Lofty living

After a year in the hippest digs in town, residents of the Riverside Artists Lofts say imaginative juices are flowing and a sense of community is growing.

John R. Hawkins says he loves having a music room to practice in.

John R. Hawkins says he loves having a music room to practice in.

Photo By David Robert

“You get all these creative minds bunched together, and we each have our own brand of weirdness, because that comes along with being an artist. That’s what makes you an artist. We each know our own kind of weird, cool people and our connections, and you put those together, and it’s like a brain. It’s like fwoom!—super creativity now, because we have all those connections, over here, over here, over here, over here, over here. It’s everywhere.”

You’ll have to excuse Rob Gonzalez for being so excited. Once you get him talking about life at the Riverside Artist Lofts, he just can’t seem to stop.

“I tell people about how neat it is, because I know all my neighbors, and they can’t really understand that. That’s terrible,” Gonzalez, 25, says. “I think the plight of the American condition right now is we’re losing all our sense of community and becoming fearful of each other and hateful of each other for no good reason.”

Gonzalez’s passion for his newfound community is common at the Riverside. Ask any one of the dancers, poets, painters or musicians who have been living there for the past year, and chances are you’ll get the same reaction: a feeling of energy and inspiration, a fresh enthusiasm for art and a sense of community rarely found in the average neighborhood today. Or, as Gonzalez puts it, “It’s like Burning Man all the time.”

Well, Burning Man minus the public nudity, he clarifies.

If these walls could talk
In 1924, legendary local George Wingfield purchased property by the Truckee River where, two years prior, the Riverside Hotel had been destroyed in a fire. Wingfield hired architect Frederic J. DeLong-champs to design a new hotel, and the now familiar look of the Riverside was born.

Wingfield’s Riverside opened in 1927 and soon became a haven for Reno’s influx of aspiring divorcées. A new west wing and a swimming pool were added in 1950, and then the hotel remained essentially the same until it closed in December of 1986.

And there it sat until 1997, when the Reno Redevelopment Agency took ownership of the building at 17 N. Virginia St. and began looking for partners interested in restoring it. Seeing a golden opportunity, local arts organization Sierra Arts approached Artspace Projects Inc. about turning the Riverside into live/work spaces for local artists.

By then, Artspace had an impressive track record in its home state of Minnesota, renovating half a dozen old buildings into affordable housing, offices and performance spaces for artists. The organization was getting its feet wet out of state as well, tackling projects in Pittsburgh and Portland.

The Riverside was bought for a song: $350,000, or about 10 percent of the building’s estimated value. The renovation cost roughly $6.9 million and was finished by October 2000.

The loft’s natural light is great for Suzi Rough’s pastel and watercolor works.

Photo By David Robert

The result was 35 apartments with open, flexible floor plans and large windows that offer not only abundant natural light—an ideal condition for visual artists—but also some of the most enviable views around. Living along the Truckee River, residents have easy access to Wingfield Park, the Century Riverside 12 movie theater, the hip First Street culture corridor, several art galleries and the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, not to mention Reno’s downtown core of casinos, restaurants and bars.

Apartments range in price from $301 per month for a one-bedroom to $638 for a three-bedroom. This is a great deal by any standard, but an absolute steal when you consider that the living space ranges from 780 to 1,450 square feet—about twice that of an average Reno apartment of the same price.

All of the lofts have painted concrete floors—carpet just won’t do when messy art supplies are a part of daily life—but each loft is as unique as its inhabitant.

Visual artist Wes Lee, 43, has gone the minimalist route, pushing all of his furniture against the walls and using practically his entire living room as a studio. Along the hallway from his front door to the living area runs a wooden railing, where paintings in various states of completeness are lined up on the wall. What might be a bedroom or a storage area is barely visible behind a conglomeration of easels and tall tables brimming with brightly colored pastels. The loft matches Lee’s subdued personality perfectly, with his slightly rumpled hair and simple, solid-colored clothing. Even the 17.5-foot-high ceilings seem designed for his lanky, 6-foot-4-inch frame.

Walk into Mary Bennett’s loft, however, and prepare for a study in opposites. Whereas Lee’s home is simple and spacious, Bennett’s is positively sumptuous. The 35-year-old performance artist has a fondness for plushy pillows, which are scattered all over the numerous sofas and loveseats. Warm, mellow lighting comes in the form of lamps placed all about the loft, save for the neon form of a woman reclining in a martini glass. Even her Siamese kitty, Never, gets in on the comfort game, greeting visitors with much purring and leg-rubbing. Bennett’s long, wavy red hair and cozy, free-flowing clothes are as relaxing as the glass of wine she offers at the door.

