Live Active Cultures

I navigate the narrow side street off 17-92, passing an array of aging industrial buildings that barely muffle the rumble of the railroad tracks behind. I pull into the darkened parking lot, make a quick call, knock once on the warehouse's locked blue door. "Come on in, but be careful," says Dina Mack as she opens. "The place is a disaster." She pauses a beat, and adds (for the first of many times) "... but don't write that down."

Sorry, Dina, but there's no way in the world I was going to miss recording a word of this visit. Nor was there any need to fear negative coverage; that would be as absurd as Charlie Bucket bitching that the great glass elevator had window streaks. I wasn't an objective journalist the other night, I was fanboy who'd found a golden ticket to Orlando's art equivalent of the Wonka factory: the McRae Art Studio.

It's Thanksgiving eve, and average people across America were eviscerating poultry and casseroling carbohydrates in anticipation of the following day's meal. But Mack and a handful of other artists are here in this Winter Park warehouse, working to get ready for the annual holiday sale and open house (4-9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5). Apart from occasional spring shows, this event is the only time each year outsiders get a glimpse inside these walls. That exclusivity alone would be enough to intrigue me, but the fact that I always find inside some of this area's most inspiring artwork brings me back year after year.

Mack isn't in charge around here, as she's quick to say. ("Everyone pitches in," with Susan Bach serving as current president.) She's an artist and writer-in-residence whose works include delicate, onionskin-like collages and a traveling journal-writing project. Tonight she's volunteered to show me around the space and introduce me to the other artists still working.

The first name she suggests for an interview makes me a bit wobbly: Whipple. I've been a big admirer of the work of the entire Whipple clan since I first saw one of John Whipple's charmingly creepy collage-sculptures at an art fair a half-decade or so ago. He and his wife, Lynn, have unique-but-complementary artistic styles, both sharing a love of found objects, sardonic whimsy and nostalgia.

John's parents were part of the initial group of seven artists who secured a lease to share a workspace two decades ago; his mother Marty has since returned to the studio with her handcrafted jewelry and tiny paintings. Since that start, they've hosted more than 100 artists and gone through three locations — "all along railroads," recalls John, saying there's "something inspirational" about the vibrations. ("Your space isn't next to them," rejoins portrait painter Don Sondag.) This fourth location, at 904 Railroad Ave., has been home for 10 years and everyone seems well settled in.

I step into Whipple's claustrophobic workshop — "I love open house, it gives me a reason to clean," he says — and my inner little girl squeals at the sight of his latest work-in-progress: a squat figure with a body made from a vintage boxing glove, with matching miniature gloves for the little guy to wear.

Meanwhile, down the hall, his wife Lynn's workspace is like an enormous inspiration wall, dotted with scraps of scribbles and creative detritus, any corner of which could motivate you into going out and painting a mural. She's got a great story involving a petrified banana studded with pins that is hanging in her living room as an artistic experiment (ask her how it's going). The Whipples both hold creativity workshops; at John's last, eight students created more than 100 works in only two days.

Classes are one way the 21 artists at McRae afford their monthly dues, which cover the studio space and utilities. McRae isn't a nonprofit, and the artists there don't receive government grants. People put in their time for free, says Whipple, and in the early years, "lots of people lost money." But he credits the studio's current stability to the caliber of "working artists" in the association. Members, who are chosen by jury only when there is an opening (yes, there's a waiting list), all make a living at their art, either directly or through education: Sondag has instructed at Crealdé for 15 years; sculptor Timothy Tyler is a public school teacher. The bottom line, according to John, is "we pay the rent." What a wonderful holiday wish it would be if every artist could say that this season.

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