There is no heat in the old building on Ormes Street. The overcast skies and strong winds outside buffet its brick walls, looking for a weak spot to gain entrance.
The former warehouse should feel more austere than it does, considering its rickety wooden stairs that protest loudly beneath each footfall, its mostly bare walls and the views from its windows encompassing the Kensington area.
Yet there is powerful warmth within the current home of The PaperMill Studio, Community for Artists. The building’s five floors are filled to the brim with every kind of art imaginable. PaperMill offers studio spaces and community for all – and at a comparatively reasonable price of around $100 per studio.
“This is my baby,” Karyn Vetter, the property manager at PaperMill, said as she looked fondly around the first floor.
Vetter had long been in the business of fixing up forgot 10 spaces and then renting or selling the property post-renovation. When she saw some of her tenants create studio spaces in another one of her buildings, Vetter was inspired.
“We decided to do it big, and do it here,” Vetter said.
When Vetter found the space on Ormes Street, she immediately knew she had stumbled onto something special.
“It was a complete shell,” Vetter said. “It was totally trashed. We had to gut it, put in electric and plumbing. There was nothing.”
In fact, the building still ran on a gas-powered generator when Vetter purchased it.
“I would be in my office, and all of a sudden my computer would die on me,” Vetter said. “And I’d have to go to Wawa and get five gallons of gas and start it up!”
When PaperMill first got started, Vetter would invite artists to visit the empty, yet-to-be-renovated rooms to “chalk out” precisely the space they wished to use as a studio.
From there, PaperMill grew rapidly as Vetter oversaw the renovation of each floor, creating more studio spaces as more artists became interested. Now, Vetter has more than 40 artists renting spaces in the building.
Vetter called it “an affordable space for anybody,” which she thinks is important because it attracts a wide array of artists who may not realize they can actually afford a studio space.
Though Vetter originally wanted to focus on creating spaces for newly graduated artists, PaperMill began to attract “fully grown adults, people who are working their real job, but have always been an artist,” Vetter said.
Marek Danielewski, an artist that has been at PaperMill for more than two years, said the minimal price for a studio is “a lifesaver.”
“If you want to be able to make work at a professional level, the affordability definitely gives you a chance to do it,” Danielewski said.
Marie Tosto, another artist at PaperMill, is employed not only as a high-end makeup artist, but also at MuralArts. With all her responsibilities, Tosto said that she feels “split up and all over the place.” PaperMill, she said, makes working on her own art possible.
“It’s very reasonable,” Tosto said. “Especially when you’re a single parent and a freelance artist. And [Vetter] will always work with you. She’s wonderful and so dedicated.”
In addition to easing financial strain, both Danielewski and Tosto said that the community at PaperMill is special. Danielewski said he was able to meet a lot of interesting people and even make new friends.
“It also gives you a chance to exchange ideas and get feedback, which I think is one of the most important parts of the studio experience,” Danielewski said.
Vetter excitedly recounted how the area has grown within the arts community – and how it brings her a lot of pride.
“There’s been an enormous change,” Vetter said. “Once we started putting windows in this building, everybody started putting windows in and painting their houses and sweeping. And the neighbors love us. We have a really good relationship with all of them.”
Vetter said PaperMill is a tight-knit community, one that continues to grow and spread goodwill where it can. Both Vetter and her artists said PaperMill is about building connections and relationships through art.
“One artist painted a picture and passed it to another artist and told them to add something,” Vetter said. “Eventually, seven to 10 artists in the building added something. I had to have it, so I did. It’s still hanging in my house.”
Victoria Mier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org