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Palm Coast’s SoHo: Secca Tree Studios Double Hollingsworth Gallery’s Arts Empire

| April 9, 2011

Secca Tree Studios' gallery expands on Hollingsworth gallery's venues for contemporary art. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive) j.j. graham

Secca Tree Studios' gallery expands on Hollingsworth gallery's venues for contemporary art. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

It started with a single storefront on the second floor of an unlikely place: a strip mall that was struggling to stay afloat, and even keep its name. It didn’t help that JJ Graham’s Hollingsworth Gallery was sandwiched between the municipal offices of Palm Coast government, not visible to traffic below, or that what was then known as City Walk—the four-building strip mall along Cypress Point Blvd.—was in foreclosure, or that it was under legal threat by Universal Corp. for using the copyrighted City Walk, while the city itself has been hoping to leave the place for digs of its own, possibly reducing traffic there.

Nor did it help that when it comes to art, let alone art galleries, Palm Coast didn’t have a rich history. Or a history at all.

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That was in January 2009, at the depth of the Great Recession in the country and in Palm Coast. The world of Hollingsworth gallery has changed since. So has the small world around it, though calling it small rings false. It’s been all about amplification, expansion, enhancement, as if the gallery—a seethe of creative energy since it opened—anchored the renaissance around it, starting with its own.

Hollingsworth is no longer a one-storefront story. It had grown to two, using the expanded space for classes and studios for various artists. In March, Hollingsworth doubled in size, to four storefronts, with the addition of its Secca Tree Studios: a brand new main gallery, autonomous from Hollingsworth’s, several walls given over to particular groups of artists, including children’s art, and eight studios for working artists, which filled up almost as soon as Graham made them available. (Secca stands for Southeastern Coalition of Contemporary Artists, another Graham creation.)

Between Hollingsworth and its Secca Tree subsidiary, that corner of City Market Place, as the mall was renamed, has become Palm Coast’s own SoHo, not so much a world apart as a world remade in Graham’s image. Even the storefronts have the feel of gateways to an unexpected dimension: step inside and your senses are immediately taken over by sights, smells and sounds that, without necessarily aiming for coordination, make you feel as if nothing is out of place, including you. Even the bench, the only “furniture” item in the gallery, positioned in the middle of the room, is a work of art: simple, elegant, drawing you to it for a long conversation at rest with the works all around.

Secca Tree Studios opened last month in conjunction with the gallery’s latest show, “Inspired by Chagall.” Hundreds turned out, their cars filling out the parking lot below. The show has an encore opening tonight (April 9), along with a reception and music.

“It was starting to get too cramped,” Graham said of his original gallery, which has working studios in the back, including his own. “Everybody wanted a space here. Space was sitting there empty so I came up with a way that I figured out that it could make money, pay for itself, so I said why not. Let’s do it. It filled up right away. Now things aren’t quite as cramped. There’s more space for the artists. There’s more space to show different artists. That’s going to be primarily a member-driven gallery, so artists that are supporting this place will have a place to show their work permanently.”

The new gallery features works by artists working either at the Secca Tree Studios or elsewhere. They pay $35 to have a work shown. They get 85 percent of the proceeds if it sells. At the end of each month, they have an option either to pull the work and give over the space to another artist, or replace it. To visitors, the gallery, a warm, quietly welcoming space in itself regardless of what’s on the walls, adds another venue for vibrant, contemporary art in line with Graham’s philosophy of challenging—and sometimes jarring—staid attitudes about art.

“I’ve kind of engineered this place to pay for itself whether or not it sells art work,” Graham says. “That way you’re not inclined to show stuff that’s overly commercial. This is not a commercial gallery.” He cites another artists’ saying: “art is not upholstery for people’s walls.” It shows.

Video: Charlotte Marten Reports on Secca Tree Studios
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Artists working at Secca Tree Studios are there for the same reason. Of course they want to sell their work. Art isn’t their hobby. It’s what they do. But commercial art isn’t the driving force. Here’s how Christine Sullivan, one of the artists taking up residence at Secca Tree, put it: “I retired early so that I could be trained to be an artist. I met up with JJ who had a wonderful oil painting class. I hadn’t painted in 15 years. So JJ immersed me in the fine art of oil painting and technique. I’ve been painting with JJ for a year now, mainly technique and practice. He’s very generous with his information.”  She adds: “I think I’ve been trying to do the, can I cram 10 years’ worth of art education ion a year, and I was in the studio six days a week for about four months there. So I think I crammed a lot of knowledge in there. I was working out of the teaching studio. I really wanted to do larger works and spend more time here, and JJ is phenomenally successful with the classroom, the classroom is getting busier since I’ve been here. I really felt like I needed more elbow room. And bazinga: look at this.”

Sullivan’s is one of the ampler studios in back of the gallery, with windows giving onto Cypress Point. Fellow artists include Weldon and Richlin Ryan, Steven Gaddis’ framing studio, Angel Gonzales’s video editing studio, and Betty Jo Sansbury, who’s been working with Graham since the gallery’s earliest days. A.J. Neste’s Voice Program, which had its own one-night show at Hollingsworth earlier this year, also has a presence at Secca Tree.

“If it works out I’ll do another one, I’ll do another space, because I’ve already got more people coming and asking if I’ve got studios for them,” Graham says. He wants a place where he can show just sculptures, for instance. With Graham  you never know what’ll materialize next, only that something will, as it has all around his galleries.

The renamed City Market Place has had its own rebirth. Almost every storefront on the first level is full. Many storefronts remain empty on the second level, but many have been filled, and many of those by arts-related businesses: two dance studios, the Flagler County Art League, whose Spring Festival was held there last weekend, a theater that may be on its way (as in live stage theater, not motion pictures), as might one other art organization.

On a recent evening Graham took a reporter down many storefronts from the galleries’ doors, in the opposite direction. It was dark all around except for a few lights in the city offices upstairs and the lights of the galleries, the colors spilling out, the occasional visitor or artist or mystery person, of whom there are many in these parts, walking in and out of Hollingsworth’s dimensions. Of course Graham was proud. He doesn’t hide it. He’s building a small empire, and he knows it. So do the empire’s neighbors, who are contributing their own creative forces. The city may not yet fully know how much it needed it. But it’s finding out.

1 Response for “Palm Coast’s SoHo: Secca Tree Studios Double Hollingsworth Gallery’s Arts Empire”

  1. Tom Brown says:

    Hello Pierre & JJ… Congrats on this bold artistic venture. Palm Coast, with its niche of affluent retirees, may have just enough potential patrons to make this succeed. With today’s gas prices, I don’t drive up to Flagler (from Port Orange) very often. But this gallery gives me a powerful reason to stop off in P.C. the next time I pamper myself with a day trip to St. Augustine. I hope you tweet the story to economist Richard Florida, as an example of the “creative class” giving a recession-battered small city some hope. Maybe Palm Coast is reaching the critical mass where it can be considered an “art town,” like Mount Dora and Winter Park.

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