Studio Two Three merges art and advocacy to create a safe space for personal expression
by Paula Peters Chambers
May 23, 2022
A newcomer to Studio Two Three might notice humming printing presses, people huddled around computer tablets discussing a design, or its compact retail area displaying T-shirts, buttons, posters and prints. What’s less evident is the commitment to action that is central to the organization.
Over the past two years, this shared community art space in Scott’s Addition has intensely focused on its mission of helping artists make a statement through printmaking, in all its forms. Materials produced at Studio Two Three have covered storefront windows along Broad Street during the protests in the summer 2020, offered inspiration at Lee Circle and other community gatherings, provided historical markers focusing on the Black history of Richmond, and celebrated the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue. And anyone looking for art need only visit the newspaper box sitting outside the studio, which is stocked with free prints, stickers and ephemera created by staff and local artists.
“We have really lived into the past couple of years,” says Executive Director Ashley Hawkins. “Now the organization is able to take a stance and not be neutral and not be the organization for everybody. I think we really see ourselves as a resource for using art-making techniques for people who want to disseminate information and create something.”
Studio Two Three has received numerous grants, including two $20,000 grants from the National Endowment of the Arts to support local artists; the most recent was awarded in January of this year. That same month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation awarded Studio Two Three a $75,000 grant to encourage COVID-19 vaccination through citywide banners and other activities.
In February, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation offered a $100,000 challenge grant that will help the organization purchase additional equipment, support more local artists with its residency program, and — eventually — launch a capital campaign so that Studio Two Three can purchase its own building.
“We are in a unique and exciting position, having come through these past two years stronger than we’ve ever been,” Hawkins says. “We are focused in a powerful way on what’s successful for us: supporting artists and art-making.”
A collection of items printed at Studio Two Three (Photo by Monica Escamilla)
Founders Hawkins, Sarah Moore, Emily Gannon and Tyler Dawkins believed that sharing should be the cornerstone of Studio Two Three, named for its first address at Plant Zero in Manchester.
“It felt overwhelming, but [Sarah Moore and I] had just gotten out of VCU and were working in this [printing] medium that required all this equipment that’s big, specialized and expensive,” Hawkins explains. “We felt that Richmond really needed this space.”
“We were young, motivated printmakers hoping to share space and maybe do something bigger,” says Gannon, now the owner of Marge Ceramics in Philadelphia. “I think all of our separate energies just created this snowball.”
Moore, now the marketing and public relations coordinator for the Department of Theatre at VCU, says the shared enthusiasm was crucial. “Most of our friends and classmates were moving to big cities or applying to grad school,” she says. “We knew that wasn’t our path. We really wanted to make [opportunities] for the people who came after us.”
Beginning in 2009, the four originally split the rent for a 400-square-foot workspace and worked service-industry jobs to pay the bills. They borrowed equipment to start, and donations followed. They sold memberships to other like-minded artists and committed to 24/7 access. Within a year, they needed a bigger space.
Studio Two Three moved to 1617 W. Main St., a commercial building that allowed it to offer more classes and, for a time, to host print exhibitions. The next step was establishing nonprofit status in 2011, paving the way for grants and individual contributions that would then be used to provide greater studio access.
“We inherently saw printmaking as a democratic medium, and we wanted to make printmaking widely available,” Hawkins says, adding that she obtained a master’s in nonprofit management from VCU in 2013 “to lend some legitimacy to a 23-year-old covered in tattoos asking for grants.
“Getting nonprofit status was important to move from a scrappy, all-volunteer [staff] to become a sustainable organization with paid staff and money in the bank,” she adds. “We had to find the resources and find the confidence and believe in the work [we] were doing.”
That search didn’t come without missteps. In 2014, the organization published a print of a map of Richmond that omitted several traditionally African American neighborhoods. There was strong criticism from the public on social media. “We had created an inadvertently racist map, but the inadvertent part did not make the racist part any better,” Hawkins reflected in an essay published in Style Weekly in 2019. A more inclusive and accurate map was created and made available later.
Studio Two Three moved again in 2015 into half of a building at 3300 W. Clay St. An expansion into the other half, in late 2017, led to its current iteration, 13,000 square feet that encompass an event space, a black-and-white photography darkroom, large worktables, an area for a new bookmaking venture — Colossus Press — and 31 artist studios, as well as a separate shared studio for artists-in-residence.
