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Northside Artists Need Space

By Steve Ramos · March 15th, 2006 · Arts Beat
The CD player skips with every thunderclap at the Sidewinder Coffeehouse in Northside. An afternoon rainstorm of monsoon quality is raging, but the Hamilton Avenue sidewalks are still full with passers-by, mostly young adults scurrying to get inside the strip's various restaurants and stores without getting completely soaked.

A cloudburst is one of many good reasons for lingering over coffee. It's also a chance for catch up with artist Chris Simmons, who works behind the Sidewinder counter.

Brewing coffee helps pay bills, but the biggest perk of his job hangs on the coffeehouse walls. Artists often scramble to find spaces to show work and attract some buyers. Living and working in Northside, Simmons says, puts him in the right space at the right time.

"It pays to be friends with the Northside business owners," he says between customers. "I've shown work in Bug house Video and other places. They want original art in their businesses, and they know me."

Simmons' small drawings hang in the coffeehouse's front and back rooms. They're playful depictions of a toast slice character that sync with his "Donut and Friends" cartoon strip that runs in a Minneapolis alternative paper, The Tooth.

Stuffed sculptures Simmons made with artist friend Anna Boskovski, a comical muffin man with spindly arms and legs, rest on the display case next to postcards and Northside bumper stickers.

There's a lot to see and plenty of people seeing the work.

For the past 17 years I've called Cincinnati home, Northside, just across the viaduct from Clifton and Cincinnati State College, has been promoted as the next great neighborhood. It's more alongstanding joke than an accurate barometer of the scrappy enclave of Appalachians, college students, gays and hearty homeowners.

Artists have now come to Northside for studios, living spaces or both. Painter Rick Mallette works out of a bungalow studio, the front room of a boxy Northside house. The space might be comically compact, but good light comes through its south windows and Mallette loves its proximity to his Clifton apartment as well as its miniscule rent.

Jimmy Baker claims a massive upper-floor loft and studio around the corner that offer Los Angeles slickness at a fraction of Left Coast-scale rents.

There's an army of other artists, both new and veteran, who work out of Northside, which is why the "next neighborhood" hype could finally come true.

After all, artists pave the way for urban development every time -- they're the trailblazers who attract the cool restaurants and shops.

The catch with Northside is its backwards flip. The retail has been in place for some time. Honey, a stylish spot with high-end home-style cooking (in the space once inhabited by Boca), attracts foodies from all over. Bug house Video and Shake It Records are eclectic, personal shops at their independent best.

Others continue to join them along Hamilton Avenue, the start of a creative ghetto. The missing link is a gallery -- or two or three.

Brighton, a raw, industrial neighborhood just south of Northside, claims plenty of artists and two gallery spaces. Walnut Hills is home to Manifest Gallery. Artist Lily Mulberry opened her exhibition space on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.

The next stage of any dynamic urban spot -- condo conversions of factory spaces -- looks likely for Northside, which could mean many more passers-by on Hamilton Avenue.

But Northside artists, who support their local shops with dedication and continue to boost a better future for the neighborhood, are in a holding pattern for an exhibition space to call their own.

Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com


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