As you drive along the 4900 block of Fifth Avenue South, you might not immediately notice the new life in long-empty buildings. But new vitality has taken over portions of a 1940s red brick commercial space.
Two groups of young artists have rented spaces there and plan to do a wide variety of artwork and even offer art and yoga classes.
“This is turning into more of an art district than anything else,” says Andy Hawkins, who purchased the building in 2012 and now lives in an apartment upstairs. Hawkins told Weld last November that the Grand Avenue (as that stretch of Fifth Ave. was once known) location was ideal for someone interested in history.
The building has been home to a number of businesses through the years. “The building in the 1940s was built as a grocery store,” he says. Hawkins himself operated a small convenience store in that spot for about a year after he purchased the building, in the spirit of the local grocer’s, but it never gained enough customers to sustain it. A thrift store also operated there at one point.
Now, Hawkins is happy to have all five spaces in his building full. He says the owners of Head to Tails Dog Grooming and Boarding — which predated the arrival of the two groups of artists — plan to open an antique or furniture shop in the final space.
He says it has been easy for him to find tenants. “I have not had one [space] that was hard to rent yet.” He and his new tenants speak excitedly of the concentration of artists that are within a few blocks of Hawkins’ building. Several artists who work in metal and others who paint or use other media have moved into the area in recent years.
“There aren’t a bunch of art galleries in Birmingham,” says Kara Hall, standing in the space at 4911 Fifth Ave. South. Due to the DIY nature of the area and the kind of gallery she intends to run, Hall says “This is a perfect space for a gallery.”*
The two groups are joining another artist in the same building. Michael Frohock, who works in metal and paints, has occupied the space at 4909 Fifth Ave. South for some time.
Hall does mostly sculpture, including cast metal and assemblage pieces using found objects. She is sharing the space with Beth Rhodes, a painter who found the location through a Craigslist advertisement. She was using it only as a studio before Hall joined her. Rhodes and Hall are friends who both work at Continental Bakery and do their art during off hours.
Now the duo plan to turn the front part of their space into a gallery and the rear as a studio, using movable partitions to separate the areas. Hall is building the partitions and working on changing the plain white walls of the space. She is installing panels of rusty tin on walls. “I would like to have something more unique,” she says, adding that she a traded a landowner in Arab bread for the tin sheets.
The artists — Ashley Wingo, painters Lizzie Scruggs and Leah Thornton, who actually found the studio space, and Alec Mason, a lawyer and musician — leasing the space at 4913 Fifth Ave. South share the excitement of Rhodes and Hall.
Scruggs studied arts management and is spreading the word about what’s going on.
The foursome plans to use their space partly as a studio but also as a community art space, “a space for people to make art and just gather,” she says.
Wingo says, “We want to connect people. We want to connect art to people.”
Scruggs says they are working with Birmingham Free School, a new organization that coordinates free classes at locations around town. “We will have yoga, and we have had a movement class.”
According to Scruggs, Birmingham Free School helps pair teachers who want to offer free classes with locations where the classes can be taught. The next class, scheduled for April 22, will be on papier-mâché.
Wingo and Scruggs say their plans also call for art shows. They already have hosted one. “The first show that we had here, it was amazing how many people came,” Scruggs says.
Meanwhile, Scruggs and her friends are working on “creating something new out of something old” in their space. They have paint swatches hanging in a window area to help them decide what colors to use on outside trim.
Hall says the community has been very welcoming. “The potential of the neighborhood is overwhelming,” she says.
Others in the community and nearby artists have offered to help with renovation and decoration projects.
Wingo says she has worked on the sidewalk in front of the building and has experienced many drivers honking in appreciation. “It’s like a community that we already have on Fifth Avenue,” she says.
Although neither space has a sign yet, both groups have selected names. Rhodes and Hall have named theirs T-Rex Tiny Gallery. Wingo, Scruggs and their friends selected the name Something Good.
The new tenants plan to work together and with other artists in the area to create art events involving multiple galleries and studios. Hall says T-Rex Tiny Gallery will host its first show at 7 p.m. on May 30. Daisy Winfrey will present The Containment of Our Clothes.
May 30 will be the fifth Friday, and Hall says plans call for having “fifth Friday studio crawl” events that will occur about four times a year. Other artists, including Shea Scully, whose production workshop is nearby, will be open or host shows on those days to create a community event.
“Everyone wants to see this neighborhood become something,” Hall says.
Jonathan Fowler and Shelby McDonald want that as well. They opened Beauty Shock hair salon at 4831 Fifth Ave. South last month after spending months renovating the red brick building that they have learned was built as a power substation for the city’s streetcar system. It had housed a variety of businesses. In the last couple of years, though, they say it became an eyesore for the neighborhood.
Fowler and McDonald have completed the interior work. “It’s a combination of uptown meets downtown,” McDonald says. The pair have revamped the loft inside the building to house a second lounge and act as a space to display art. A kitchen and shampoo room occupy major parts of the main floor, but it’s the huge painting by artist John Lytle Wilson that attracts visitors’ attention. The painting — more than 8 feet tall — features a bright purple background, a unicorn, a rabbit and several red monkeys.
They say Wilson had many of his larger pieces in storage because they were hard to display. Several other pieces are hanging at Beauty Shock. “We are also working as a kind of expo for him for his art that wasn’t showing,” McDonald says.
Now their attention is being focused on the building’s exterior. Planting beds have been installed, and topiaries are now growing along the front of the building. Painting and parking projects and a sign are planned.
The stylists say they had been looking for a space to begin their own business for more than a year before they found their new spot. “We were both working for Richard Joseph in Mountain Book. Last September, he closed his shop and let us all go,” McDonald says. “The majority of our customers followed us from Mountain Brook. … We are pulling people back from Over the Mountain into the city.”
Like the nearby artists, they have received a lot of support as people became aware of their presence. “We are excited with the new energy in the neighborhood,” McDonald says.
Beauty Shock will have a grand opening celebration at 5:30 p.m. May 15.
*Correction (11 a.m. 4/11/14): Quote amended at the request of Kara Hall.