Space to paint
The night before Sierra Arts began taking rental applications, a small group of artists actually camped out in front of the offices. Cello player John R. Hawkins and his roommate were seventh in line.

“My roommate had the plans and knew the layout out of the building before we got in here,” Hawkins says. “Before we even signed the lease, he added to the track lighting and painted the floor and had his pictures up.”

Why would a person wait overnight on these cold Reno streets for a chance to live at the Riverside Artist Lofts? For Lee, who was third in line that night, it was partially a matter of convenience.

“Before moving in here, I was renting a studio space in a warehouse over on North Edison, and so I was commuting from my apartment to there and splitting my time,” Lee says. “Now, not only do I no longer have to commute, but I also have a nicer, bigger space to work in. … I didn’t have everything I would like to have real available over there. It was split between my apartment and there. Here, everything’s all where I can find it, and get to it, if I want to use it.”

But Lee, who also teaches art part-time at Truckee Meadows Community College, says the lofts offered something else the warehouse couldn’t.

“It’s just a more friendly, inspiring place,” he says. “It’s more like a home, instead of a cold warehouse … It was just a functional place where I went before, and here, it’s a much more inspiring place to paint a picture and come up with ideas.”

Performance artist Mary Bennett likes living next door to her workplace, the Brüka Theatre.

Photo By David Robert

Lee now feels comfortable enough in his live/work space that he often invites other artists to join him in his loft for a session with a live model, something that he rarely did before.

“There’s enough space here, and it’s more of a welcoming space to invite people over to—to get together in groups and split the cost of the model,” he says. “It’s good for the model, and it’s good for us.”

For Suzi Rough, a 52-year-old visual artist from Dallas, the Riverside was an added bonus to moving to the Reno area. She says the art scene in her hometown wasn’t very receptive to her representational, or realistic, artwork.

“In Dallas, everyone’s doing abstract [art], and they’re really into more modern [art], which I may move into. But for now, this is the way I want to express it,” she says. “But when I came here, there are so many opportunities here to show your art. It’s incredible. As big as Dallas is—and this is like one-ninety-ninth the size of Dallas—I’ve had more opportunities here, and real opportunity, than I ever would have had there.”

Rough began showing her work here while visiting her sister in Minden, and she heard about the Riverside at one of those shows.

“I couldn’t come in because they were doing construction, but I just looked at the building, and I just knew,” she says. “I knew instantly it was where I needed to be. So, sight unseen, I moved here from Texas.”

Joining the Riverside community was also quite a leap for Bonnie Golde, who says she’s always considered herself “a cabin-in-the-woods kind of a person.” The visual artist and singer-songwriter moved into the building on her 64th birthday.

“I’d never lived downtown before, in any city, for 64 years,” Golde says. “It was scary, a little bit, to move to downtown Reno. I’m not into casinos, and there they are. But it has been a wonderful trip.”

Before moving into her loft, Golde lived in a small cabin in Crystal Bay for three years. While the cabin was more in her comfort zone, it did little for her in the way of art.

“Everything was in the closet,” she says. “I’d kind of get a little spurt, and [there would be] paper and paints all over the floor. And I’d paint for a couple weeks and finally think, ‘I gotta put this away, because it’s getting in my way now, all over the floor.’ “

Space to collaborate
While Bennett is probably best known around town for her work with Brüka Theatre, she also teaches children’s theater classes and has a particular fondness for making masks. During this summer’s annual month-long Artown festival, Bennett invited her fellow Riverside residents to join in a project called Critical Mask.

Bonnie Golde mostly works in tempera paints, but she’s trying her hand at torn paper art.

Photo By David Robert

“We all made masks and tried to include as many people from the artist lofts,” she says. “[We] tried to tap people from this little, small community that we have going on … to be involved in this project, where we all made these huge masks. And we went during Artown and sort of invaded the park.

“It was a beautiful afternoon, and it was like, ‘Wow!’ We wouldn’t have had this many artists to use before last year. How easy it is to go tap on people’s doors and say, ‘Yeah, we’re making these masks, come down and do this.’ It’s really cool. I love it.”

