When Leah Brown saw the email offering a space in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Fla. rent-free for somebody who had an idea for a business in the space, she got right to work.
In 10 minutes, she threw together a business plan to turn the space into an art gallery.
The landlord loved her idea – one of more than 100 he had received – and Brown was suddenly an art gallery owner.
“In a matter of minutes, I went from having nothing to having a gallery,” said Brown, who opened 18 Rabbit Gallery in 2009.
The idea, she said, came from the 11 months she spent in Spartanburg five years ago as one of Hub-Bub’s artists-in-residence. She and three other artists spent 11 months living in an old Nash Rambler car dealership that had been transformed into living quarters and into a center of the arts that transformed a once-dying part of downtown Spartanburg.
“I loved that, I really loved that,” she said.
She got a bunch of graffiti artists to paint the exterior of the building, allowing art to transform the space across from an undercover police station in a blighted part of Fort Lauderdale into a colorful place.
“Hub-Bub really took Spartanburg and made it into an amazing art scene,” Brown said. “I’ve kind of been trying to do that in my own way.”
Brown has returned to Spartanburg for an art installation at Hub City Art Park on the corner of South Daniel Morgan Avenue and Henry Street.
It’s called “The Peaceable Kingdom” and it is also a sign of how the time Brown spent in Spartanburg transformed her art and her career.
When Brown arrived in Spartanburg, she was primarily making sculpture.
During her time here, she worked to discover the nature of her own reality, she said.
“I had the freedom to be myself,” she said. “I learned a lot about who I was. I really realized how much I could accomplish if I worked really hard all the time.”
Brown also discovered she appreciated space and, while dreams remained the undercurrent of her work, her preferred medium changed to art installations.
“Hub-Bub changed the way I approach art,” said Brown, the artist behind the Scarecrow Wedding, which was set up on the Cottonwood Trail.
Her installation in Spartanburg, in which she’s collaborating with her husband, Peter Symons, is based on a book she remembers from her childhood.
“Scarecrow Wedding was my favorite thing I did while I was in Spartanburg,” she said. “It was going to be hard to live up to.”
Then she remembered a book with a cover of a reproduction of the “Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks, an American folk painter. While the book’s cover featured a pastoral landscape, the book itself was about 300 pages of dense historical text.
Brown remembered its similarity to the scene in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” when Alice enters a forest where nothing has names. She instantly forgets her identity, and while trying to remember herself, she encounters a fawn in the same state.
They cling to each other and walk together to the forest’s edge. Then Alice remembers she’s Alice and the fawn remembers it’s a fawn and they run away from each other.
“I love the idea that there’s this place where people and animals lose their identities in the sense of preconceived notions,” she said. “I like the idea of a place where one’s idea of self is no longer affecting one’s actions or interactions, a place where one can simply be.”
Brown and Symons decided the landscape will be the landscape and the painting will be life-sized, double-sided painted wooden cutouts of animal species native to the Upstate of South Carolina. “My hand is still vibrating from the jigsaw,” she said.
Brown is interested to see how people will interact with the elements of the installation, just like she is interested in how people interact with each other.
In addition to running an art gallery, which is moving to a new space in October, Brown, who has a degree in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design, also designs stage sets for the Rising Action Theatre. She is also exhibiting her installations.
Symons, whom Brown met at the school, works at Florida Atlantic University, where he coordinates the wood and digital fabrication shops.
Before moving to Florida, Brown worked for a company that did the New York Times Christmas windows and she worked as an art fabricator. In that job, she would make art pieces based on the specifications of artists.
“I was working for the artists who got me interested in art,” she said. “I was working on million dollar sculptures.”