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Thursday, July 22, 2004 02:26 am

Cooperation makes it easy

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Sue Schwartz, founder of the Studio on 6th artists’ co-op
PHOTO BY MIKEL WEISSER

Passersby can't help but notice the vibrantly decorated furniture and vivid display windows. Colors of every shade and objects of every shape draw visitors to the violet building on Sixth Street that once housed a Mel-O-Cream shop.

Inside, works of art cover the bright-blue walls; hundreds more fill shelves and counters.

Where customers used to stock up on doughnuts they now find refinished furniture, hand-painted and locally designed clothing, decorated household wares, lamps and paperweights, note cards and stationery, jewelry and sculpture, thingamabobs and doodads. Instead of cream-filled pastries there are brightly painted grinning birds, made of gourds and fitted with polished-copper appendages.

Downtown Springfield already boasts numerous arts and crafts venues, but the new Studio on 6th, an artists' cooperative, offers a new variation on the theme. So far, 30 Illinois artists from as far away as Chicago have joined the co-op. They volunteer and pay their share of the fees for rent and utilities on the leased space, which, located just south of the Old State Capitol, is not cheap.

Studio on 6th is brainchild of local artist/entrepreneur Sue Schwartz, originally from Highland, Ill. Doing land-office business since opening in early April, Schwartz's "little co-op that could" has become the subject of buzz on Sixth Street.

Schwartz managed several St. Louis retail stores and owned a clothing store in Highland before moving to Springfield six years ago. Finally finding time to develop her artwork, she soon had a comfortable home-based business creating decorative items for private homes. But Schwartz found it difficult to work as an artist without a steady place to show her work and knew that other artists she'd met and liked were facing the same frustrations. Then, last winter, while visiting her daughter in Sedona, Ariz., Schwartz visited the mountainside artists' community of Jerome and was inspired by the co-ops there.

On her return to Springfield, Schwartz called a couple of artists she knew and studied the program from last September's Edwards Place Fine Crafts Show to get an idea of which artists she hoped to enlist. Finally, in March, Schwartz sent a notice to the State Journal-Register, which published a short article on her idea. "The morning it came out, my phone never stopped ringing," she recalls. "I knew that, schedule-wise, it seemed to make more sense to expect to open later, mid-April or even May, but with Easter and the Old Capitol Art Fair coming, I didn't think we should wait. We literally came in here on a Thursday and opened the following Friday. It was hard, a big leap of faith."

Pleased with the brisk walk-in traffic -- a mix of locals and tourists -- Schwartz finds that her customers are well educated, recognizing styles and materials when they look at the pieces in the studio. With her wealth of retail experience and having written the sales manuals for several stores, she knows what it takes to keep the gallery fresh and friendly. "I'm always moving the displays around to keep it interesting for our regular customer base," she says. "There are a lot of people who keep coming back just to see what changes. You don't have to do a sales job; the art speaks for itself."

One of the shop's favorite artists is Springfield's Annette Curry Johnson, who paints busy, colorful works in the shape of the Lincoln silhouette. Johnson offers a full line of work, including magnets, wall plaques and paintings, stationery, and even T-shirts. Springfield artists Lon and Nancy Scott, who also display work at Studio on 6th, work with wood, producing gorgeous handmade ballpoint pens, unique boxes, carved-wood flowers, and painted objects, including original tiles from the Dana Thomas Carriage House. Nancy Scott says the co-op retail outlet has been a great help. "It is much easier to set up in an art co-op like this than to have to set up in various fairs and different places."

One of the more successful artists involved with the co-op is Springfield bead- and jewelry-maker Angela Kramp. In the last year, Kramp's handmade glass beads have exploded on the market. The national sporting-apparel line Fresh Produce has seven stores across the country marketing her work and another five preparing to do so. Beginning in September, Kramp's beads will be featured on QVC.

For the effervescent Kramp, joining the co-op has been a life-altering experience: "It's so much fun, it's not like work. I can't imagine a better way to make a living than making and selling these beads. I used work as a family therapist counseling abused and neglected children, which is some pretty heavy work. The studio was the catalyst which helped me break away from counseling and start doing beadwork full time."

Springfield fabric artist Lou Ann Moore's work has also blossomed since Moore joined the co-op. Moore had been working with fabric since the age of 16, but the co-op has brought her work new life. Since taking up fabric painting, Moore has made and sold everything from curtains to baby clothes, including ties, book covers, and lunch sacks. "Sue has been really instrumental in guiding my work. The whole atmosphere has been great for creativity," Moore says, beaming.

Each artist's monthly share of the costs of running the co-op varies on the basis of how many artists are participating, the size of the artist's display space, and the monthly utility costs. It's a formula as complicated as calculus, but there is bright side for the artists and their customers: "When you pay $10 for something; the artist gets that whole $10," Schwartz says.

Another important innovation on Schwartz' part is doing away with the traditional booths that so often constrict craft stores with a variety of artists. "Around here," Schwartz says, "display space is not done with square feet or inches. Some people need wall space, some need shelf space; the artist will know how to display their work better than anyone else."

In addition to the items for sale, the co-op offers a calendar of workshops on a variety of art projects, including faux tie-dye, metal and clay jewelry, beadwork, and mosaic. Schwartz hopes to soon make use of the building's large basement for Saturday-morning children's workshops. Call for workshop details.

The Studio on 6th is located at 215 S. Sixth St., 217-522-8006. Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon., Tue., Thu. and Fri.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wed.; and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

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