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Wednesday, December 19,2012

The Windwalker saga

Eclectic Charlotte business hopes to be a regional hub for mid-Michigan artists

by Shawn Parker
In downtown Charlotte, in an unassuming three-story brick building on Cochran Avenue, an artistic movement 20 years in the making is taking place. For Richard Turbin and his son Rick Turbin, proprietors of Windwalker Antiques/Underground Galleries, creative expression is a way of life. Their driving force is the hope that by opening the doors to their community art space, it will open other doors for artists throughout Michigan.

Originally a lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal group founded in 1819 dedicated to sharing resources in the name of community well-being, the 16,000-square-foot building has been transformed by the father-and-son team — but Richard Turbin, 67, likes to think their goals have something in common with the original occupants.

“Part of the Odd Fellows' mission was to be able to help people,” he said. “And in a sense, that's what we're doing. We're sort of carrying on with that.”

After buying the building, Turbin initially converted it into housing and retail space to sell the antiques he had collected over 30 years in interior design. But he says he always worked in service of the idea that his deceptively mammoth space could — and should — provide a haven for creative spirits.

The project began with an idea born from life changes and self-examination. A longtime art and antique collector, Turbin said he had to “evaluate what was important,” which meant walking away from a successful career in marketing and interior design to purchase the abandoned 150-year-old building that would become Windwalker.

When the Turbins moved into their building, they were confronted with boarded windows, piles of debris and no electricity. They had to run extension cords throughout the building just to have power while they renovated each room. They installed plumbing and removed thousands of pounds of drywall in a project spanning two decades, with some work still ongoing. 

But none of their desire to help foster the arts would go anywhere without the space — and what a space it is. The first floor is a modest storefront housing antiques, oddities and paintings. Walking toward the back of the building, the floor plan opens into a larger gallery and performance space, vintage chairs scattered throughout, easily removed for events. A small staircase leads to the upper loft of the first floor, a comfortable office area overlooking the lower gallery.

The second floor opens into a large atrium, natural light pouring down on the doors leading to apartments and photo studios. Throughout the space, art adorns the walls, curios stacked everywhere. One attraction sure to bring attention is the immense, three-dimensional glass sculpture hanging from the second floor skylight. Okemos glass artist Craig Mitchell Smith offered his mesmerizing “Blue Star Rising” piece to the gallery, and it is a marvel to see light dancing off its intricacies. 

A staircase to the third floor finds more doorways and crannies, culminating in the opening of a large door, unveiling a 2,500- square-foot-ballroom, massive windows lining a wall, with polished hardwood floors. Rear stairs lead down past the first floor and into the basement level, enclosed by imposing brick walls. A freight elevator fills the end of the corridor, ready to transport a load of antiques or a hulking sculpture. 

The uses for the labyrinthine space seem endless, and it is easy to envision artists and visitors mingling, customers listening to a band play, a photo shoot taking place below, while seminars and a yoga class take place above. 

“There are no buildings that compare to this,” said Rick Turbin, 36. “What we're doing is putting together a venue unlike any other around.”

Richard Turbin says it was always their goal to create a spot for locals, to “give Charlotte artists a place to come,” but they envision a destination for artists from around the state and beyond. 

“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “Once there's a presence established, we want people to come from (as far away as) Detroit and Grand Rapids.”

The Turbins also plan to host monthly live events, whether it’s their unofficial house blues band Jimmy G and the Capitols or the booking of other area performers. Gallery parties and social events are projected for at least monthly, and, as Rick Turbin put it, they intend to make “Charlotte cool one way or the other.”

Rick Turbin is a street artist and sculptor, attuned to the world of graffiti and lowbrow art — which he says is meant to “ambush your eyes” by being almost purposely ugly. He is serving as a generational connector and hopes to bring this alternative style to Charlotte, albeit in more controlled ways.

“My mission was to zero in on a younger generation that could look at visual art and have something in town they could relate to or motivate them,” he said. “Because there are so few options for visual arts within 30 miles, or at least not much an 18-year-old would enjoy.”

He envisions youth workshops where massive canvases adorn the walls and children are encouraged to create, wherever that might take them. And to help cement Windwalker as a youthful and outsider-welcoming space, next spring, San Francisco street artist Daryll Peirce will fly in to paint an enormous, 20-by-50-foot mural on the side of the building, something previously unheard of in downtown Charlotte.

An integral part of the large scale coordination and planning required to fulfill the Turbin's vision is MI-ArtShare, a local organization devoted to identifying and assisting artists in all mediums with locating venues to exhibit or perform and working cross-regionally to provide more income opportunities. Executive director Diane Wilson believes there are more artists and musicians than venues and that there are great opportunities for growth.

“We are able to connect the artist to other venues through our growing network,” Wilson said. “This allows artists and musicians the opportunity to show their work and perform in multiple locations. We are working with several locations in Shiawassee, Ingham and Eaton counties. Windwalker is one of our core venues.”

Wilson acknowledges that Charlotte is vested in the success of Windwalker and that they will “continue to work together to realize the vision of a community-based art center in downtown Charlotte.” The vision is an ever-evolving, boundary-free creative environment, given enough passion, gumption and elbow grease . And Richard and Rick Turbin believe it is only the beginning.

To herald this new phase in the Windwalker story, the Turbins are hosting a grand opening celebration at the gallery at 7 p.m. Dec. 29. The event will feature live music and dancing throughout the evening, large canvases and paint for visitors to leave their mark, billiards, food, drink and more. The event is free and open to the public, and the entire building will be available to roam and explore.

“The grand opening is the culmination of so much hard work,” Richard Turbin said. “It took me 20 years to get to the starting point.”

And with Windwalker Antiques/Underground Galleries positioned to emerge as a creative hub in downtown Charlotte, it could be a starting point for many local artists as well.


Windwalker Antiques/Underground Galleries Grand Opening Event
Saturday, Dec. 29
7 p.m.
125 S. Cochran Ave.
Charlotte
FREE
(517) 588-1003

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