The Western Avenue Studios appear to be an assuming set of buildings along the Pawtucket Canal.
Inside, however, is an eclectic and vibrant assortment of almost every kind of art medium you can think of. Sculptors, painters, photographers, soap makers, woodworkers, knitters, jewelry makers -- the list goes on -- have all set up shop to add to the artistic culture of the city.
In 2005, 32 studio spaces were opened up for artists to use, according to Patty Cullen, marketing manager for Western Avenue Studios and Lofts. From those humble beginnings at 122 Western Ave., there are now more than 350 artists in the complex, between the studios and 50 lofts.
"The wonderful thing about the building is that everybody puts their art on the wall outside their studio, so it's literally like walking down the biggest art gallery in the world," Cullen said.
Cullen said the city's support of the arts has contributed to the success of Western Avenue Studios.
"I think Lowell has done an amazing job as a city to invite the creative economy," she said. "When you have such a diverse range of things for people to experience, it makes people want to live there, and I think it brings a great amount of joy to people."
John Welch took up woodworking about five years ago and began renting a studio about four years ago when he outgrew his garage space at his Lowell home.
"I really think the community here is great," Welch said. "Just being in a building with this many different people and different views on art and life -- it's just a very vibrant place to come and work and practice your art."
Welch was inspired to pursue woodworking after seeing someone's handmade spoon. He didn't anticipate the hobby growing into what it is today, or even selling his spoons, serving boards and more.
"I feel like we live in a very disposable society, so making something that will, hopefully, last a generation or two really pushes me," Welch said. "I don't think that art is only something you can hang on the wall. I think it can be something you use every day. So I like making beautiful things that people can use in their everyday lives."
The Western Avenue Studios is not only a space where artists can create, but a place for the community to engage.
Several artists, including Welch, offer classes for the public. He has classes suited for beginner and intermediate woodworkers who have made serving spoons, sauté spoons and scoops. Welch said he is looking forward to incorporating more cheese-board classes in the future.
"The feeling of making something with your two hands that didn't exist four hours ago, and the joy and the pride that comes with that -- I really enjoy giving people that experience," Welch said.
Henry Marte is a photographer and videographer who got his first studio space at Western Avenue Studios about three years ago. He loved photography as a child, but didn't seriously pick up his camera again until around 2014. Only about six months after Marte visited the studios for the first time, he began looking into renting a space of his own. Marte had done some portrait, landscape and event photography in the past, but wanted an opportunity to expand his skill set.
Now, he does commercial work, events, weddings, portraits and will soon be helping two companies with their rebranding process. For Marte, the most rewarding part of his craft is being able to tell stories.
"So many people are just walking around with their faces buried in their phones, they fail to realize what's around them," he said.
In addition to his still photography, Marte does video work. He currently has a show with the Lowell Telecommunications Corporation and will soon be working on a documentary series with LTC as well.
Marte and a group of other artists with studios on the first floor of the building started a monthly event called "First Floor Final Fridays."
"We tried to come up with an idea to get more exposure for our floor while also creating more of a destination experience for people," he said.
The event, which takes place the last Friday of each month, from 4 to 8 p.m., features Navigation Brewing Co., which is also located in the Western Avenue Studios, and the Phoenix Rising Pizza food truck. It's an opportunity to socialize with the artists, learn more about Western Avenue Studios and grab a bite to eat.
"It works out well since the brewery is open and right through the brewery is where all the studios are," Marte said. "And we have Phoenix Rising Pizza, and who doesn't love pizza? So you get your healthy fill of pizza, beer and art."
First Saturday Open Studios is another monthly event designed to give visitors an opportunity to meet the artists and view their work from the Western Avenue Studios and Lofts. These events take place the first Saturday of each month from noon to 5 p.m.
"People should definitely just come out here and experience it," Marte said. "Regardless of whether they're into art or not, they'll be surprised by what they may find in the halls of this building."
For more information on Western Avenue Studios, visit www.westernavenuestudios.com.
Follow Kori Tuitt on Twitter @KoriTuitt.
Things to Do at Western Avenue
If you'd like to check out Western Avenue Studios in Lowell but are waiting for an event, you're in luck. There's always something going on. Here are just some ways to engage in the art scene of this repurposed mill building. For more information, visit www.weaternavenuestudios.com.
First Floor Final Fridays
This is a chance to meet with the artists on the first floor of Western Avenue Studios, take a class or purchase a piece of handcrafted art. This event also features Navigation Brewing Co. and the Phoenix Rising Pizza food truck. Last Friday of each month, 4 to 8 p.m.
First Saturday Open Studios
Looking for an opportunity to mingle with artists and explore the five floors of the Western Avenue Studios.
First Saturday of each month, noon to 5 p.m., with more dates in December for the Holiday Open Studios.
Loading Dock Gallery
The Loading Dock Gallery features all types of art and gifts for purchase. Visitors can find everything from jewelry, to clothing, to house ware and more. Each month also features a new exhibit. From Jan. 3 to 27, the gallery will showcase The Greater Lowell Regional Student Art Show. Twenty-four students from Chelmsford High School, Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsboro, Greater Lowell Technical High School, Lowell Catholic, Lowell High School and Tyngsboro High School will have their work on display. The reception for this exhibit is set for Saturday, Jan. 5, from 4 to 6 p.m. There attendees can meet the artists. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. www.theloadingdockgallery.com
Navigation Brewing Co.
This Lowell-based brewery is located on the first floor of Western Avenue Studios. In addition to getting a tasty beer on tap, visitors can purchase merchandise, see what the first-floor artists are up to, and enjoy treats from either a food truck or an indoor vendor. The taproom is also available for private events. Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday, noon to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 2 to 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. www.navigationbrewing.com
The Onyx Room hosts various shows throughout the year, helping The Miracle Providers NorthEast, a nonprofit organization that supports children and families impacted by HIV/AIDS. The 180-seat venue has hosted everything from wedding receptions to birthday parties to drag shows. For more information on upcoming events, visit www.theonyxroom.org.