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Arthur Peña: Pioneering West Dallas Arts Spaces

Deadbolt wideArthur Peña outside Deadbolt Studio. That red pipe next to the door (left) is the namesake deadbolt. All photos: Jerome Weeks

Dallas Contemporary will open four shows this weekend, including one by Dallas artist Arthur Peña. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports the show caps off what has been an incredibly productive period for the young painter – both on and off the gallery walls.

  • Peter Simek’s D Magazine feature, “The New Dallas Starts Here,” on the Trinity Groves development
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At Dallas Contemporary, Arthur Peña is explaining that painting isn’t just about colors on a canvas. Peña’ll scavenge anything he finds in his studio, anything that gets him experimenting. Dead insects, razor blades, foam insulation board — “if it’s in here, it’s fair game,” he says. He’ll cut them, paint them, layer them until they extend off the wall. Some of his paintings will be three feet thick. “Painting can take it,” he argues. “Painting can handle whatever you throw at it. Painting is going to be painting no matter what.”

Arthur pena editThat same resourcefulness characterizes Peña’s work outside the gallery. We get into his car and drive over the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. Peña grew up in Oak Cliff, his father a sign builder, his mother an artist. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, he came back to Dallas a year ago. He was back — making art on his parents’ porch.

“Tough times,” he says with a rueful smile. “But you know, being from here, I knew the warehouse district was there,’ he nods, indicating West Dallas. “So I just drove around and anywhere I saw a lease sign, I just called. These were buildings that were 30,000 square feet, but I figured they’d know somebody.”

Eventually, Peña was put in touch with Butch McGregor. Nine years ago, McGregor, restaurateur Phil Romano and venture capitalist Stuart Fitts decided to gamble on neglected West Dallas. Together, as WDI, West Dallas Investments, they bought up some 80 acres of old storefronts and rusting warehouses. So far, they’re not bulldozing everything for high-rises. Instead, they’re adapting what’s already here. McGregor showed Peña a rundown cinder-block warehouse right up next to the train tracks.

When we pull up there, Peña describes the area as “pretty Wild West out here.” Which explains the razor-wire fence around the warehouse and the locked, 20-pound steel pipe blocking the door. Hence, the name: Deadbolt Studio.

Pena and GreeneditPeña and fellow artist Nathan Green (left, checking out one of Peña’s razor blade paintings) spent three months cleaning the place, putting up walls and shelves, turning it into studio spaces, find two other artists to help with the rent. But then Peña actually went back to McGregor to find yet another building. This one, a newer warehouse space he dubbed Ware: Wolf: Haus (bottom photo). Since the summer, Peña’s staged seven events there, a full season of gallery shows and garage-punk-alternative concerts including Thrwd Fest. Next: setting up George Quartz as the Haus’s “band-in-residence.”

“I was just really trying to open a space that collapses art and music and fashion into one space,” Peña says. “Kinda underground stuff, stuff you wouldn’t see anywhere else.”

The two buildings, especially the studio, are raw. There’s no heat, no AC, and the corrugated steel roof doesn’t help. “We don’t get internet out here,” Green says with a smile. “We don’t get phone reception very well. And when it rains, it’s totally terrifying. You can’t hear yourself think.”

But the buildings are extremely cheap, and they’re just a hop away from downtown, the Arts District and the galleries in the Design District. It’d be hard to find such a combination in New York or Chicago, maybe in no other major American city besides Detroit. “I often tell buddies about my square footage and our lounge area and what I pay,” chuckles Green, “and they’re, like, appalled.”

Artists have been doing this for centuries, of course: They rescue declining urban areas, turn them into attractive assets and then lose out when the high rises come in and the rents go up. It happened in Deep Ellum in the ‘80s and ’90s. Peña is hardly even the first artist to find a haven in West Dallas. Dallas Contemporary itself had muralist/graffiti artist Shepard Fairey decorate several walls in the area, and Carlos Donjuan followed suit. Dead White Zombies, the experimental theater troupe, has been putting on shows there for more than a year, while for several years now, various one-night, pop-up efforts, like Art Conspiracy, the fundraising auction, have braved the heat/cold and hanger-like acoustics to enjoy the hard-edged, boho atmosphere.

But two things are different. First, Phil Romano, the man behind restaurant chains like Fuddrucker’s and EatZi’s, is experimenting in West Dallas right alongside Peña. Deadbolt Studio is three blocks from Trinity Groves, where Romano has been trying out new ideas for restaurants in what has become a very popular Singleton Boulevard destination for foodies. This kind of adventurous, big-money activity is rare in such areas. Commercial ventures generally do not go where their customers aren’t. So for the moment, West Dallas is still very much in testing mode.

Second, with his friends and a lot of hard work, Peña did all this – found and converted two buildings into four studios and a functioning performance space – in less than a year. He’s practically a one-man instant underground art scene. Artist and journalist Lucia Simek has written about Peña. She points to the concerns that some artists have had about “carpetbagging,” coming into a largely poor, Hispanic and African-American community in West Dallas and just culling what they needed. Peña, a child of Oak Cliff and blue-collar Hispanic parents, was more at home.

“He’ll laugh at this,” says Simek, “but he catches a lot of flak for the attention he’s gotten. Some people feel he’s too much in the limelight. But it’s just because he has such incredible energy, and he’s tenacious. He asks people to do things that may be other people’d think they weren’t allowed to ask for. So a lot of the kind of invisible barriers that as artists, we put up, Arthur just doesn’t think are there.”

Or, as Peña puts it, “Yeah, I kinda just talked my way into it.”

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