Artists seizing on sliver of hope

Conversion: Oella Mill, the former mill building housing art studios and a gallery, is virtually certain to become apartments.

July 25, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The remaining artists at Oella Mill are counting on a miracle.

"The thing is, the mill still has not been officially sold," said Joan Bevelaqua, volunteer director of the rent-free 8,000-square- foot Mill River Gallery housed within the historic building.

"The gallery is booked through 2003, and I don't want to cancel any of the shows until I know for sure. ... Something could still happen."

But it's not likely.

What is likely is that the current owners soon will sign over the 193-year-old former mill to the Forest City Residential Group, a Cleveland firm that plans to divide the site into 175 upscale apartments.

The space is filled with an eclectic mix of businesses, antiques shops and artist studios.

Bevelaqua's optimism is catching, though. Many of the 20 or so resident artists who remain at the mill have high hopes (more than 20 have moved). Ten of them are exhibiting their work in the gallery through Aug. 17 as part of what is probably the last Resident Artists' Exhibit.

They hang on, buoyed by denial - even though the owners announced plans to sell in November, their leases were reworked in January and the Baltimore County zoning commissioner approved the developer's plans this month.

"I think intellectually I know it's going to happen," said Bevelaqua, an art teacher and a painter who has maintained space at the mill for four years and has run the gallery for more than three. "But emotionally, I still haven't accepted it."

Carol Foerster, whose pencil drawings and color photography fill a gallery wall, said she has offered to help the owners apply for grants to continue keeping the space as is - just in case.

"I really am a poor, starving artist," the 44-year-old Columbia resident said. "The rent here is really inexpensive. Where else am I going to find that?"

She and the other artists pay $125 a month for studios with super-high ceilings, huge windows and about 300 square feet of space. The rent-free gallery is a bonus.

"It feels like it's from the 19th century," said Jamie Travers, a 42-year-old art teacher at Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City. "It's a very romantic, lovely place for artists. ... I'm sad to have to leave it."

Travers, whose exhibit area features kid-friendly pieces with "Please play with me" signs, says having to move is a risk that comes with "becoming quaint," as Oella fashionably has.

"Artists move in and make the place interesting for the public," he said, "and the next thing you know they can't afford to be there."

Travers has not decided where he will go. Neither has Bill Owens, a retired psychiatric hospital activity therapist whose displayed paintings follow surfing (of the television remote-control kind) and medication themes.

"I don't even want to think about it," he said.

Andrei Trach, a 29-year-old painter from Laurel, said he will deal with it when the time arrives. For now, he is concentrating on a solo show in September.

Deidre Vian Goldsmith, 42, got her studio space in May as a birthday present from her husband. She said she can always go back to painting in her basement.

Anne McLoughlin, who paints flowers close-up in vibrant color, is looking for a studio near her Annapolis home but has had no luck.

Sculptor Barry Young, 61, might move to Mexico or New York. His fourth stroke forced him to retire in April, and he said the loss of the job - coupled with the potential loss of his studio - takes away all reason to stick around.

Mike Brown, a spacecraft engineer with the Navy whose subtly humorous work favors Salvador Dali, has an application at Howard County Center for the Arts, which has resident space for about 14 but is usually fully occupied.

Three HCCA spaces recently opened, though, giving back-up hope to the more practical of the bunch, which includes Bevelaqua - despite her daydreams.

She was just told she earned one of the HCCA spaces, which she will move into shortly. Even so, she is still going to hang on to her Oella studio as long as she can and has promised to run the gallery through January. She figures she has at least until then.

"It would be wonderful if a very wealthy entrepreneur decided he or she wanted to be a benefactor to the arts and buy this place," Bevelaqua hinted. "No one has knocked on the door yet, but we're still waiting."

The Resident Artists' Show will run through Aug. 17 at Oella Mill, 840 Oella Ave., Ellicott City. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Information: 410-465- 6434.

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