Community Collaborators – Style Weekly

Despite Studio Two Three buying a 16,000-square-foot building to house its nonprofit arts center, their goal remains the same: to keep things small and scrappy.

Since 2008, the community arts space has been on a mission to empower artists to create art and to make personal and social change. The collective got its start in a tiny studio at Plant Zero, paying $400 a month in rent and wondering how they were going to afford it.

A move to Main Street in the Fan followed and in 2015, Studio Two Three moved to Clay Street in Scott’s Addition. “Each move felt scary,” says Executive Director Ashley Hawkins. “But they were all incremental jumps to get us to where we are today.”

Through COVID-19 and Richmond’s summer of civil unrest and protest, Studio Two Three stayed busy, transforming its community event space into a socially distant mask-making operation and coordinating over 150 artist volunteers in the production of 10,000 masks for Richmond’s essential workers.

It held community print days at various locations throughout the city to offer free printed T-shirts, prints and banners to support the movement to Defend Black Lives and partnered with a consortium of Richmond historians and artisans on a series of re-contextualized signs that shared Richmond’s Black history.

As life stabilized after the pandemic, leaving a changed Richmond and a landlord not willing to sell the building it occupied, Studio Two Three’s board realized it was time to begin looking in earnest for a permanent home. When the former Dogtown Dance building in Manchester went on the market in March 2022, the board set out to purchase it.

Studio Two Three’s new home is located in the former Dogtown Dance building in Manchester, located at 109 W 15th St. Photo by Scott Elmquist

“It felt like an alignment of values, keeping this building as an arts organization,” Hawkins says. “It was originally built in 1939 as the Bainbridge Vocational School, so it had a hands-on history with shop classrooms and food labs so the transition to Studio Two Three made complete sense.”

Unlike on Clay Street, which was one big open space, the Manchester building has rooms. Downstairs are the print studios, one for traditional printmaking processes such as letterpress, etching, linoleum printing and any kind of offset printing and a second for screen printing, where the studio’s merchandise is printed. Bookmaking, complete with a binding machine and saddle stitch stapler, and Risograph printing for large run printing jobs occupy yet another room.

Having the opportunity to design the space to suit their needs resulted in a much-improved configuration. “It’s laid out so much better because we worked with the architect on what equipment we had and how it should be grouped,” Hawkins says. “It’s a definite leveling up of our print shop for users. We’ve elevated the print shop but it’s still fun and playful and collaborative.”

Upstairs in the sunny former gymnasium is the studio’s merchandise shop and what’s called the “fun room,” where events such as film screenings, square dances, game nights, community meetings take place, with private studios behind the stage.

Above it, the mezzanine space is devoted to a zine library and lounge. “There’s such potential to build deep community ties here,” Hawkins says. “We want to be a resource for our neighbors. We tell them to use it because it’s theirs, so they’ll have a sense of ownership.”

The buildout involved the addition of the private studios, staircases and a new roof and was completed in time to open Studio Two Three’s doors at their new digs on Nov. 15, 2023. The mezzanine and lobby are still a work in progress. Plans for the exterior, including a garden comprised of native plants, green spaces for gathering, walking, shade and sitting as well as community events, should be complete in late spring or early summer.

Educational programming had to be put on hold during construction, but core classes are expected to resume in February or March. A full spring calendar with a wide array of class offerings will follow shortly after.

Studio Two Three, with over 100 artist members, offers classes and workshops, artist residencies, and, essential to their community-minded spirit, open doors. Currently, all 18 private studios are rented, many by artists who had studios at Clay Street.

And while private studios are taken, membership is wide open. Members are given 24/7 access to printing presses, a darkroom, a digital lab, and communal workspace to support art making for change. “We’re accepting new members all the time,” Hawkins says. “If you’re interested, reach out and let us know on our website and we’ll give you a tour.”

When Studio Two Three first launched, it was with the intention of procuring donated printing equipment. Today, 60% of their equipment is donated, a testament to how well built it is. “There’s a legacy here in terms of this space as well as the equipment,” she says. “People in all stages of their printmaking career, from students to beginners to professionals, are welcome here. It’s great to see people across all age groups and levels of experience working here, having fun.”

The community element that has defined Studio Two Three since day one is a big part of that. A nonprofit can’t stay small and scrappy with a bloated administration, so the focus is kept on printmakers. “We’re all about saying yes to community collaboration so we can use our resources to support others in their efforts,” Hawkins says. “We’re all about the ‘go for it!’ vibe.”

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