Financial growth has followed, with a “huge jump” in revenue from 2015 to 2018, Hawkins says. “The nonprofit gospel was that in order to attract [grant] money, you needed robust earned income, so you almost looked like a for-profit enterprise,” she says. During that time, Studio Two Three’s income stream was sustained by membership fees, private studio rentals, open classes, retail sales and special events. In 2020, these revenue sources were disrupted by the pandemic and were replaced by outside funding, including emergency federal and state support, such the Paycheck Protection Program, Rebuild VA and an Emergency EIDL loan. “I sat on my computer and smashed ‘submit’ for everything that came down the street,” Hawkins says.
In 2021, Studio Two Three’s budget reached $750,000 thanks to grants, a 70% increase in membership and “incredibly bonkers” retail sales, Hawkins says, pointing to the roughly $168,000 generated by the annual fall auction, held outdoors in a tent, and five artists’ markets, including a Winter Market open from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
“When we say we should do more for free, we’re able to do that without fear, because we have such a stable base,” Hawkins says. “It gives us flexibility to say yes to opportunities.”
Allison Heerwagen sews masks at Studio Two Three, where volunteers made 10,000 masks during the first months of the pandemic. (Photo courtesy Studio Two Three)
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the studio initially shut down. “We started making this plan, how we could strip away at expenses until the doors had to close permanently,” Hawkins says. “It was a macabre thing to sit through.”
There were also discussions about what could be done to support studio members and the general public. “We created a series of infographics about how to file for unemployment, how to get PPP [the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program], how to sew your own mask,” Hawkins says.
Then they started sewing.
Using a grant from the Community Foundation, a team of eight volunteers returned to the large, open event room. Wearing masks and working at long tables, they “sewed and they sewed and they sewed,” Hawkins says. “It was a mental health boost for us, to be in the room with other people. People could come because it was a production facility for essential workers.”
In roughly 13 weeks, 10,000 masks made by Studio Two Three were distributed through local schools and the Richmond City Health District.
Staff and artists also responded to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the resulting protests against racial inequity and police brutality in Richmond. “When businesses were being boarded up, we printed signs saying, ‘This is a Black-owned business; this is a local business; this is a nonprofit,’ ” Hawkins says. “While we were angry, too, and respected what people were feeling, there was a fear of damage.”
(From left) KB Brown and Kate Fowler print a “Giddy Up Loser” poster, which Fowler designed, on-site at the Lee Monument. (Photo courtesy Steven King)
Later, staff members printed and distributed a “Giddy Up Loser” flyer on-site as the Robert E. Lee statue was removed from Monument Avenue on Sept. 8, 2021. That act made news overseas, after a German news crew asked for an interview and an explanation of the American slang.
Board member Joseph Papa says it is “a huge point of pride” to see Studio Two Three members create art that responds to current events, and he credits Hawkins. “Ashley adapts around her team in a way that’s impressive,” he says. “I think they know they’re making a difference … that they can be part of the conversation.”
Papa, president and founder of Joseph Papa Public Relations, says Hawkins’ strong leadership and vision is evident at the board level. “She has the right mix of enthusiasm and know-how but also understands the ins and outs of running a business. If I owned a restaurant, I’d want her to run it,” he says.
Papa notes that Studio Two Three helps artists create art that can generate income. Studio Two Three “gives you those [economic] tools, and gives them to you in an artist’s language,” he says. “Not everybody is going to make a T-shirt that sells thousands of units. If you’re a member, you have to pay your dues, but after that, you go at your own pace. You can be part of the bigger conversation, or you can go and quietly do your work.”
Earl Mack (pictured) and his business partner, Nikko Dennis, started their business, Chilalay, at Studio Two Three in 2012. (Photo by Monica Escamilla)
Studio Two Three was a revelation to Nikko Dennis and partner Earl Morris (also known as Earl Mack) as the two were launching their apparel business, Chilalay, in 2012. “Screenprinting equipment is really expensive,” Dennis says. “The only options were to buy our own [machines] or pay premium prices at other places.”
Dennis, who signed up for a membership the first day he walked in the studio, says he loved the space, feel and educational opportunities, citing Studio Two Three’s regular newsletter that lists job or art offerings. “They provide a safe haven to an artist to grow and develop naturally without any pressure,” he says. “I can print at night, when most people are asleep. That’s when my creativity flows.”
