Artists canvass for new studios


Decorative painter Nancy Pascale went to Oella four years ago in search of an inspiring work setting. She found an ideal combination - a historic home in Oella and a studio space at Oella Mill.

She and her husband, Bill Knapp, share a studio and have grown accustomed to the relationship between the community and the 19th- century mill, home to several art and antique dealers. Residents have easy access to the shops and can buy items on the spur of the moment, she said.

But since Forest City Residential Group announced plans in November to develop the mill into luxury apartments, Pascale and the 100 mill tenants are in limbo, wondering whether they will have to move and where they can find space in Howard County.

As the Cleveland-based company seeks development approval from Baltimore County - a process that could go into next year - some of the more than 30 artists are searching for affordable space. Others are unsure what they should do and may wait to see if the deal goes through.

"Having that space these years gave us a really good start to be around other people and be in a place that's inspiring," Pascale said. "There are just very few tranquil and peaceful places for people to express their creativity."

The mill - set in Baltimore County, just across the Patapsco River from historic Ellicott City - has a reputation as an art and antiques emporium. But it houses a hodgepodge of businesses, including a dance studio, a bagpipe museum and an advertising agency.

Many of the artists would like to find a similar large building in Howard County for all of them. But Joan Bevelaqua, director of the Mill River Gallery at the mill, she said she's doubtful that will happen.

Bevelaqua said there are few places in Howard to set up studios, and artists may ask the Howard County Center for the Arts to help locate another space.

"People say, 'Well, where can we go as a group?' and I shrug my shoulders," Bevelaqua said. "It's one thing to find space for myself, but the idea to find a space for 30 other artists seems impossible."

The artists said the rent at Oella Mill is reasonable, and one of the best benefits is the 8,000- square-foot Mill River Gallery, which Bevelaqua said comes rent free. Once a year, the artists hold a resident art show at the gallery, and the rest of the year regional artists are selected to exhibit.

Gary Jolbitado, an abstract wood sculptor who owns the Tomatoe Art Co. at the mill, participated in a resident art show, giving him the opportunity to focus on his art. He said losing the space would "really hurt."

"It was really good to be back doing art," he said. "It was like a rebirth."

But Jolbitado said he is looking at the situation as a "blessing in disguise" by forcing him to move his business to a more profitable area. He planned this week to inquire about a space he saw for rent in Ellicott City.

"I admit that this place, as far as the retail traffic coming through here, it's a hard-to-find place. If I was like on Main Street in Ellicott City, I'd probably do a lot better," he said. "It's sad, but I know I need to move out of here. But I don't know where I'm going to go. This place has some real good memories."

However, Jolbitado is worried that the absence of the mill and the influx of the planned 177 upscale apartments - which would have monthly rents of $1,400 to $3,000 - will change the character of the eclectic art community of Ellicott City and Oella. The mill complements nearby Main Street in Ellicott City, which houses a number of art galleries.

"For the artists, it's going to kill them. It's going to be such a loss to the community as well," Jolbitado said. "I just keep praying and hoping for a miracle ... that everything turns out all right, that everyone finds a nice, old building."

While Forest City officials plan to turn the historic former mill site into an upscale community, which they have said would enhance the value of the 5.8-acre property and neighborhood, Pascale predicts that will result in Oella being "like a Canton," disrupting the area.

"Turning it into these high-rent, residential spaces is depriving the community of what it was always intended for," she said. "I think it's just going to become entirely high profile and intrusive."

Peter Ruff, who owns the mill with Daniel Stone, has said it was the right time to sell and that he believes Forest City will handle the development appropriately.

The artists said they don't begrudge Ruff and Stone their decision to sell the property, which is contingent on approval of the development; they understand it would be a business transaction. But they're at a loss for possible studio sites.

"It has fulfilled a need, and now that need may no longer be filled," Bevelaqua said. "There will be some artists looking in the windows at other spaces saying, 'We want in.'"

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