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Winston-Salem arts community to lose The Olio studio and store as well as Studio 7
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Winston-Salem arts community to lose The Olio studio and store as well as Studio 7

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Just days after The Olio, a glassblowing studio and social enterprise, announced the closing of its studio and retail location at West End Mill Works, Studio 7 stated it would shut its doors in the Downtown Arts District in Winston-Salem.

The Olio’s studio and store at 840 Mills Works St. No. 150, and Studio 7, a collective of visual and performing artists at 204 West 6th St., will say goodbye to the Winston-Salem arts scene at the end of the month.

“I am unable to light the furnace and cover the operating costs of the rent down here,” said Rebeccah Byer, founding executive director of The Olio Inc.

The Olio, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization, which offers a variety of programs, including an apprenticeship program, will remain in operation.

Marsha McNeely Hierl, the owner of Studio 7, said there has been fewer visitors to the Downtown Arts District since the shutdown in mid-March because of COVID-19 and her studio has been struggling to keep its doors open.

“You can only bleed money so long,” Hierl said.

The McNeely Gallery in Studio 7 will move to the ARTC Theatre at 110 W. 7th St. The gallery will be open by appointment, by chance and any time the theatre is open. Plans are to establish regular hours once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Hierl plans to move her merchandise from Studio 7 to North Trade Street Arts Center, a collective of nonprofits and artists, in the Downtown Arts District, and display her own work there under her Fireflies Original Art label.

Randy Eaddy, the president and chief executive of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, said he had heard that The Olio is closing and is saddened by the news.

“The Olio has shined brightly as part of this community's arts constellation for many years, creating magnificent works of arts, and teaching many residents about them,” Eaddy said.

He said local organizations and artists “have been demonstrating their remarkable resiliency and innovativeness in weathering the stormy impacts of COVID-19, which have been horrific.”

He said the community will lose some of them, but he is optimistic about the survival of many, if not most, of them.

“There is a deep devotion to the arts in this community, which again evidenced itself in the community's support of The Arts Council's recently-concluded 2020 Community Fund for the Arts campaign,” Eaddy said.

The Arts Council recently raised $1.9 million through its 2020 campaign.

"The results for the campaign are remarkable in this environment, which bodes well for the entire arts constellation,” Eaddy said.

Magic of glass

Since it opened in 2014, The Olio has taught entrepreneurship through the arts.

“We focus on furnace glassblowing as a medium, but we have other ways in which we can teach entrepreneurship,” Byer said.

Pre-COVID, The Olio’s offerings included workshops, classes, team-builders, field trips and private events.

Demo nights were free and open to the public.

“We had a lot of people who came just for demo nights," Byer said.

The apprenticeship is one piece of The Olio that Byer said she wants to keep forever, saying that’s why the organization exists.

“It’s how we are engaging young people and empowering them with valuable entrepreneurial skills, public speaking, customer service, administration, marketing, sales,” Byer said.

She plans to continue teaching those skills to young people and is considering virtual programs.

“I think that we will just pivot and find a more sustainable and affordable way to focus on our educational efforts,” she said.

Byer is also a professor of the practice at Wake Forest University, where she teaches social entrepreneurship and foundations of entrepreneurship.

The apprenticeship was supposed to be for ages 16 to 24, but Hierl allowed some adults in the program.

Artist Nick Bragg, who paints murals and was the director of Reynolda House Museum of American Art for 29 years, became an apprentice and learned to blow glass at the age of 82 at The Olio. He spoke highly of Byer.

“She is an amazing glass artist, an amazing organizer, teacher and mentor,” Bragg said. “She’s top, so she’ll be back.”

Now, the furnace in The Olio studio is cold.

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“The furnace costs a lot of money to run and we don’t have enough professional or experienced glassblowers here to really finance and fund the furnace the way that it needs to be,” Byer said.

She said the gas bill alone costs more than $1,000 a month.

“And rent is expensive and people are just not buying glass right now,” she said.

