Let's assume that the average funeral home sends at least one soul off into the great unknown each week. In that case, the Gadsden Funeral Home at 221 St. Philip St. tended to more than 3,600 bodies during its 70 years of catering to the local African-American community. And that is surely a safe estimate.
But that was in another lifetime. Today, the Gadsden is home to Charleston's newest art collective, an emerging hub for creativity in the rising Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood. The living will be able to come here to rent a studio, host an art show, pitch their ideas, or hold a class. Still named the Gadsden, its sign still visible where the entrance faces the street, the venue is no creepier than countless unrenovated homes on the peninsula. What was once a viewing room is now a gallery.
Andrew Dyck, one of the Gadsden's artists who also lives in the house, sits on an ottoman in the very same place where weeping mourners once bemoaned their losses. The large space around him, otherwise empty except for a baby grand piano, has the same suffocating quality that any old building installed with cheap carpeting would have, despite this one's macabre resume.
But it's not without its ghost stories. So when Dyck asks, "Do you want to go where the supernatural activity happens?"
I answer: Yes. Of course. Obviously.
He takes me outside and through the backyard to a small Charleston single house on the property, one of four structures that officially comprise the Gadsden. We climb its creaking steps to the second story. As the elements have taken over this building, thin vines dangle like unruly hair growth from the gaps in the ceiling. Not much is up here besides the bags and boxes belonging to one of the Gadsden's living lodgers, and the founder of the dawning cooperative, Rebekah Kiser.
There is a musty foreboding in this attic, mostly because there's little air flow and a raw, abandoned quality to it, but nothing of the spooky sort that Dyck says occurred at an event a while ago. In the very back is the source of the Gadsden's fairly cliché ghost story: inexplicable sounds, unexplained movement, yada yada yada. Dyck wasn't there for it, but apparently the kids who did experience the supposed supernatural oddity totally flipped their shit. "What we've developed is the ghost challenge: We'll send people up here at night by themselves, and we tell them that they have to work their way to the bathroom and touch the claw-foot tub," he says. The bathroom in question is pitch black even in the late afternoon, but the tub itself is so close to the door that it's a quick dare to fulfill.
Below, the first floor of the building is in a much further state of development as it converts itself into a space for artist studios. One painter has already moved her supplies in, and Dyck thinks the bathroom down here would make a good darkroom for a photographer. "That's the mummified rat over there," he points to Alfred as we move from room to room. "He's all right."
Dyck's own workspace will potentially be in the garage of another building on the property, once he gets around to constructing it. He opens the door and pushes a blue wheelchair out of its entryway, another leftover from the Gadsden's former occupants. The garage will be converted into three studios and a common woodworking area. Closer to the house, the embalming room, with its thick walls and leftover equipment, will most likely shelter a musical project.
Meanwhile, Dyck's bedroom is back in the main building, pressed between two bathrooms. "It's like being a ship's cabin," he says. "It's very cute. Enough for a bed and clothes, anyway.
"I've got a human bone," Dyck adds. "It might be a femur. It's like the condyle. One of the guys found it upstairs and gave it to me. I've got that in my bedroom. It gets lonely in there. I want some human contact sometimes."
Dyck is a former Tivoli artist who left the Upper King studio after almost dying of heat exhaustion this summer, the very same night that the opportunity to move into the Gadsden was confirmed. "I know that this place is keeping me alive," he says, despite the deathly undertones. Dyck's an artist first and foremost, but he has a lot of experience in construction, and he's here to set up the Gadsden's infrastructure. Meanwhile, Kiser is the visionary, the cross-pollinator. And they hope to bring on someone who's got non-profit experience too.
"I've been to a lot of different collectives in the U.S. while touring with bands, playing DIY spaces," Dyck says, "so I kind of see this as being eventually something that marries fine art professionalism with an underground cultural thing.
