A! Magazine for the Arts

The original depot in Abingdon. It was burned during Stoneman's Raid during the Civil War and then rebuilt.

The original depot in Abingdon. It was burned during Stoneman's Raid during the Civil War and then rebuilt.

The Arts Depot: Memories of the beginning

May 27, 2015

Sara Reese, the first and current president of The Depot Artists Association (formerly known as the William King Artists Association), refers to their success as "magical."

"Looking back on it, the odds were not in favor of our pulling this project off, but we did it anyhow."

The association was a small group; there were 14 people, including guests, at their first meeting.

Nancy Garretson, Amy Branson, Jack Cayton and Reese had previously had studios together at what was then called the William King Regional Arts Center, but had decided it was time to leave.

"We liked having a studio together, and liked having an artists' association, so we started looking for another place. I looked and looked, and everybody said "no.' It was the saddest time of my life. Then several people said "Sara, I think you need to consider the old depot. It's big and it's got plenty of space.'

"I took a deep breath and went to town hall to see Town Manager Mickey Newman, and that man didn't tell me no. He was the first person not to say "no.' He told us we'd have to ask the town council, and we did. It was just the perfect coming together of people. We went to the meeting and asked them, and they said "maybe.' We went back the next month and they said "maybe' again. Then I got a call from Town Councilman Harry Coomes, and he said, "We're going to let you do this.' Then things got really busy."

Cayton drew up plans for using the building. Lucky for the group, Branson's husband, Kirby, was a master carpenter so they could draw on his expertise.

On June 19, 1990, the group had its annual meeting in the building before any work had been done, and that was when magic started. "We committed to renovating this building and doing the work ourselves. What were we thinking?" Reese says. "It was like magic as soon as we committed to the project. The press got wind of it, and they started coming; and people starting coming out of the woodwork saying "I like what you're trying to do, saving an old building, and how can we help.'" Many of them wrote checks to help pay for the expenses, and many rolled up their sleeves and pitched in at work parties.

They started the physical work in July after the lease with the town was signed. "The same things continued," Reese says. "This building is like a magnet; people just want to come to it. I know it sounds naïve; it just seems like this project has always brought out the best in people."

Nancy Garretson, one of the original resident artists, echoes Reese's sentiment. "If you ask people nicely, you'd be amazed what they will do. We were just really lucky at the beginning, we had people who volunteered and we had phone trees. We'd call and say "we're having a work party,' and they'd come. You don't get anywhere without asking for help. I'd talk to people and say "oh, you know how to do carpentry, could you help?' We had professionals do the electrical, and heating and air work, but almost everything else was done by volunteers. There's a lot of my blood, sweat and tears in this place."

Cayton's original timetable was six weeks, but that proved to be slightly optimistic. However, they had to have Branson's ballet studio open by the time that school started, and they made it. "We'd clean up before they came, but I can still see little ballerinas picking their way around ladders to get to class," Reese says.

Reese did most of the sweeping and cleaning. "It was the physically hardest work I ever did," she says. "Nancy, Jack, Amy and I worked every day. At night, Eric (her husband), Kirby and I would come back for the night shift. We were a lot younger then. I can't believe we did that – day and night. Then Saturdays were the days that the big work parties would come. I was less skilled than many of the people, so I did a lot of sweeping. The floors were covered with conveyor belts, and we pulled it up to see how secure the floor was. It's not level, but it's sturdy. The wide wood planks had big gaps in them in places, so I didn't have to use the dust pan so much in those spots."

Each artist built their own walls and put up their ceilings.

"It was just heartwarming to see it all come together and see my walls go up and move my junk in and be able to start weaving," Garretson says. "I helped put my walls up, and we didn't have any money, so we made our wall on 24-inch centers instead of 16-inch. I wish we hadn't done that, because it's hard to find a stud. Sara and I doubled the conveyor belts for extra insulation and re-installed it. Then I painted it red."

Both Garretson and Reese say the success had to do with people. "We had a lot of things donated," Garretson says. "People heard we needed something; and they'd donate it. It was just amazing. We made it a community thing from the beginning. Our motto is "arts and the community working together,' and that's what this is. Lots and lots of people brought their talents and materials together and created something that none of us could have done alone. I think it helped that we were doing a lot of the work; we were in here hitting our thumbs with hammers along with everybody else."

The magic continued as the years went by, but then it was time for their lease to be renewed. "At the end of five years, we didn't know whether we'd be able to stay here, and we were scared to death. They let us stay," Garretson says. "At 10 years, we were scared but not as badly. Now we aren't scared, we think they like us. It's exciting to know that we've been here for 25 years. We had so much support from the community."

In 25 years they have expanded. Originally the town's park and recreation office and the Jaycees shared the building. As they moved out, the organization grew and added studios. Amy Branson sold her dance school to Deanna Cole-Roberts who outgrew the space and moved out, which gave them more space for galleries.

"We've had steady growth," Reese says. "In the early years, when I'd get distressed, Milly Woody would put her arms around me and say, "but honey, just look at how far you've come. You're making slow, steady progress and that's the best kind.' It was like the community just wrapped their arms around us and said "we're going to help you.'"

One of Reese's favorite moments was when they could finally hire some part-time administrative help. "We hired Allison Linder, our very first part-time employee; all we could afford was six hours a week."

When asked how they've managed to stay cohesive for 25 years, Reese says, "We really had a pretty good plan before we started this, and there was a real need. We had a little bit of a treasury to start the project. We had enough monthly income to pay the bills, which came from the rent we each paid for our studios. It was this wonderful coming together of people who were willing to give of themselves. We still get along. I think we succeed because of the people. We are as much about people as we are about art.

"We get to be here in this wonderful building, and we live in a wonderful town. It's really receptive to the arts. We share here. We eat lunch together, which is important. You get to know people, and you get to know that someone has something going on at home that's making things kind of tough, you celebrate each other's birthdays and successes. It's people.

"We're just tickled that we've made it 25 years. I hope that when I'm too old to be here anymore that there will be young people here. I don't know how that will play out, but I hope it will. I took a class at Penland, and they tell you their history when you go there. When I heard it, I thought "that's what I want for this organization. I want it to go on and on and fill people's needs.'"


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