Local artists finding new artistic flare in Laurel

Chatting and milling about on a recent afternoon in Venus Theatre on C Street in downtown Laurel, were the purveyors of the city's artistic culture — a painter, a theater owner, a gallery operator, a museum manager, a costume creator, a fabric designer, a crafter of light installations.

The artists weren't starving, as it were, but hungry — eager with anticipation, energized and forward-looking.

"I'm tremendously excited," said Marilyn Johnson, who makes clothes, silk paintings and costumes as owner of the Marilyn Johnson Sewing and Design Studio off Lafayette Avenue. "It's like, 'Wow. I finally feel like things are moving!' "

Johnson and her fellow artists had all gathered at the theater for a public meeting hosted by the Laurel Arts District Exploratory Committee, which formed about six months ago following the city's official creation last year of the Laurel Arts and Entertainment Overlay District.

The district, which covers most of the area between Route 1, Fetty Alley, Fourth Street and the Patuxent River, was created in part to ease zoning restrictions for new artistic businesses; to attract new tenants; and to legitimize the arts focus of the area so that it might attract state arts funding, as has been done in places like Silver Spring and Hyattsville, said Karl Brendle, the city's director of community and business planning and a member of the exploratory committee.

But the district was also created to inspire the city's existing arts community, and to that extent, it has already been a success.

According to many local artists at the public meeting Feb. 16, the arts district designation has emboldened them to think big, and collectively, about the potential for a vibrant arts scene taking hold in Laurel.

Along the smaller streets off Main Street that are encompassed in the district, there are empty lots and storefronts and buildings that could be transformed into art studios and galleries and workshops, they said; and the overlay district will help facilitate that transformation.

"There seems to be a lot of energy and a lot of interest in getting Old Town to convert a little bit, and to become more populated and to be more arts focused," said Ada Ghuman, a local painter and a member of the Laurel Art Guild.

Ghuman said Laurel is "full of potential," but is "a little too sleepy at the moment."

Randy Kroop, owner of the historic A.M. Kroop and Sons riding boots shop across the street from Venus Theatre, agreed.

"Anything is better than nothing, and that's sort of where we've been," Kroop said. "I work nights sometimes, and there's not a soul around. It's so creepy dead."

Other former mill towns like Savage and Ellicott City have seen renaissances of their own, Kroop said, and Laurel "should be able to do the same thing."

Brendle agrees.

"Historically, Laurel was a mill town, but then it turned its back on the river," he said in a previous interview.

Now, he and other city planners and residents are re-imagining the river as being an atmospheric anchor for the arts district, and throwing around ideas like creating a "Roman amphitheater" in the banks of the river at the end of C Street, he said.

"You don't need a curtain. The river is your backdrop," he said, musing on the project. "I think it'd be really neat."

Writing on the wall

The event at Venus Theatre, held on Thursday, Feb. 16, was pegged as a "See, Get, Give" event, where residents and local artists were asked to write on large paper sheets on the walls what they see in Laurel and the arts district, what new things they'd like to get out of the process and what they could give to help.

Dozens of people attended and filled the sheets with comments, noting they'd like to have bigger audiences in the local theaters, non-chain restaurants, an increasingly pedestrian-friendly downtown and "real & true acknowledgment of all the greatness that is Laurel."

People wrote about being excited for the C Street arts festival the committee is planning for this summer, and noted they could give volunteer hours for arts-related projects and initiatives.

Karen Lubieniecki, who lives four blocks from the theater, wrote that she would like "more places to combine food, art, music — like the New Deal Cafe in Greenbelt."

Lubieniecki, who was heavily involved in the effort to bring the Laurel Library to C Street before that possibility fizzled, said the redevelopment of Main Street is extremely important to her, and the exploratory committee's work has been instrumental in bringing more people and ideas into the process.

"You really need that magic combination of the energy and the vision," Lubieniecki said.

Resa Moran, manager of the Laurel Arts Center and a committee member, said recent committee meetings have drawn eclectic, varying crowds of interested residents, which will have a strong impact on how the district takes shape in coming years.

"With that inclusiveness, I think we've gotten a lot of different points of view," she said. "It just creates a synergy."

Melissa Burley, a resident artist and chair of the advisory board at Montpelier Arts Center, agreed.

"I think art has a tendency to do that, to bring people together from all different aspects of life," Burley, a Main Street resident, said.

Jane Walker, a local fabric designer, said for years she was a loner in the arts community, but the promise of the arts district and her own maturing process have brought her happily into the fold of the growing community of artists in Laurel.

"It kind of feels like Laurel has reached that mature state, too," she said of the growth.

Deborah Randall, owner of Venus Theatre and the "guiding force" and "flag bearer" of the committee, according to other members, said the turn-out at the event was inspiring.

For the arts district to really take off, and for bricks-and-mortar projects to come to fruition, there will need to be an established, strong group of committed artists in Laurel, she said.

"My goal is to build the community," she said.

If the Venus Theatre event was any indication, she's well on her way.

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