He expects the Gadsden will carve its own niche in the Lowcountry, catering to a possibly more bohemian-weirdo crowd than Tivoli or Redux Contemporary Art Center. "I don't see us competing with each other," he says. "I think that 10 of these places isn't enough in Charleston. There's just always going to be more room for more artists studios, because that's what it is first and foremost is a place where artists can work — and gain exposure."
Rebekah Kiser was inspired by Dada. In an art history class in college, where she was studying design, Kiser first learned about the European avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century.
"They harnessed so much intention and creativity," she explains. "I really liked that they were so deliberate and they created something. They literally got together and decided they were going to create a movement. They named it and they declared what it was going to be." And it had a manifesto, something Kiser hopes to create for the Gadsden once the artists start moving into their studios.
Professionally, Kiser does web design, PR, and business development work, mainly for the government and military. But she was once the editor of a small newspaper, and she's helped with the Jail Break events at the Old City Jail, hosted by Andrew Walker and Entropy Ensemble. "I really found that I liked telling other people's stories, and I wanted to help artists be understood by people that didn't yet know about them," she says.
So Kiser knew she wanted to support the arts. She just wasn't exactly sure how. Her first experiment was BlueNess Studios, a small gallery on Spring Street, but she says there wasn't enough life in that space (and she's aware of the irony that she found more of it in a venue associated with death). She wanted to create a place where artists could come and work together in addition to housing a gallery where they could show their work, similar to Tivoli and Redux.
Kiser is good friends with Stella Maris, a jewelry designer who used to organize Holy City Artists and Fleas, a market-type event at Eye Level Art (rest in peace). She connected Kiser with John Dowd, the former owner of the Gadsden. Soon thereafter, Kiser moved into the funeral home, along with the baby grand piano that once belonged to her great grandmother. There were early plans to create an artists' co-op, but then Dowd had to sell the property for personal reasons. Fortunately, the person who bought it is also a supporter of the arts.
Eventually, Kiser and Dyck will sign a long-term lease to ensure Gadsden's place in the community for a number of years. "It's already sort of turned into this hub of creativity, and people seem to be very excited about it," she says of the Gadsden. "Artists are excited about it, people who aren't artists are excited about it."
So far the space has hosted a number of pop-up shows, including Dyck and artist Zac Mallard. Others, like the Gris Galerie, pay the Gadsden a rental fee for their opening nights. For other shows, the Gadsden may receive a cut of art sales, like any other gallery would. Once studio renters start to move in, as early as this month, it'll help defer the costs of the space's rent. The goal is to have volunteers or an administrator to run the gallery on a daily basis, since Kiser and Dyck are both too busy with their jobs. Volunteers have already expressed interest, and Kiser would like to start an internship program.
Kiser doesn't want to take credit for creating the Gadsden. She just wants to see it happen, and she wants to focus on community development. The space will emphasize the arts and, to a lesser extent, music, but it will expand even beyond that culture, with classes and workshops that extend past art into useful DIY topics like gardening or making your own biodiesel (something Kiser actually does).
"I see Charleston as a place that has an amazing art scene," Kiser says. "I originally thought that I wanted to go to New York to try to do this, but New York has plenty of this, and so does Charleston really, but Charleston is on the brink of explosion and blossoming, and it's exciting. I feel like this is one of those little buds on the vine that will be part of the blossoming of the arts, of Charleston being a big player in the arts in the United States."
Earlier this year, local artist Greg Colleton and freelance writer Elizabeth Bowers decided to start a pop-up art gallery, the Gris Galerie. And Colleton happens to be friends with Stella Marris, who happened to hook him up with John Dowd.
When Colleton and Bowers first came to the funeral home earlier this year, when Dowd was still living there with Rebecca Kiser, dining room tables were stacked on dining room tables, and every inch of the place was covered in antiques of various price points. Bowers affectionately refers to Dowd, who used to own an antique store in Mt. Pleasant, as a "high-brow hoarder." The piles and piles of stuff didn't turn away the pair, and within two weeks, their first show from former Charleston photographer Cyle Suesz was set up at the Gadsden last February.