Even though Chilalay now has a storefront at 212 W. Broad St., Dennis still has a Studio Two Three membership. “I have a printer in the basement [here], but I like the community atmosphere and the freedom to do larger orders,” he says. “I’ll always be a member.”
For Cam Johnson, who taught himself screenprinting with an at-home kit and instruction from YouTube videos, walking in the door of Studio Two Three was “a touchstone moment,” he says. “My eyes lit up, just swinging the door open,” he adds. “I’ve been trying to figure this out, and here it is.”
Johnson, a co-owner of MEANS apparel, rents one of the private workspaces. “I used to do [production] out of my house, and I hated every minute of it,” he says. “I needed separation.” Working at Studio Two Three helps his process, he says, because other artists can offer fresh takes. “That’s one of the studio’s strongest aspects: collaboration,” he says. “It’s hard to be an artist. You’re so stuck in your head.”
And there’s support. With the help of others, Johnson says, he’s learned about the elements needed to run a business, everything from supplies and manufacturing to creating a website and managing shipping. But the art remains front and center. “This [place] is like a test kitchen for design,” he says. “I encourage people, even if you don’t know the person, even if the style isn’t the same, go up and ask a question. See what the process is.”
Clara Cline, who makes and sells letterpress paper goods, prints and accessories through her business The Wild Wander, says Studio Two Three was the bridge she needed between a home workspace and a commercial studio.
“It’s so important to have creative spaces where you are not under the pressure to create something for sale or for profit,” she says. “Studio Two Three provides that and a community around it that is vanishingly rare and needed.”
Studio Two Three received its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2019, an important milestone. “People see you’re funded from the NEA, and then they think you’ve been vetted,” says Kate Fowler, Studio Two Three’s director of community partnerships and development, who joined the staff in August 2019. Since then, other grants have followed, including one from CultureWorks to purchase and outfit a box truck as a mobile printing center that travels to schools, festivals, demonstrations and pop-up events. In February, the truck showed up at the book drive for Fox Elementary School after a fire destroyed it.
The CDC grant creates a partnership with Richmond Public Schools, which will distribute Studio Two Three-produced zines containing grade-level vaccine information for elementary-, middle- and high-school students. At public events, Studio Two Three will offer giveaways of T-shirts, tote bags and posters, as well as on-site screenprinting.
Helping one another is embedded in the culture of the studio, Fowler says. “There’s a grounding of shared values,” she says. “There are members who have been here since the beginning. They’ll just take presses [home to use] and bring them back. This is a creative home to people who are building their livelihood, and that has an economic impact.”
Studio manager KB Brown, who uses they/them pronouns, came to Studio Two Three in 2015 as an intern, fresh out of Old Dominion University’s printmaking program. “This is the reason why I moved to Richmond,” they say. “This is a very inclusive space. I feel like our work has evolved depending on what the community needs and what we need to amplify.”
Brown has taught classes, helped with the print truck and managed the popular holiday markets; now they focus on keeping the space in working order while managing a crew of 20 interns.
“The studio has an ethic to respect one another, to treat everyone like an artist, to steal like an artist but not one another’s belongings,” Brown says. “There are no gatekeepers. It’s OK to make mistakes. Someone will be able to help you. We’re very much about sharing the knowledge.”
For her part, Hawkins says she fell in love with printmaking “because there was this undergirding of technique that made me feel safe to explore,” she says. “It was unlike painting, where I was adrift in a sea of shame.”
Hawkins laughs about how her life has changed alongside Studio Two Three. At age 36, she’s a little older than most current members, and with her partner, she has two children — a son, 8, and a daughter, 6. Her status as the only remaining founder often goes unnoticed. “I’m just the lady on the computer in the office,” she says.
What matters, she says, is what happens within.
“In essence, we are a community of 140 artists with 24/7 access, with their own processes,” Hawkins says. “Our strength has been a lack of control over how people use the space. It’s resulted in a beautiful community of trust.”
by Paula Peters Chambers
May 23, 2022
Connect With Us
© Target Communications Inc., T/A Richmond Magazine
Studio Two Three merges art and advocacy to create a safe space for personal expression