Just over the Manchester Bridge on the south side of the James River, a row of gray silos bearing the blue and red Southern States logo stretch above the Richmond skyline. The industrial towers, lined up in three rows, are huddled together like cylindrical sardines. Positioned just behind the Richmond floodwall, these iconic buildings visually define the factory-laden landscape of Old Manchester.
These days, however, those silos no longer house grain and chicken feed. Instead, artists have taken up residence inside the adjoining concrete and cinder block building. “The big one was in use up until November by Perdue Grain, but they just moved,” artist Marta Finklestein told me, gesturing towards one of the grain silos clearly visible through the window of her studio at The Silos Artist Collective. Finklestein and her husband, Christopher David White, started the collective after graduating from the Kinetic Imaging and Craft/Material Studies MFA programs at VCU in 2015. “We needed a community outside of academia, so we started looking at spaces and this one was affordable enough,” she explained as she guided me through their second-floor space. “We needed space to work and we wanted a space to interact with other artists where we didn’t have to answer to anybody else, so we could evolve as we saw fit.”
The Silos space, with its large windows and concrete floors, includes seven different partitioned artist studios with partial walls sectioning off each space. These studios orbit around a central communal area with shared tools, such as woodworking gear and a kiln. So far, the Silos have hosted a dozen or so different artists in their studios for residencies of varying lengths.
Currently, a core of about four artists, including Finklestein and White, have taken up residence at the Silos on a more permanent basis. Chris Musina, a painter who teaches at the University of Mary Washington, is also one of those core members. “I went and met with Chris and Marta,” he said, recounting how he came to rent a studio at The Silos. “I saw the space and it was more raw, but I felt like there was a flexibility in that.” It was important to Chris that he could actively participate in crafting the vibe and the look of his studio space in tandem with his studiomates. “I felt like I could have more of a hand in it. I don’t feel like I’m just renting this existing cube,” he said, referring to the more cookie-cutter look and feel of some for-rent studio spaces. “I’m there and I’m a part of making things happen. It feels more like this small community. It’s a little bit less official, a little more DIY, a little more punk rock.”
In addition to that sense of community-building, the exchange of inspiration and ideas is also a big reason why Musina chose to become a part of the Silos, “We have walls, but they’re not full walls,” he said, describing the communal aspect. “We have an open space and we always see what people are up to, what’s happening, who’s working on what. I think that’s also really informative and helpful as an artist,” he explained.
That sense of community within The Silos was an integral part of the vision for the space. “I think the main benefit is seeing other artists’ work and getting motivated from that,” Finklestein said. She described how isolating it had been for her and her husband to work from their home studio after they graduated from their undergraduate program, before starting their MFAs at VCU. “We just didn’t get as much work done because we didn’t have anyone around us to get us excited and talk to,” she explained. From that experience, they realized that in order to be productive as professional artists, they needed a community to bounce their ideas off of. “It’s been super rewarding,” Marta said of the space, “We’ve had open studios and had some people that I didn’t know from the community that other folks have just brought in, just expanding out our network.”
Along with their biannual open studio days, The Silos has also hosted screening events for VCU students, and will be offering figure modeling sessions over the summer. “It’s been very organic,” Finklestein said of their plan for community engagement. “Mostly this space has been a place to make art. The community engagement has been whenever we have time to do those types of events.” She added that this summer, The Silos will be focusing on dedicating more time to shoring up an audience for their open studio and figure modeling sessions. In the future, she said, “We’d like to expand,” either taking over more space in their existing building, or finding a new, larger facility.
For now, these artists will continue to make work in the shadow of those iconic gray silos. If you ever find yourself in Manchester, Finklestein said warmly, “Come look at our art some time.”
Photography by Brian Brown