The corner of Market and Main in downtown Harrisonburg is a rather unassuming slice of real estate. Court Square Coffee shares a space with Nexus Programs, an immigration and naturalization service, with low-rise residential buildings on either side of the street. There is little in noticeable advertising for commercial plots – nothing to indicate that an artist residency hosts a public viewing for every First Friday event. But sure enough, enter the small door at 2 Main Street, head up to the third floor on those creaking, wooden stairs, and you’ll find one of Harrisonburg’s hidden treasures: Robert Mertens’s Modular Project Space.
“The space is an idea that came to me through trying to get an exhibition space for a student’s work when I first got here,” said Mertens, Assistant Professor of Fibers at James Madison University. “I realized part of the energy of the downtown art scene is connected to commerce. I was thinking it would be great to have a space where people could make work and not be worried about doing things outside the norm. It’s intentionally an odd space to do very experimental things you don’t have to worry about trying to sell or being consumable in any way.”
There’s something exciting about discovering a new nook in the small town you’ve called home for close to ten years; the tour that Mertens gave me for our interview felt like discovering a new animal species in my backyard. The space where installations are actually displayed is small, the size of a mudroom or a generous walk-in closet. Beyond this, the layout opens up into a communal space for gatherings and discussions during First Friday. Mertens started the space in August of 2015 and has showcased new artists nearly every month since then. “It’s a residency space, which has been a challenge,” he told me. “A lot of people think of it as a gallery, but it’s not designed to be one in any way. It’s really a space for artists to come work for a month if they don’t have a studio or another place to work.”
Modular Project Space is open free of charge to resident artists, with a focus on local students and alumni who are looking to refine their aesthetic free from the confines of commercial influences. While most First Friday events throughout Harrisonburg provide an avenue to purchase art, Modular Project Space focuses solely on the act of creation and experimentation for the sake of destroying personal boundaries. “The idea is to push people outside of their comfort zone. That’s an element that keeps me going as an artist and I hope it helps other people,” said Mertens. “I don’t mean to impose my way of doing things on others,” he continued, “but as long as you’re always striving to get outside of what you really know, I think you’re working in the right direction.”
Mertens made his way to Harrisonburg by way of Eugene, Oregon where he cut his teeth teaching in an artist community influenced by Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters. Following a 1999 Take Back The Street protest, then-mayor Jim Torrey described Eugene as the “anarchist capital of the world.” The lack of commercial motivation behind the Modular Project Space borrows from Eugene’s philosophy, something which has been well received in Harrisonburg’s burgeoning arts scene. “Everyone has been really, really generous,” said Mertens. “From working with Valerie [Smith of Larkin Arts] to Jenny Burden down at the Arts Council, everyone has been so positive, it’s fantastic. I know in a community this small that things can get a little cut-throat, but that hasn’t been the vibe here.”
Rather than being a black sheep in the myriad of art spaces across town, Modular Project Space has found a home as the next logical step in Harrisonburg’s artistic progression, residing at the intersection of personal artistic statement and experimental academia-minded production. There is a sense of commonality when you enter the residency area; simply finding and accessing Modular Project Space is a deliberate act in itself. “I think it’s been a really nice component to what’s been happening at Pegasus, Larkin, or the Arts Council,” said Mertens. “We’re set up as something totally different from what they do. It makes me happy that I don’t feel like I’m biting into what they do and their realm of things. I’m hoping it’s just another way to diversify what’s going on downtown.”
Modular Project Space has new exhibit openings every first Friday. Stop in and see one at 2 Main Street in downtown Harrisonburg.
Photography by Brandy Somers