D'town Arts Coalition Bursts onto Arts Scene

— Carlton Fletcher


ALBANY — There are few organic forces more powerful than that of a group of idealistic young people with a shared vision. Such a group with an organized plan? Now you’re going off the charts.

Such a group has sprung up in, of all places, Albany, and its members are preparing to take the local arts scene by storm. Ladies and gentlemen of Southwest Georgia: Welcome the D’town Arts Coalition.

“Inspiration tends to fall like drops of rain,” spoken-word artist/poet Tannur “She Wrightz” Ali, one of six core members of the D’town Coalition, said during a recent conversation. “It doesn’t hit everyone at the same time in the same place. That’s why it’s so amazing that this group came together.

“We just happened to be hit by drops of that rain.”

Coalition members — tattoo/abstract artist Brandon David; neo-surrealist Cameron Malphrus; painter/dancer/writer Kris Letlow; expressive realist Sean Mulkey; abstract expressionist Durrell Smith, and Ali — met at the monthly Nights at D’town events and quickly discovered a common bond.

David’s Heart and Dagger Tattoo Parlour and Fine Art Gallery, which he opened at 717 N. Westover Blvd. only three months ago, became the perfect hangout/gallery for the young artists, and their bond naturally coalesced into a shared vision. That vision manifest itself as the D’town Arts Coalition, whose goal is to introduce art lovers of all generations to their brand of contemporary art that is a mashup of abstract, realism, surrealism, expressionism ... with a touch of urban.

“The enthusiasm that everyone had just created a spark that ignited a fire in all of us,” Malphrus, who signs his work “Inpsyte,” said of the collective. “I can’t speak for everyone else, but I feel a shared responsibility. These other guys drive me; they inspire me.”

His cohorts enthusiastically nod their agreement and quickly add words of support.

“There’s a natural bond here, a shared dream,” Letlow offers.

“We have a comfort level that allows us to work together without egoes getting in the way,” Smith, aka D.LAMAR, adds.

The D’town Coalition is working feverishly to put together its coming-out event, the free SuperFancy Art Show, which will be held Saturday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Cafe 230 downtown.

“There will be catering from Cafe 230, some music, some spoken word performances, and some of our artwork will be on display,” David said. “We want to let people in the community know what we’re about and use this event to kind of publicize our first public art show at the Carnegie Library.

“The Albany Area Arts Council is hosting a mini-exhibition Nov. 29-Dec. 2, and that will be our first fundraiser for the coalition. All of the artists are giving 50 percent of the money from sales back to the coalition.”

Carol Hetzler, who has served as executive director of the Arts Council since Aug. 15, said the organization is happy to throw its support behind the young artists.

“When it comes to the expression of ideas and art, you can’t be close-minded,” Hetzler said. “We always want to be inclusive, but I was also struck by one of the things this group said to me when I met with them. They said they wanted to be one of the branches on our tree.

“Their art may not fit into the watercolor-and-oil genre that many of our members are accustomed to, but I don’t think anyone wants (the council) to pigeonhole the area’s artists. I think there is a desire to expose the public to different things.”

The birth of the D’town Coalition started with David’s opening of Heart and Dagger. An Albany native who dropped out of school at 18 to become a tattoo artist, he worked at his parents’ Asylum parlor for slightly more than three years before packing up and heading to Phoenix.

“My dad passed away suddenly (the victim of a motorcycle accident), and I just ran away,” David said. “I googled large cities in America, settled on Phoenix because it was all the way across the country, and just packed up my truck and took off.

“I worked at a couple of tattoo shops with extraordinary artists and really learned the trade. After five years I missed my family, so I decided to move back home.”

David, who creates all of his tattoos free-hand, didn’t want to work at a shop that “copied its art,” so he decided to go out on his own. He found a nice location on Westover, refurbished the store completely and opened up shop.

“One of the things I wanted to do at my shop was to provide a place for artists to hang out,” he said. “I decided to display works of local artists, and pretty soon all of my wall space had become a gallery.”

David met Malphrus, a computer server/network administrator, Letlow, a sales rep/on-air personality with Cumulus Broadcasting, and Mulkey, an architectural/mechanical drafting design student at Albany Technical College who also does portraiture and designs business cards and signs, and the seeds for the D’town Coaltion were planted.

Smith and Ali, both Albany State University students — he an art major, she a business major who runs her own administrative consulting business OutSide The Box and hosts a biweekly poetry night — came on board, and the core group was in place.

The young artists formulated a plan of attack, put together a workable business plan and then sat down with community leaders who could help them develop those plans. They met with Downtown Manager/Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority Director Aaron Blair to discuss their desire to create an arts park.

Blair pointed the group toward the old NAPA Auto Parts building on Pine Avenue, a historic yet dilapidated structure that currently has no roof.

“The thing we talked about is, yes, in some form or fashion, ADICA plans to make that storefront habitable,” Blair said. “From there, the plan is to turn that building into an urban art park, a place where events can be held on a regular basis.

“I think right now, this is probably going to be (ADICA’s) project for a while. Our ultimate goal with any structure is not to own it after X number of years. This coalition plans to file for nonprofit status, and while our goal is to create a tax base, in our view even if the building is eventually owned by another nonprofit, downtown would benefit from spin-off development on either side.”

The D’town group says its plan calls for the eventual purchase and development of the NAPA building.

“One of the things we wanted to do is be more open, to bring this group out of the underground,” David said. “We talked with Aaron about a place to do that, and we all loved the idea of the NAPA building.”

Malphrus said the coalition wants to create a bustling art park in phases.

“We’re raising funds so that, once ADICA makes that structure habitable, we can look at purchasing it and turning it into an art park,” he said. “We’d start with a community garden and gallery space and eventually expand as funds became available.

“We’ll open the coalition to new membership and use the dues to support our projects. We are also planning a number of fundraisers throughout the community, and we’re talking with organizations that can help us find ways to raise funds.”

The Albany Area arts Council has already gotten on board, agreeing to accept (tax-deductible) donations on behalf of the D’town group until it completes its 501(c)(3) (nonprofit) application and paperwork.

“What this group is doing is really what a downtown is all about,” Arts Council board secretary Rachelle Bitterman said. “A downtown is not about a Kmart; it’s about an arts community with eateries and similar businesses. We were impressed with these young people because they are very organized. They’re doing things the right way.

“The Arts Council board has already voted to take on this group as a project, to help them with their plan. We’re going to do whatever we can to get them going. This is a talented group of young people, and who knows, the next Salvador Dali or the next Picasso could come out of their art park.”

Since its members’ chance meeting only a few weeks ago, the D’town Arts Coalition has already taken giant steps toward creating a unique community in a region sorely lacking in same. They vow they will bring their vision to life.

“This is all so exciting, and, yeah, we’re feeling a little bit like rock stars right now,” Letlow said with a grin. “We’ve got so many ideas running through our heads, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Mulkey agrees.

“There’s been no resistance in the community, only support so far; people are hungry for what we’re offering,” he said. “This whole process has just been so incredible. We’ve all become like one close-knit family.”

It’s a family that’s about to go public ... and very likely get a whole lot bigger.