"I think just hanging the show was the creepiest part," Bowers remembers. "We were in there at 2 a.m. and you hear a random door shut. You're like, 'What in the heck is that?'"
The novelty of viewing an art show at a funeral home undoubtedly brings in a crowd to Gadsden events. Bowers and Colleton are quick to point out that the space's original intentions have been out of commission for decades, and the funeral home hasn't seen a dead body for a long time — that they know of. But the nature of the venue does add a bit of mystery to Gris' and other art shows. "My favorite thing is someone who's never been there before, to take them back to where they used to park the hearses and be like, 'Hey, you see that gate up there? There's a gate there because that's where they slid the caskets,'" Bowers says. At the same time, the pair wants to prove that they can show high-quality artwork in the space, even if it's a bit stranger than the typical Charleston gallery. It's also a less intimidating venue for DIY projects like Gris, which can afford to host their shows for little money at the Gadsden.
As an artist himself, Colleton sees the Gadsden's promise as a studio as well. "I feel like with time and a lot of work, it's going to be an amazing space for aspiring artists like me who are out of school who aspire for space but it's expensive, and when you see a place like the Gadsden, you see its potential," Colleton says. "As an artist, you become excited because it reminds you of undergrad and having the tools and the space and the facility to start creating." Bowers points out that when Gadsden's artists start to immerse themselves in the space, the odd aura may influence their work.
"I think anything with a rogue aspect is definitely needed in Charleston," Bowers says. "I think the higher in contemporary art definitely has its place ... I think everyone does a great job of that, but I think when it comes to more do-it-yourself, rogue-type things like underground artists, graffiti artists, I think that needs work in Charleston."
Gris has been hosting shows at the funeral home fairly regularly this year, but it was always meant to be a roving gallery. They'll have their first out-of-Gadsden show next month when they present photographer Mia Berg at the Charleston Music Hall. They might come back to Gadsden in October, and Bowers would really like to do an end-of-the-world-themed show there in late December.
A few weeks after my interview with Andrew Dyck, the Gadsden Funeral Home is full of life. The Gris Galerie's graffiti and mural show, featuring noted Charleston street artists Ishmael and Patch Whisky along with some of their national peers, has brought in 20-something Elliotborough hipster urbanites, along with more mature and notable members of the local scene, like art collector Terry Fox and poet Marcus Amaker. This is a fairly typical crowd for a Gadsden event, according to Andrew Dyck. The gallery attracts older sophisticates interested in contemporary art as often as it lures in the "underdog bohemian punk rock weirdos" from the rootsy DIY/house show community that Dyck has been a part of. The guests move between the gallery space, hung with relatively inexpensive pieces, and the backyard, where the artists are spray-painting a large wall.
Bowers hands out punch to thirsty guests in the embalming room; the forbidding warning signs about the dangers of formaldehyde aren't keeping people away from the keg. In the main gallery, a DJ spins records where the coffins probably used to sit on display. Bowers says that when Patch Whisky first saw the Gadsden, he wanted to either paint the embalming room or incorporate dead bodies into his mural. Just as she and Colleton predicted, the space influences the artists.
It's the final Friday of the month, the date that nearby businesses on Spring Street usually reserve for a mini-art walk of sorts. In the near future, the Gadsden hopes to host a monthly craft fair to coincide with that event.
The guests seem blissfully unaware of the bizarre nature of the situation, or perhaps they're reveling in it. Maybe they're here just so they can tell their friends later that they went to an art show at a funeral home. Or maybe that's just personal cynicism — either way, the event is undoubtedly a success. When people ask, Rebekah Kiser tells them that she's not afraid of the Gadsden's possible ghosts, because they protect her from the aliens.
"You would assume it would be eerie, because it's a funeral home, and it does have that sense at times," she says. "But at the same time, it's not disturbing. It's very peaceful, and I think that this is a great new use of the space because it's like breathing life into a place that dealt with death. The whole definition of creativity is creating and bringing something into life."