“This is where I was born and spent the early years of my childhood, about two blocks over on East Fifth Street,” said Mark Lenn Johnson, President of Art Inc. Kentucky (AIK). We were walking across a rough grass field on Lexington’s East Side, headed toward the development site of AIK’s Artist Village, a project which merges Johnson’s expertise in small business development and his passion as an artist – he recently received international recognition for his artwork; more on that later.
AIK is a business and marketing incubator for artists and creative entrepreneurs operated by Community Ventures, a statewide non-profit organization that for over 35 years has brought economic development to underserved communities across Kentucky by helping individuals and families to start and run businesses and own their own homes. Twenty years ago, Johnson began his work in the small and micro business development industry with Community Ventures. He went on to work for several years with the Bluegrass Small Business Development Center, then spent nine years running the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development’s Small Business Services Division. After five years back at Community Ventures, he’s now launching AIK.
The idea of AIK was inspired in great part by Johnson’s experience as an artist. He had a quick rise to international recognition for his art, considering that the work he gained recognition for he discovered and developed starting in 2015.
Johnson’s creative journey began in 2005 when he began working with polymer clay, creating beadwork and jewelry, which he soon found markets for. In 2010, he left polymer clay behind and began working with art glass under the tutelage of Laura Hollock, a well-known glass artist who ran Hollock Stained Glass in Lexington before retiring. With several kilns in his studio, Johnson creates beautiful art glass vessels which he sells through various outlets.
In 2015, flooding in Johnson’s studio temporarily shut down the kilns. It was during that lull in his glass work that his attention was captured by a mess on the kitchen counter. He and his sons had paints out. Johnson found himself transfixed by the sight of paint pigments swirling in puddles of water on the countertop. This inspired him to experiment, and he soon captured photographs of droplets of dye billowing into the water. That series of photographs he titled Water Silks.
Then came his Color Swims, a series of images that captured color pigments moving through milk. He found that soured milk created eye-catching effects. He manipulated colors using brushes, spoons and air blowing from a hairdryer.
Color Swims was followed by Johnson’s stunning Fountain Fall series, which he describes as “high-speed water drop photography.”
He began posting images of this new body of work on Facebook. Artblend, an art gallery and publisher based in Fort Lauderdale, contacted Johnson, inviting him to exhibit his work at Art Expo 2016 in New York City, touted as the world’s largest fine arts trade show. A Finnish art gallery owner attending the Expo invited Johnson to exhibit his work at the spring, 2017 Art Shopping exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, France. As a result of that exhibit, ArtTour International Magazine saw Johnson’s work and named him one of their Top 60 International Masters of Contemporary Art for 2017. For that honor his photography was shown in the fall of 2017 at the ATIM Ceremony in Florence, Italy, where he received an award for his work.
Inspired and energized, Johnson took a new direction with Community Ventures. His vision: AIK would bring to life the arts incubator along with plans for Artist Village and an art gallery. Community Ventures already has two successful incubators, and Johnson has drawn on that organizational experience. The Center for Entrepreneurs on North Broadway in Lexington provides office space and support services for small businesses. Chef Space in Louisville provides culinary entrepreneurs with kitchen spaces and access to professional equipment for food preparation. Johnson’s vision for AIK calls for providing artists with an array of essential services for their work.
“We started by talking to a number of artists,” said Johnson. “We asked what they’d like to see out there to help them. A lot of the artists told us they knew the importance of websites and quality photography. The same with social media. But they just didn’t have the time or know how to deal with all that. And then there’s the need for assistance with setting up their businesses and dealing with legal issues. One of the most important things to artists is having the opportunities to sell their artwork. So, we took all of that into consideration when we developed AIK. We’re dedicated to helping artists and entrepreneurs in creative industries build their business, gain exposure and generate revenue while helping boost the local economy.”
For enlarged view, click: Artist-Village-Illustrative
AIK 21 artists have signed up for different levels of support, Johnson said. They include painters, woodworkers, novelists, and photographers. The incubator is also open to creative entrepreneurs, such as fashion designers and chefs. “We try to make it as affordable as possible for as many artists as possible,” he said.
On Goodloe Street, on the East Side, stands the old Stanley Fizer, Incorporated building that was constructed back in the 1940s. It is now boarded up where windows and skylights once lit the interior. “My Daddy built that,” said Teddy Fizer of Fizer Mechanical.
“It was back during World War II, and timber beams weren’t available,”Fizer continued. “My Daddy drove up into the mountains and bought those timber beams and trucked them back. You can see those beams on the inside crossing up top and down the sides. The concrete floor was poured over ash. Back then people were burning coal for heat up and down the street, so that ash was put down and the concrete was poured, and that’s the reason that concrete floor looks the way it does.” Teddy said he’s the one who sold the building to Community Ventures.
The plan is to convert the old Fizer building into a retail art gallery with studio spaces for artists. Stretching behind the building is an acre of barren land. That land combined with the land that stretches along Warnock Street will become home to Artist Village, a series of over 10 residences to be built on either side of an open green space. The residences will range in size from 700 to 1,300 square feet. Each residence will have an attached art studio the size of a one car garage with a garage door that opens onto the green space. The green space, Johnson says, will be the site of art fairs with visiting artists exhibiting beneath canopy tents. A wide walking path originating under an arch on Third Street will lead into the village, where visitors can peruse exhibits, visit the gallery and meet the resident artists in their studios where art can be purchased.
Johnson says the city has granted the appropriate zoning for all of these activities. He also said several artists have funding lined up to buy residences and live in the Village. He hopes to break ground on the project in July. Rehabilitation of the old Fizer building is currently underway and will be completed after a capital campaign has achieved its funding goal.
“This is a passion project for me,” said Johnson. “It’s an opportunity to return to my old neighborhood and help artists while helping to reinvigorate the community.”