Flying down Clingman Hill on my bike, I feel the unlimited possibilities of the day as I circle the kudzu corner and jaunt up to the Phil Mechanic building. Then, hunting for the right key to get in, I have the dreadful feeling that I have no idea what I want to work on today.
I heave the door open, carry my bike up the stairs and wave hello to Jolene, who is always so ready to engage in conversation, but my face is too tired for talking at this hour. I nod good morning to Julie as I walk my bike past her pottery studio and park it in its special nook next to the empty 5-gallon water jugs.
The thing I love best about this building is the staircase, with its steep angles that would be worrisome if not for the solid cement steps and handrails that ground me. Life feels a little haunted when I take the stairs; because still, after months of being here, I get confused as to which floor I’m on. I pause at the window on the top landing to take in the majestic view of the kudzu and graffiti, the abandoned factories, the train tracks, the muddy French Broad River, Clingman Ave. Bridge, and a myriad of old cars permanently parked in the lot five stories beneath.
Auto, one of the many dogs that hang out here, greets me as I step into the newly-renovated library upstairs. I let him chase me around the coffee tables, old sofas and bookshelves until he gets too worked up and starts nipping. I escape into my studio, with its enveloping and familiar smell of linseed oil, and the light beaming through the East-facing windows. I prop them open with a ruler and turn on a fan to circulate the air that grew heavy overnight. I squeeze paint onto a palette and stare down at some blank canvases. Getting started is sometimes the hardest part.
At least an hour passes before I determine that it’s time to break and visit one of the two non-gender-specific bathrooms downstairs, with their collection of dog-eared craft magazines from 1972. I can hear my neighbor’s music leaking through the walls. For a while last winter, someone had been listening to that catchy Rusted Root song way too much. But whatever, I know I’m guilty of playing my favorite Kate Bush song 15 times already today.
After a quick lunch and a lot of coffee I descend into what I call the “bowels of the building” — the metal studio hidden behind a huge door in the Flood Gallery, a space I didn’t even know existed until recently – a space where my cell phone doesn’t work. Matt the welder and Jinx the sculptor both say hi and I go hang out with Zev and Beatrice, visiting artists from Maine who have settled in nicely to their cavernous digs.
After some conversation I walk down one more flight of stairs to the biodiesel factory with its pumping machines, monitored by friendly people carrying clipboards and wearing lab coats. Then out to the back loading dock for some handstands against the building, and to look at those permanently-parked cars at a closer range upside down. What’s most important in this moment is to fully soak up the sun that is beaming brightly now on this, the West side of the building.
I decide to ride the elevator back up to the top floor. Clanging the gates shut, I push the button to ascend. The cool brown walls of the elevator shaft glide past and through the gate I watch Flood Gallery go by, and then the walkway of studios circling above the gallery, and then Jolene and Melissa talking at Jolene’s desk, and finally the library where I stop the elevator and pull the gate open.
I peek into Alex and Logan’s glassblowing studio but choose not to bother them — they’re giving a demo to some curious visitors. Jason is painting in the studio next to mine with his prodigy student Merlin, and the potters are organizing their wares in the next room over. I hear and feel a train rolling in on the tracks outside, whistle blowing wildly.
The light in my studio is dimmer now that the sun has passed over to the west side. My studio mate, Steve Brown, has arrived and he’s hunched at his desk meticulously working on a black and white portrait of a woman with feathered hair. He’s listening to a band called Dolphins Into the Future.
Maybe it’s the rush I got from doing the handstands but all of a sudden I feel like this might be the best day of my life. I imagine everyone in the building breaking into a dance to Steve’s music like in that movie with Bjork. It’s a glorious vision. One that will sustain me through the rest of the evening as I settle down to work. The building settles with me into the peaceful and cool hours of the night.