development occurring all around Vulpes Bastille. While First Fridays has worn a path to the gallery door, Camarena, Allen and Luna plan to expand programming to include performance, films and other events throughout the year. The gallery got a recent facelift with a bold new fox mural to increase its visibility. Vulpes Bastille is here to stay as one of the only artist-owned spaces in the Crossroads.

Artists helping artists — it’s a beautiful thing.

Vulpes Bastille, 1737 Locust Street, is open First Fridays and by appointment, vulpesbastille@gmail.com. For March First Fridays, the gallery will present Kansas City Art Institute senior thesis exhibitions. For more information, www.vulpesbastille.com

Above: Vulpes Bastille owner and curator Caranne Camarena (center), founded the gallery and studio space at 1737 Locust St. in 2012. Artist Thomas Luna serves as the gallery director and also curates shows; artist Mark Allen (right) is communications director. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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