Architects on the beach

Atlantic Center for the Arts builds creative collaborations on 10 unspoiled acres

Game changer - Thomas Sayers Ellis, a master artist in residence at ACA
Game changer - Thomas Sayers Ellis, a master artist in residence at ACA

InsideOut #141

ACA Joan James Theater
1414 Art Center Ave.,
New Smyrna Beach

The Atlantic Center for the Arts, situated among the scrub oaks and palmettos of the Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve, lies near a tidal estuary. Estuaries, as you may remember from your junior-high earth science class, are places of transition, where land and sea meet and saltwater mixes with fresh water; often protected by reefs or barrier islands, estuary environments are sheltered, supporting unique and diverse communities.

All of which perfectly describes the ACA and the artists' residencies hosted there since 1982. For three weeks at a time, associate artists work with one of three master artists-in-residence, always from different disciplines. Their work may be intensely personal or completely collaborative, but at the end of every three-week residency, the center hosts a closing reception open to the public at which the artists display, perform or otherwise share the fruits of their labor.

The master artists of Residency No. 141 - musician Matthew Shipp, poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and visual artist Rick Lowe - are clearly a tight bunch. Each master artist performs a public outreach program at some point during the residency; attendees at Shipp's May 30 concert at the Timucua White House saw Lowe and Ellis (and a group of associates as well) not just supporting but visibly digging Shipp's blistering piano performance. At a private salon at Urban ReThink on May 24, the three were so obviously in tune with each other - Lowe and Shipp nodding during Ellis' incantatory reading; Ellis and Shipp's rapt attention and appreciative laughter during Lowe's discussion of his urban-recovery-as-public-art; Ellis and Lowe swaying during Shipp's brief recital - that it was remarked upon during the Q&A period. Given the supportive nature these artists model for their associates, this week's InsideOut (as each closing reception is called) promises to be an uncommonly convergent one.

Regardless of the (usually considerable) star power of each residency's group of masters, InsideOut is, as ACA residency and program director Nick Conroy points out, all about the associates. "The InsideOut program is designed to allow the associate artists (not master artists - the master artists are featured at their outreach programs) an opportunity to share some of their work with the greater community." Unlike many workshop settings, the ACA residency focuses on kickstarting creation, not portfolio-building: "Since process is the focus of the artists' time here at ACA - not necessarily to create a product, or have finished work by the end of the three-week residency - the work presented at InsideOut is often experimental in nature and/or works-in-progress," Conroy says.

Poet and photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis has published work in journals, magazines and anthologies from Best American Poetry and Tin House to The Baffler and The Nation. He opens his residency statement by saying, "I am interested in poetic risks," going on to tell his associates, "We will allow our poems to discover their own shapes … plan to be bold enough to add something of your secret self to metaphor, simile, alliteration." Modern jazz improviser Matthew Shipp is also a risk-taker - creating music in the moment, in front of an audience, could be defined as taking a risk each time you step onstage. (For more on Shipp, see Selections for the Week in the May 26 issue of Orlando Weekly.)

And Rick Lowe, whose work is based in social practice (an art movement defined by urban interaction, "guerrilla" architecture and project-based community outreach), is the ultimate community-builder. His best-known work, Project Row Houses, transformed 22 abandoned houses in his adopted hometown of Houston into a nexus for local art and social service ( In 2006, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman called it "maybe the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country."

Following Lowe's lead as a creator of community, his associates are not only developing a project together, they're joining forces with the writers working with Ellis and musicians working with Shipp to create interdisciplinary performances incorporating sculpture, poetry, photography, robotics (yes), music and dance. Stephanie Diamond, an artist from New York working with Lowe, says, "If there was an umbrella to explain all of us as artists, it would be artists who work with people, artists who work with community directly. And we actually take a very active role in the process of working with community - none of us just make something and leave." To that end, Lowe's group has created a book of ideas for New Smyrna Beach, says associate Lara Kohl, "sort of as a symbolic gesture … some of the ideas are sort of wacky and some of them are quite plausible," engendered by their explorations and interactions with local residents and landscape.

Dawn Weleski, here from Pittsburgh to work with Lowe, plans to use commercial marquees along U.S. Route 1 to portray some local lives: She has spent her weeks at ACA "interviewing workers in everything from strip clubs to restaurants, motels, dentists' offices," taking down their life stories and sharing them with poet Michael K. Taylor (studying with Ellis), who, in a local-realist twist on Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, will write a poem about each interviewee. Weleski will choose a phrase from each of these poems to display on the marquee of the business where that person works.

Shipp's group is both the smallest and the most exotic: just four associates, but one is from Russia and one from Korea. Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, of Valencia, Calif. (the only non-pianist of his group), says, "The beautiful part of all this is, yes, there's people with all different backgrounds, but we all mix and match." Shipp's associates will provide music for a piece featuring associates from all three groups that will feature elements of visual art, dance and spoken word.

M Callen, a writer working with Ellis, sees InsideOut as a "space to play … an experimental platform." She goes on: "One of the really great things about ACA is that you have this opportunity to work and be in an environment that crosses disciplines, right? … One of the most beneficial sort of environments you can have is learning from someone who does something totally different, does it really well, and then figuring out how to integrate some of those sensibilities into your own work."