While Bennett says there is definitely a growing sense of community at the Riverside Artist Lofts, there’s still a long row to hoe.

“I think we’re still getting to know each other. We’re still all very much in that phase—probably first grade in our relationships—and we’ll grow that way,” she says. “Pretty soon we’ll be out of grade school, and we’ll be in middle school. We’ll have middle-school relationships. Then we’ll have high-school relationships.”

Bennett grins.

“That’ll be lovely,” she says.

The future of the Riverside community is very much a mystery to Bennett, but it’s a mystery she’s looking forward to solving.

“God, I know there’s so much here to do. I wonder what that is,” she says. “And it is tapping each other, taking that time to hit each other up. That’s our next step. Already, a lot of people are doing that. I think you’ll see that a whole lot more. Once we know each other for another year, and trust each other.”

Rob Gonzalez says the community-building process is going slowly, but surely.

“We’re slowly trying to figure this out,” he says. “It’s a total learning process. It’s something you don’t get to learn anymore as kids, when you’re afraid of your neighbors and don’t really have a community. We’re learning to be more tribal about the whole thing.”

Bonnie Golde says she made more of an effort to get to know her neighbors at the Riverside.

Rob Gonzalez says being around other artists inspired him to self-publish a book.

Photo By David Robert

“I went out of my way, I think, when I moved in,” she says. “Everybody that I would see on the elevator that was moving in at the same time I was, I would introduce myself and ask them what they did, and what floor, and try to break the ice immediately.”

It should be easier to break the ice once Dreamer’s Coffeehouse opens in the building’s first floor in December. And now that Sierra Arts has moved into the Riverside, with gallery space on the first floor and offices on the mezzanine level, things should really start picking up, says cellist John R. Hawkins.

“Sierra Arts has now come in, so that sort of, I think, tied the building in a little bit better, with the art gallery and the different events they bring into it,” he says. “So I think we’ll have more activities.”

Creative sparks
For Gonzalez, contact with so many creative minds is already having a positive effect on his work. Since moving into the lofts, he self-published his first book, a small collection of original poems, prose and artwork titled Philosophodelic Poetry.

“It’s only since I moved here that I even had the faintest idea that I could get a book out there,” he says. “I found, just from telling my neighbors what I’d like to happen, which is a book, it just came to me somehow. … I only really even dared to think about it once I moved here. I thought it’d be too hard otherwise.”

Lee says he enjoys having other artists around to critique each other’s work.

“Those of us that get together and do that, we have just found something in common with the direction we’re going in, and we give each other feedback,” Lee says. “There are a few painters in the building, and of that group there is a smaller group of us who interact in the way of a critique. But there is a small group of us who are doing that, and we all really value that.”

He also says that being around other working artists can push him to work harder.

“That is an added bonus, on top of just your own incentive to get something done, knowing that a friend is dropping by to see what your progress has been,” he says. “Nobody wants to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t get anything done.’ “

Now that Golde has a whole room for a studio, she’s done more than take the paper and paints out of the closet. For the first time in four years, she says, she’s showing her work publicly. She has 10 paintings on display at Esoteric Coffeehouse & Gallery on First Street (all signed with her nickname, “Bonanza") and has shown at a handful of other galleries as well.

And with the encouragement of local musician Genie Webster, who invited Golde to sing at an event called Diva Sundays at Esoteric Coffehouse & Gallery, Golde began to perform her original music publicly too.

“I said, ‘You know, microphones scare me. I’m a campfire diva.’ But I did,” Golde says. “And what they would do is bring a candle and put it on the floor in front of me, so I would think, ‘OK. There’s a campfire.’ “

Hawkins says being around so many talented people makes him want to practice his cello even more, and he’s considering auditioning for the Reno Philharmonic again. He’s also collaborating with several of his neighbors on a performance that will commemorate the opening of the new AT&T building. After a skit and a dance number, Hawkins will close the performance with a cello solo.

Bennett says living at the Riverside has helped her look at the Reno art community in a new way—and she thinks Reno will, too.

“A lot of times, when you’re working as an artist, people don’t think you’re as good of an artist if you’re from Reno … especially because Reno never had a sense of an artist community before,” she says. “And now that we have that, we as artists can say, ‘No, but we do. We have an artists’ community. Look what’s happening downtown. Look what we’re doing.’ And people are looking. …

“It makes me want to be here more and invest my time, because it’s worth it."