Darren Wagoner, the owner of Idlewild Interiors on Reynolda Road, across from Hanes Park, carries artwork by Byer and other local artists, artisans and manufacturers in his modern, contemporary furniture store.

He said this is a tough time for artists of all types as well as some neighborhood restaurants amid the pandemic.

He said sometimes there is sudden interest in a business when it closes.

“But it needs to be more across the board …. We need it year-round,” Wagoner said.

COVID-19 and the safety concerns of glassblowing and the virus have also made it challenging for The Olio studio to operate as it has in the past.

“Our revenue is one that is reliant on workshops and programs, people coming into our space and taking classes and workshops,” Byer said. “With COVID, it’s impossible to do that. It’s like dancing with your customers. There’s just no safe way of teaching beginners and having social distancing.”

If Byer doesn’t find a glassblower before the end of the month who might be willing to move to the area to take over the studio and its expenses, her plans are to dismantle the furnace and equipment and sell them at auction.

Byer said she will miss teaching in the studio the most and watching faces when she opens the furnace to people for the first time and they see a bright ball of fire.

“Glass is such a rich material,” Byer said. “It goes so deep in science, physics, chemistry. It’s a really fun way to learn. It’s kind of this hot, goopy, molten, bright orange magic.”

A collective

Studio 7 opened in April 2011 on Trade Street in the Downtown Arts District, just in time for the Downtown Arts District Association’s (DADA) first Friday Gallery Hop. It opened with seven studios for seven artists and a gallery.

Hierl said the goal of Studio 7 and The McNeely Gallery “was to give artists their first show, encourage new and upcoming artists, and help foster a love of art in others.”

Artist Donna Marcum was Studio 7’s first exhibiting artist, and, over the years, works by local and regional artists have adorned the walls of The McNeely Gallery. Artists include Dennis Wells, Hayden Tedder, Donell "Dezo" Williams, Miguel Pes, Barabra Rizza Mellin, Kendall Doub, The Patrick Harris, CK Thompson, Susan Armstrong Walker, Margaret Webster-Shipiro, Delae C Noctra, Erica Steffensen, Bill & Rebecca Scherback, Tammy Baldwin Willard, and the late Mary Bailey Thomas.

For years, students from Salem College photography classes held their end-of-year show in the gallery, Hierl said.

In 2018, Studio 7 moved to its current location on Sixth Street. Works currently hanging in The McNeely Gallery are from new artist Chase Ferrell and resident artist Donell "Dezo" Williams. Marcum's work will also be displayed there until Studio 7 closes.

Hierl said she will still be downtown, but she’ll miss everything about Studio 7 and its location such as “being able to have that whole atmosphere of the studios and the gallery all interacting together, the crowds coming in at Gallery Hop and people walking in to look at the art and actually getting to see us while we’re painting and making the art they’re going to see.”

She had planned to stay in her present location forever, but that’s not possible now.

Resident artists have personally felt the crunch in their income and can no longer afford to rent studios, sales of art have dropped dramatically and it has become too expensive to maintain a gallery/gift space and studio spaces, she said.

“People just aren’t shopping like they were,” Hierl said. “They’re much more cautious. Unfortunately, when you have to cut back, you cut back on art. That’s not an essential to some people.”

She hopes to one day reopen Studio 7 but said things will have to get better.

“We have to have customers back downtown and the workforce has to be stable again so that people actually have a stable income again,” Hierl said.

Although she is losing Studio 7, Hierl said she will have the opportunity to put more time and energy into such things as ARTC Theatre, where she is the production and operation manager.

ARTC will have a soft opening late this month with horror movie nights and perhaps some comedy. The first play will be in February when the theatre opens its season.

Donell Williams, a mixed media artist with a studio in Studio 7, said he is sad about Studio 7 closing but is still optimistic about the future.

“I’m sure that Studio 7 will have some type of presence in the Arts District after all this whole craziness (with COVID),” he said.

For now, he will take things as they come, saying the closing was a surprise.

“We were one of those places that was more like a family there,” Williams said. “We just really didn’t see us ever closing the doors.”

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@fdanielWSJ

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