Manufacturing gets creative boost through Art-Force

kblunt@newsobserver.comJune 15, 2013 

— Though the people in the downtown area here are still tunneling through a deep economic depression, there is light at the end of North Chatham Avenue. Literally. What used to be a tired row of vacant storefronts is slowly coming back to life. Bright splashes of color amidst the gray facades mark a budding artists’ hub nurtured by the North Carolina Arts Incubator, a studio and gallery complex that supports local artists. When dusk falls, light sculptures made of colored stone and glass light the street from within otherwise empty storefront windows.

The light sculptures are products of a creative partnership fostered by Art-Force, a Chapel Hill nonprofit that promotes economic development in rural communities by pairing local artists with local manufacturers. Art-Force worked with the Arts Incubator to display the sculptures in its gallery and along the avenue.

Through Art-Force, artists work to design new products for manufacturers in distressed areas. The artists oversee the workforce training necessary to create the product and receive a percentage of the revenue generated by the new products .

For the past year, Art-Force has been working to develop such collaborations in Siler City, Sanford and Greenville, three cities whose roots in manufacturing shriveled when the jobs moved elsewhere.

In Siler City, Art-Force assigned artists Hoss Haley of Asheville and Rick Beck of Spruce Pine to help create a new product line for Floorazzo Tile, a local business. Using Floorazzo’s patented stone aggregate, Haley designed the 12 standing light sculptures now displayed downtown. Beck is prototyping wall-screens and tabletops made from the same material.

“We’re looking to create value-added products,” Beck said. “If we don’t create value-added products, we won’t come up with new jobs, period. We did a lot of testing to find out how the material reacted in 3-D, and in the process of working, we’re training a workforce and putting them to work. This is a neat thing for companies that can’t afford research and development or never had time to consider it.”

John Sich, who owns Floorazzo with his wife, Donna, said he plans to sell the new products through the artists’ personal connections when their designs and contracts are finalized. The sculptures and tabletops won’t become a permanent part of Floorazzo’s inventory, but Sich said he and his wife plan to develop another series of products similar to the ones designed by Beck and Haley.

“We’re looking at making room dividers, lamps and things that have LED lights inside them,” he said. “We had these plans initially, but the Art-Force partnership helped us move along and develop these products with these artists. It taught us as lot about the products and what we could do with 3-D forms.”

Floorazzo employs 15 people now, and Sich said he expects the new product line to double his workforce.

Behind Art-Force

Art-Force is the brainchild of Janet Kagan and Jean Greer, co-directors of the organization. While working together on other projects to promote North Carolina’s artistic community, they began to consider how artists could strengthen other communities by using their creative skills in a different context. They both believed in the economic power of manufacturing in North Carolina, and together they birthed an idea to create manufacturing jobs and revenue while showcasing an artist’s talent.

North Carolina manufacturing declined as many companies began outsourcing their labor, but it still contributes more than $80 billion to the state’s GDP, more than all other sectors. In 18 of the state’s rural counties, including Chatham and Lee, manufacturing accounts for more than 20 percent of total employment.

“Artists are underappreciated and misunderstood,” Kagan said. “We tend to overlook those valuable human resources in the community. When artists are the focus, they’re ever-present and their ideas flow out. We know manufacturing is the future for North Carolina, and we’re deeply committed to that.”

In 2011, Kagan and Greer submitted a letter of interest to ArtPlace America, a collaboration of philanthropic organizations and banks that invests in initiatives to promote arts and culture. In May 2012, it became one of 47 organizations out of the 2,100 that applied to receive funding.

Kagan and Greer used the $485,000 grant to initiate projects in three areas. In Sanford, Raleigh designers Chandra Cox and Susan Cannon helped create a line of portable steel and aluminum tables for WST Industries, a manufacturer of metal products. In Greenville, Raleigh artist Jan-Ru Wan designed collections of cross-body bags and baskets for Parrott Canvas Company. Both companies will soon begin marketing the new products.

“We identified manufacturers in the state’s industry core, such as textiles and metals,” Greer said. “Then we found artists with similar skills. Janet and I tried to find artists who had a social consciousness and wanted to make forms that are authentic to time and place.”

Siler City has the most to gain from the teamwork of Beck, Haley and Floorazzo. The town of 7,887 has a per capita income of $13,938, and half of its residents did not complete high school. Though Chatham County’s 5.7 percent unemployment rate is considerably lower than the statewide average of 8.9 percent, Siler City suffered a serious economic blow in 2011 when Townsend, a chicken processor, shut its doors. More than 500 residents lost their jobs and numerous chicken farmers in Chatham and surrounding counties lost their livelihoods. The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center provided a $100,000 grant to support Art-Force’s efforts in the area.

“I do hope there will be some additional employment opportunities through Floorazzo, and that a new product line will help them institutionalize their goals,” said Dianne Reid, president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation. “Art-Force has been a nice connector between traditional industries and the arts community. It’s pretty unusual, not just in North Carolina, but everywhere. It’s a unique opportunity. The public display of the lights in the storefronts crystallized that in a really nice way.”

What might be ahead

As their first three projects reached their final stages, Greer and Kagan began exploring other grants to support future initiatives. Kagan said she hopes to develop online self-evaluation resources for communities in need of economic stimuli.

“We want to identify communities and businesses ready to undertake a three-to-four month project,” Kagan said. “We also want to scale up and out. We’re both compelled by 3-D rapid prototyping. We want to take advantage of new technology.”

But Art-Force’s work in Siler City, Greenville and Sanford isn’t yet complete. Kagan said it’s imperative that local governments help sustain the growth Art-Force incited.

“Local government has to be mindful that they can enhance the quality of space by acknowledging artists’ and designers’ creativity,” she said. “They can explore a new direction of growth that way.”

Blunt: 919-829-8985

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