Jan 15, 201308:49 AMCulture
Fun and Culture in the Mid-State
At the MakeSpace
I told Liz Laribee that I would visit the MakeSpace - the brand new uptown arts initiative she founded last summer - after I had the worst week of my life. The scheduling was an accident, but as soon as I arrived at the MakeSpace’s physical manifestation at 1916 N. Third Street, I was grateful for whatever force got me there in that moment.
The MakeSpace is breathtaking, and it is what Harrisburg needs.
The three-story row home in Olde Uptown is a block down and over from Little Amps.
It contains a living room that barely required converting to become the coziest live performance space, a romantically-lit gallery that retains the ceremoniousness of a dining room, and a very functional kitchen that, before the artists got their hands on it, bore the scars of the space's previous life as an illegal kitchen.
Like the poet she is, Laribee—the MakeSpace’s director—evoked the battlefield she discovered after moving in of exploded eggs and renegade Sriracha.
Visitors can take the main staircase or the secret passage from the kitchen, which is painted the same yellow as the secret passage in Rosemary's Baby. The second floor hosts studios for Ian Kanski, John Destalo, Leah Yancoskie, Michael Fisher, and Laribee.
The landing was wheat-pasted by a herd of volunteers and covered in discarded "leaves"—that is, the individual pages of books, in this case aged, golden pages whose passages are circled and connected to each other in a wall-wide game of connect-the-prose.
Amanda Owens and Catherine Rios' studios occupy the third floor.
During the monthly, city-wide event Third in the Burg, the MakeSpace provides studio tours. On the night of my visit, October 20, the MakeSpace functioned as a concert venue.
The teeming crowd enhanced the intimacy of my private tour, which included my significant other and Jessica, a barista from Little Amps. I wanted to observe their captivation with wild difference and vibrancy of the individual studios.
That succeeded as well as maintaining one’s spatial awareness at the MoMA, when one finds oneself turning a corner only to accidentally elbow a Matisse.
Everything monopolizes the eye.
By situating itself in a hearty domestic structure, the MakeSpace avoids feeling delicate or remote: it, and the art that is shown or happens there, feels persistent. This characteristic is key to Laribee's art.
She makes a living independently on her wildly popular cardboard portraits that exist at the cross-section of her obvious and appealing skills and her model relationship to her surroundings. Instead of adding to something to improve upon it, Laribee takes cardboard—overwhelmingly present, sometimes to the point of intrusion—and improves upon it from within.
In the portrait of performance artist Marina Abramovic that Laribee did for me last year, the cardboard’s ribbed, insular middle becomes the contents of an abrasion on her shoulder, and the seams of the board dictate the cross-hatching of the empty room behind her. But it is Laribee’s ability as an artist to make her figures recognizable and arresting that makes her work astonishing.
Just as Laribee’s portraits improve the cardboard on which they are rendered by bringing out the medium’s richest qualities, so the MakeSpace, likewise, has not been imported as a means of aesthetically upgrading Harrisburg.
The MakeSpace proves that the city has, inside itself, the potential to trade on its value as a place to make art. One of the MakeSpace's missions is to "spark a creative economy."
The first step is in action: the rents on the studios, to which the respective artists have access any time, are not only two-figures per month, but are accurately representative of how much farther a little cash gets you here. Having seven disparate and immensely talented artists operating in one place also represents a vision of unity that contrasts with the reality of the capital region.
Proximity to Harrisburg has fractured its surrounding municipalities, their development has sapped the city of its potential, and the metro area does not enjoy enough cohesion to brand itself effectively.
But this handful of people in this house do not operate with merely the intent to show the world how great it is to be an artist in Harrisburg: they also want to demonstrate to Harrisburg itself that it is a great place to make art in, and those doing so cannot just survive, they can thrive.
It was apt, then, that of the two bands playing the night of my visit, local Flower Garden appealed to me more than headliner Brainstorm, recently featured on NPR.
The crowd was jammed between the living room and kitchen but still enabled a girl with long black hair and a small backpack to absolutely lose it and dance herself into a long-legged blur.
I enjoyed a small drama being played out on the staircase by people vying for spots. Laribee could not lead us up the steps before making sure the crowd downstairs would not start to explode like so many eggs. She has spent the last year developing the MakeSpace from dream to increasingly ravishing reality, a result of—among other things that, even if they can be learned, can only be wielded to such effective ends with the elusive, born-with-it ability for expertise—graceful pragmatism and Shakespearean charisma. So Laribee must now reckon with the MakeSpace growing out of her arms.
Since the MakeSpace opened in late September, tell of it and its demonstrated value to the community has turned the house itself into an occasion for creative problem solving.
Laribee is only one person, and the artists are there to work. To bridge the gap between interest from the community, Laribee is enlisting “creative residents” for the New Year: warm bodies who will take their work to the first-floor gallery and provide volunteer services, so when someone comes in from the street, they will always be greeted by someone making art in Harrisburg.
Since the holidays, I have had the privilege of interviewing the artists who inhabit the MakeSpace, and Laribee made the space available to me to work on the interviews and this article.
I have been up in her studio, with its balcony and the best light, in the wee hours while she takes meetings downstairs, her voice merry and undulant and audible everywhere. Everyday a plan becomes a little more real and a show goes off like a firecracker—the show “Fresh Prints” is next at 6pm on Friday, January 18. But the moments beholden to the most tenderness include the sweeping up of stray glitter and the exasperated laughter occasioned by problematic utilities and flash floods.
These are dear moments because they persist while everything is happening, while the MakeSpace is growing and becoming, the way an arts initiative has appeared despite the recession.
It is hard, in a reality like that, to anticipate any more bad weeks. At the Flower Garden/Brainstorm show, I reserved a chair for myself early in the night and held fast to it even when the wild dancing girl took up in front of me. But as vividly as she moved, she never hit me, and even when a figure came between us—any of the large, flannel-clad men moving around the gallery with multiple bottles of beer—their contact with my legs did not feel intrusive. The atmosphere was warm, like a communal embrace. That a place dedicated to art—a pursuit prone to coming off as exclusive—in crime-ravaged Harrisburg makes its visitors feel embraced and part of something beautiful is the MakeSpace’s unique power.